In September 2102 the Derbyshire Archaeological Society was contacted by Dr Roger Dalton of the Etwall History Group at the request of Mrs Angela Sargent about investigating the site of a possible deserted medieval village of Ash sited at Baldfields Farm. As any investigation might involve a non invasive resistivity survey, and as we (Barbara & Keith Foster), members of the Society have a resistivity meter we were contacted.    Subsequently we all visited the site and agreed that it would be a most interesting exercise. It is understood that the farm is under a Stewardship Scheme and that Natural England would need to be consulted and kept informed.


The site at Baldfields Farm is registered on the Derbyshire Historic Environment Record (HER) as a shrunken medieval village (16402) whilst a possible deserted village would appear to lie in a copse behind Ash Hall.(16401). There are also extensive areas of medieval ridge and furrow within the farm and elsewhere in the vicinity.

There are earthworks on both sides of the lane that runs east to west below the farm to Ash Cottages and measurements were taken of those ditches and banks that were visible to the eye on the north side of the lane only.  These were supplemented by measurements taken from aerial photographs on both sides of the lane. An illustrative drawing was made.

The possible causes of the decline of a thriving village and its reversion to scattered farmsteads will be examined.  In addition an attempt has been made plot the descent of the manor with a view to suggesting a possible date for the change from arable to pasture.

Physical description and historical context

Ash is a small civil parish in South Derbyshire some 8 miles south west of the city of Derby containing 691 acres (280 h).  Historically it was a small township within the ecclesiastical parish of Sutton on the Hill but landholdings were usually a quite separate entity. It is recorded in the Domesday Book indicating that there was a settlement there from at least the 9th/10th century. Its name derives from Old English E word for an ash tree.

Geologically it lies predominantly on the Gunthorpe Formation a sedimentary mudstone of the Triassic period (227- 242 million years ago). Once upon a time this area was literally a desert!  There are some outcrops of Oadby Fill, remnants of an ice age moraine in the Quaternary Period (2 million years ago).  The plough soil is a heavy red clay and much of the land at Baldfields is now used as pasture.

Today access is limited to an unclassified (and indirect) road from Etwall to Sutton but map evidence suggests a considerable network of ancient lanes and paths connecting the village to Tutbury, Sutton,  Hilton and Etwall Derby and Dalbury.  A major crossroad linking these to Trusley, Brailsford, Thurvaston and beyond lies to the northeast of the farmhouse and might suggest it was once an area of more central significance.  In that context the place name Ash may be significant.

As noted there would appear to have been two foci of settlement – the one behind Ash Hall and the site at Baldfields: both initially recognised in the 1950s by Maurice Beresford, a pioneer in investigating such sites and who produced  the seminal study of Wharram Percy.  The visible earthworks at Baldfields including the extensive ridge and furrow can suggest a “planned” village from as early as the 9th century but not much later than the mid 13th century.1 Before that there would have been relatively isolated and separate farmsteads that coalesced into recognisable villages and which by the 10th century would have been surrounded by the open fields of arable land.  The development, around this time, of the heavy plough with a coulter and mouldboard would have allowed the development of the heavy clay land shunned by the early Saxons.2 

The measurements taken (which also confirmed the accuracy of measurements using Google Earth) confirmed the impression that this was village planned in rows with fairly precise tofts and crofts marked out in multiples of 22yds – a standard imperial measurement based on a perch of 5.5 yds.  Most of the crofts formed were very small – perhaps for a lowly labourer.  A sample of the ridge and furrows was also measured – these showed little evidence of any ploughing out after arable farming was abandoned - and their width – +/- 7yds or 3 furrows to 22 yds was ubiquitous in the open fields of the medieval midlands.

Ash lay firmly in the “champion” land of the midlands, which until the wholesale enclosure of land in the 18th/19th centuries was basically characterised by three open fields worked in rotation with one field lying fallow. Essentially it was worked communally under the direction of the manorial court with tenants holding strips of land evenly spread across the fields.  This was the most highly developed system of land management thought to have evolved as the result of population pressures (and low yields) from the 9th century which led to an increase in arable land at the expense of the pasture necessary for the draught and other animals. Organised and regulated farming allowed efficient – if not particularly nutritious - use of the aftermath of the harvest and the grazing of the fallow field. It would also improve fertility of the soil.  The system appears to have been well developed before the Conquest.3  The villagers farmed from a largish village whose main road was lined with the tofts and crofts that housed themselves, a few animals and perhaps a productive garden.  Initially there were few hedges and within these fields were subdivisions called furlongs which allowed a variety of crops over the larger field.

The present Ash Hall was built in 1869 and it is unknown whether it was on the site of any previous manorial centre and unconfirmed as an earlier focus of settlement. That there once such a manor house  is confirmed in William Woolley’s Derbyshire written in the late 17th century: “Ash – consists of a tolerable good old seat or hall and 3 or 4 tenants houses on a little rising ground, pretty good land, a pleasant situation”.4

In 1901 there were four  working farms in Ash, two of them Ash and Baldfields both in the immediate vicinity of the shrunken village. The third is across the road from Ash Hall and the fourth Ivy House is on the Sutton boundary. Today the pattern remains the same although Ash Farm has become a Residential Home and there is some minimal recent development around it.

 The shrunken village in question lies both north and south of an ancient lane that ran to Highfields Farm NE of  Etwall and then to Derby and could conceivably be the precursor of the current A516.  It probably extends west towards the junction to Sutton Lane with Ash Farm being a residual component of the original village.  There may be elements of a holloway at this point given the surrounding contours and certainly the northern half of the “village” does appear perched above this road. It would appear that a more gentle slope down to the road has been sheared off over time by erosion and earth slippage.


There is very little documentary evidence as the village never became part of a landed estate in a continuous single ownership such as for instance the Harpur Crewe or Chatsworth estates. They appear to have kept records of just about every sale and acquisition since from the 13th century! Consequently there are no manorial records, no terriers of land use, no rent books etc and reliance has to be placed on central government documents recording changes in land ownership and feudal taxation. However a handful of local documents have been found.

 The details of these are attached but in essence at the time of Domesday the parish lands were held by three “ceorls,( farmers and /or “freemen”) who nevertheless had certain obligations to an overlord or thane. Their names imply that they were of Danish origin rather than Saxon. In addition there were seven villagers which would give Ashe a population of 40 or 50 people in 1086.

After Domesday, Ash, became one of 114 manors in Derbyshire given by William the Conquerer to Henry de Ferrers who in turned parcelled it out, (unhelpfully) to an anonymous Robert.  Later feudal dues narrow this down to Robert de Boscherville whose extended family and landholdings were spread around the country. From there it descended by marriage to the de la Poles who sold it in 1407. Thereafter the Manor went to the Mackworths but with a hint that from the 1380s that there were other owners of portions of land, perhaps because in the aftermath of the Black Death, the more enterprising took advantage of the dearth of labour and the plethora of unworked land to build their fortunes.  At some point in the 15th century a member of the Fitzherbert family bought the Manor and retained it till, in 1519, Sir John Port bought the land from his father in law at a discounted rate. His son (the founder of Etwall Hospital and Repton School) died in 1577 leaving a clutch of heiresses and some grasping sons in laws.5  Ash was eventually sold off to Gervase Sleigh in 1603 and has descended through his daughters to the Buckstone family who are still around today! 
The lands of course were farmed by assorted tenants but it would have been these landowners who dictated the changes as to overall land use.

None of this explains the why and the when the village of Ash was partially abandoned and the arable fields became fossilised as pasture. The answer probably lies in the effect of falling temperatures and increased rainfall from the 1250s and the lingering social and economic effects of the Black Death.  
Similarities with the nearby deserted village of Barton Blount (about 5 miles NW), both in terms of the settlement pattern, the size and more particularly the shape of crofts and its eventual decline abound. 6 The initial stages of this village were laid out in the Saxo Norman period before the late 11th century with continued development and rebuilding up to the early 14th century.  The arable fields extended to the very margins of the village and the underlying geology is the same – although the latter point is true of all the villages in the area. It fell into complete disuse by the end of the 1400s but many houses appeared to have been abandoned before.7  They also appear to have shared the same owner in the case of Barton and leaseholder in Ashe till 1296 and with family connections to the Bakepuis family - maybe beyond until the family line ran out in 1381.

Before the middle of the 1200s Northern Europe had enjoyed a warm climate with bumper harvests and the population had increased accordingly over the centuries. From the 1250s the temperature started to fall, initially compounded by a series of volcanic eruptions which lowered Arctic temperatures enough for the Arctic ice sheets to expand.8  Increasing rainfall affected harvests, cattle and sheep suffered rinderpest and fluke and traditionally low crop yields fell even further culminating in the great famines of 1314 to 17 - and the temperature continued to fall. To cap it all bubonic plague ravaged the country most notably in 1349 but with serious epidemics for another 50 years.

“In 1390 a great plague ravaged the country. It especially attacked adolescents and boys, who died in incredible numbers in towns and villages everywhere”
Thomas Walsinghim (d 1422) Historia Anglicana

By the mid 14th century it is estimated that the national population had fallen by 50% from a peak of 5 million and with the deaths of so many of the younger generation was unlikely to rise significally for a long time. 

Ashe would undoubtedly have been affected to some greater or lesser degree. There would have been a shortage of labour, a surfeit of arable land that couldn’t be worked, with  possibly a dead or absentee landlord and assorted changes of landownership from the 1380s. Interesting it is a minor land sale in 1361 that  names some features in the fields in Ash - Tulcroft, Holeway, Stanton Slade.9 The climate continued to deteriorate no, doubt increasing some of the the difficulties of farming heavy clay. The solution adopted over many parts of England was pastoral farming whether sheep or cattle or both and this would appear to have happened to Ash.  Perhaps the decision to pursue this course was made around 1407 when the Mackworth family bought the manor and certainly occupancy of the village would have declined as a result.


There is probably quite a bit more to be learnt about Ash in medieval times if not in documentary terms, then by a more detailed and widespread landscape survey and/or geophysical surveys. For dating evidence of the history and decline of the village, an archaeological dig would need to be undertaken and as it is possible that there are multiple layers of occupancy, this would need an open area dig as opposed to a couple of test pits in order not to damage any sequences.  That would be a job for more specialised archaeologists.

Barbara Foster,  November 2012

1 “Shaping Medieval Landscapes”, Tom Williamson, Windgather Press 2003 pp 68 -9
2 ibid pp 119 -23
3 ibid pp
4 William Woolley’s Derbyshire. Ed. Glover and Riden, Derbyshire Record Society 1981
5 + deed re Thomas Stanhope.
6 The Medieval Clayland Village: excavations at Goltho and Barton Blount. Society for Medieval Archaeology.  Monograph 6 London 1975
7 ibid  .
8 Geophysical Research Letters cited by BBC online 30th Jan 2012
9 Jeayes Derbyshire Charters 1906 #50 John de Pitchford/Rocheford grant to John le Freman. Tulcroft-Tul – unknown, croft – enclosure – usually small - of pasture. Holeway – refers to a Holloway – land by a main road and Stanton Slade – Stanton may be a tenants name (from “stone”) - a slade is a low shallow valley – usually damp.

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