Long years ago, when I was at school, as part of our history curriculum we covered the British Agricultural Revolution. Living in Norfolk the focus, of course, was on the change from the open three-field system (which required one field to be fallow each year) to the revolutionary “Norfolk four-course system” (see below).
Coke of Norfolk
Coke of Norfolk (aka Coke of Holkham, aka Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester 1754-1842), was cited as the originator of this revolutionary agricultural system, able to provide food for the growing masses.
In later years I discovered this wasn’t true. Though, true, he did much to improve his 30,000-acre estate at Holkham, in North Norfolk. To quote from Wikipedia
Coke has been described as “the real hero of Norfolk agriculture”, despite the fact that his land was so poor one critic is said to have remarked that “the thin sandy soil must be ploughed by rabbits yoked to a pocket knife”.
While Coke did much to promote the new system to his fellow politicians and landed classes, his interest was primarily stockbreeding.
The four-year crop cycle:
- Year 1, wheat
- Year 2, turnips
- Year 3, barley with clover and ryegrass under-sown
- Year 4, clover and grass grazed or cut for fodder
Developed in Norfolk (England) during the 17th century. I would argue an even earlier date.
Today, the introduction of this revolutionary system of agriculture, crucial in its ability to feed the growing populations in the growing towns and cities, has been shunted onto the shoulders of Turnip Townshend, scion of the Norfolk Townshends of Raynham (aka Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend 1674-1738; eldest son of Sir Horatio Townshend, 3rd Baronet & Viscount; and brother-in-law to prime minister Robert Walpole).
Charles Townshend was keen on turnips; he saw them as excellent fodder for his livestock.
But while the inclusion of turnips might represent an innovation, it wasn’t the turnips alone that allowed the fallow-field to fall out of use. Let me explain.
All Fodder to Me (or Organic Farming, aka Soil Fertility)
The use of turnips as winter fodder for the livestock had a double effect. With turnips as fodder more stock could be overwintered, which in turned produced more manure. Good for field fertility. Side effect of this was the “night-soil” man no longer called with his cart to collect the human “deposits” from towns and cities. (which might have had some bearing on the subsequent outbreaks of cholera).
But it was the inclusion of clover and rye-grass in the rotation that was the real innovation, and delivered a double whammy for soil fertility.
Firstly, in grazing the fields the sheep provided fertiliser in situ.
Secondly, the clover, being a legume, converted the nitrogen found as a gas in the soil to a form those under-sown grasses could use. In addition, it further fertilised the soil ready for a bumper crop of cereals in the next year.
This was organic farming at its best.
And who was responsible for the introduction of the clover and rye-grass?
Mostly the smaller tenant-farmers.
Calvinists and their Honeyed Gifts
And mostly in Townshend’s and Coke’s North Norfolk neighbourhood, those tenant farmers would have been recent immigrants from the Netherlands, fleeing religious persecution (aka Calvinists). They began to arrive in mid-1500s and continued in trickles and swarms during the next two centuries. Not only did they bring new strains of clover, they also introduced many of our now traditional market garden vegetables.
Which brings me to the honey …
A Pollen and Nectar Mix
These photos were taken on the walks around High Ash Farm (Caister St Edmunds, a few miles south of Norwich) where broad grassy walks invite the rambler in, and over 100 acres are devoted to the provision of a “Pollen and Nectar Mix” to attract endangered bees, moths and butterflies.
In just a small patch of field I was able to count at least six different species of legume (trefoils, medicks, clovers, vetches and sainfoin) not to mention bedstraw and oxeye daisies. I expected the farm to have an apiary. Maybe it has, but it advertises itself as horse stables.
Now I look at this vista, and imagine how our countryside looked in the days before chemical fertilisation.