Transcript of a talk about Turnastone Court Farm
Turnastone Court Farm, ancient and modern
With climate change issues rising up the political agenda it is worth reviewing role of agriculture and the importance of expanding traditional mixed farming systems such as at Turnastone Court. Six decades of misguided Government incentives have made UK agriculture dependant upon a narrow range of high energy input farming systems having destroyed much of the English countryside in the process. Dependence upon artificial fertilisers and the low soil carbon content of its soils means that UK farming is an important contributor to UK green house gas emissions.
In the 1940’s decades before anyone thought of global warming the countryside commentator H.J. Massingham visited West Herefordshire travelling along the Dore Valley writing in his book The Southern Marches (1952) that: “My earliest recollection of the Golden Valley goes back nearly fifteen years and I know of no other domestic and easily accessible valley of its type that has been so little subject to change ….you see there pigs and sheep in its grassy orchards, sheep on clover stubble, fine herds of Herefords (the most gratifying sight of all), fields large and small, wheat as well as oats, root-crops as well as potatoes, beehives as well as clover-leys. Though farms are both large and small, the farming is mixed for both and so non-predatory and so stable. Stable, I mean, in the relation between man and soil, fertility and management, since the economic bias against such farming in our own time and the pressure of specialisation make such balances unnaturally precarious.” This was to prove a most prescient observation and Massingham would have applauded the efforts of the CRT to save farms like Turnastone. In speaking of this countryside with “its rich continuity in flocks and herds, corn and orchards, and its historical integration” he understood the importance of continuity and a holistic approach to the countryside which bodies like Countryside Agency, English Heritage, DEFRA and the new Natural England are only now just beginning to appreciate.
Members will know of the association between the farms of the Dore Valley and the entrepreneur and visionary Rowland Vaughan who published the first printed account of working water meadows in 1610 and who farmed land at Turnastone. In piecing together the history of Turnastone we have had difficulty corroborating Vaughans claims in his book which included vast increases in rents to be had by landowners adopting his system. In searching for evidence we were able to show something of Elizabethan grassland farming in the valley. At that time ‘Turnastone meadows’, the long meadow bordering the River Dore just north of Turnastone church (SO356368) were part of Poston Manor owned by James Parry somehow heavily in debt and who found himself in Fleet prison in 1587. That summer, to pay for his release, he managed to persuade the sheriff of Hereford to expel his own wife Joan and her tenants from Poston so he could directly receive the Manorial income. The writ was revoked and Joan re-instated early the following year leaving the tenants to claim damages for loss of access to their agreement land. Some 10 witnesses gave evidence in the Chancery proceedings preserved at the National Archives in Kew. Thomas Phee aged 48 and yeoman of Peterchurch was one of Joan Parry’s agents (it was customary for witness statements to be in the third person, I’ve changed the text to modern spelling): “all her tenants in his knowledge were likewise expulsed & lost their later math grass & profits of the mill of Poston and further he says that the said Mrs Parry left behind her in the barn of Poston at the time of her expulsion about five bushels of oats, two loads of hay and certain loads of straw the which one Watkyn Morgan servant to the said James Parry took to his master’s use and further where Mrs Parry had set certain pastures to one Mr. Willyson about the time of her expulsion the said sheriff’s men finding the cattle of the said Mr. Willyson grazing upon the said pasture drove the same cattle & impounded them in this deponents fold”.
Another witness, Griffith Jones of Monnington claimed that: “the then sheriff of the county of Herefordshire by virtue of such a writ shortly after Michelmas in the 29th year of the Queen’s reign did expulse the said Mrs Parry out of the said Manor of Poston & Tregoydyvor & that she & all her tenants lost the later math of Turnastones Meadows and other commodities they might have had if they might have enjoyed the premises accordingly for the whole year…”. The value of the aftermath grazing along the Dore valley is explained by Walter Daunce, “… all her tenants were expulsed and lost their later math, grass and pasture growing upon the premises the later part of the said year …further this witness says that they spared the same pastures for a second spring by reason thereof there was upon the same pasture as good grass being a second spring as was at the first but before this witness and his co-partners could have the benefit of the said second spring where upon they detained from Mrs Parry some of the rent..” Even accounting for some special pleading it is clear that grass keep on the rich alluvial soils of the Dore valley was highly prized, attracting a variety of tenants, mostly yeoman farmers, from the locality. The ‘second spring’ referred to above is the aftermath from the hay crop being ‘as good grass’ as earlier in the year. No wonder Mr. Parry wanted to get his hands on the rent it could command! The problem for Vaughan’s credibility is that these accounts are about 15 years before he was farming at Turnastone and 23 years before his book “Most Approved and Long Experienced Water Workes” was published begging the question of justification for considerable new investment in a complicated water meadow system.
This does not lessen the importance of the historical legacy preserved at Turnastone Court because there remains the evidence of sluices, diverted water courses, earthworks in many meadows and the enigmatic ‘Trench royal’ which Vaughan claims was the main artery and driver of his water meadow system. It seems certain however that this linear dyke predates Vaughan since it is aligned with roads and part of a parish boundary. I personally favour a suggestion made in the 1950’s of it being an ancient trackway up the valley, even a Roman road. After millennia of siltation its surface will been submerged. There’s one sure way of finding out: that is to do some careful excavation along a number of transverse sections along the trench. The difference between a canal and a roadway is almost certain to become apparent and if it really was a Roman road this would be evidence. This would have to be professionally done and supervised but I hope the CRT can organise this next year, it would be an interesting exercise for our volunteers.
Whatever the outcome their will always be more questions than answers but what is certain is that human ingenuity and farming within the natural environment was been continuing in the Dore Valley for as long as there has been human settlement, a few thousands years, long may it continue.