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Field Systems NHPP Activity 4F2

Research undertaken between 2011 and 2015 which was concerned with improving our understanding of the significance of field systems within England's historic environment. These are the most widespread type of heritage and field systems have shaped the English landscape over thousands of years. The work formed part of the National Heritage Protection Plan.

Air photograph showing earthwork remains of field systems at Fyefield Down, Wiltshire
Fyfield Down, Wiltshire. This complex fieldscape comprises earthworks of several phases of activity: the earliest is a Bronze Age field system. This formed the framework for later cultivation and settlement. © English Heritage

Scope of the activity

Fields, field systems, and the farming practices that underpin them have shaped the landscape of England as we see it today, and continue to do so. Recent work undertaken by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) demonstrated that, despite the rapid growth of towns and cities over the last 200 years, the majority of the country is still rural – agricultural landscapes cover at least 70% of England and are, therefore, the most extensive form of heritage in the country.

Over time, a diverse set of circumstances affected the development of field systems, which may well have started in the early 4th millennium BC. The earliest elements of this process are not at all well understood, but the economic and social well-being of the country depended upon them.

Through this Activity and its projects we aimed to characterise and assess the complexity and extent of “fieldscapes” in the English landscape, address current threats and risks to them and define what makes them so distinctive.

An air photograph of field systems at Metherell, Cornwall
View of landscape at Metherell, Calstock, Cornwall. The patchwork of fields in the centre and rear shows the medieval field pattern, but this land was probably first farmed in prehistory. © Cornwall Council 2012

Expected protection results

Generally the remains assessed as part of this activity were not suitable for scheduling, because the scope and scale of field systems generally preclude this option. Instead, we intended that the information that flows from the projects will be used both in the local planning process and also to improve the knowledge base for local conservation schemes such as stewardship agreements.

Air photograph of linear ditch, burial mound and field systems at Chapperton Down
This linear ditch at Chapperton Down, Wiltshire, is aligned on a Neolithic burial mound but follows a sinuous course due to underlying fields and contemporary Bronze Age settlement. © English Heritage

Projects in this activity

Develop local assessment and monitoring toolkits

An assessment, using historic sources of the Hoo Peninsula was completed. This provided a very useful overview of the development of fieldscapes in a marshland context.

Creation of national significance assessment guidance

Gaining a detailed understanding of the national resource of field systems is crucial: this project will undertook an assessment of the extent, condition, context and significance of fieldscapes across England. It used all existing datasets such as Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) and the National Mapping Programme (NMP) and is intended to mesh with Natural England’s National Character Areas. This work aimed towards creating a national database of fieldscapes and 159 individual statements of fields within each of England’s National Character Areas. The latter can be used by individuals and communities to help achieve a more sustainable future for their area. We worked in close close collaboration with colleagues in in the NHPP activity on reural buildings and landscapes and Natural England.

Air photograph showing marshland fields on the Hoo Penisula, Kent
Marshland fields on the Hoo Peninsula, Kent. This view shows a landscape heavily modified by attempts to improve drainage. © English Heritage

Links to other activities

This activity was closely linked with Rural Buildings and Landscapes, Measure 4 Activity 4F1.

In addition, 4F2 was linked to a number of projects undertaken within other NHPP Activities including:

There were also synergies with external research such as the English Landscape and Identities initiative and the Fields of Britannia project.

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Related publications

  • Field Systems

    Published 23 May 2011

    Introductions to Heritage Assets

External links