Along The Moors
Until the end of the middle ages, the activities of those working the land around the Weald Moors were largely governed by the surface water that covered the area for long periods of the year. Cultivation of crops took place above the poorly draining peat soils, on common fields belonging to individual townships, while the moors themselves were used only seasonally, when the ground was firm enough to support the grazing of cattle.
The western moors between Kynnersley, Crudgington and Sleapford were among the first to witness a challenge to this traditional way of life, when local landowner Sir Walter Leveson began an intensive programme of improvements to increase the productivity of the commons and wastes during the late 16th Century. His incentive for doing so lay in the population increase sweeping the country at the time, which drove up the price of food and the land on which it was cultivated. In the ensuing scramble to enclose the moors, many disagreements broke out between rival landowners eager to preserve their future livelihoods… resulting in intimidation, violence and litigation!
The scope for change on the Weald Moors was greatly assisted by the dissolution of the monasteries during the 1530s. Before that date there is little evidence of major disruption to the moorland habitat, much of which had been in monastic ownership since the 12th Century (Crudgington, Sleap and Kynnersley, for example, belonged to Shrewsbury Abbey, while Cherrington was in the possession of Wombridge Priory). Although some landowners began to offer tenants long leases on in return for clearing scrub, large parts of the moorlands were used for grazing of cattle and livestock by commoners from local townships, who enjoyed little or no restriction on their movements. However, by 1480 Peter of Eyton had begun to construct a huge drainage ditch (known as the Black Dyke) to separate his manor from the Rough Moor — a development which foreshadowed what would become a pre-occupation for many landowners in the 200 years that followed…
In 1579, William Sheldon married Elizabeth Leveson, whose family had become significant local landowners when they acquired the former estates of Lilleshall Priory in the wake of its dissolution. Following his marriage, Sheldon transferred his ownership of the manors of Crudgington, Sleap, Kynnersley and Cherrington to Walter Leveson, his brother-in-law. Leveson had already affected a series of agricultural improvements on the southern fringe of the moors around Lilleshall, creating a number of smallholdings and imposing rigorous conditions on his tenants, involving the strict maintenance of watercourses and clearing of scrub.
Leveson was eager to extend the scope of his brave new world and entered into a series of pacts with other local landowners to establish exclusive rights to large areas of moorland. This culminated in 1582 with an agreement purchased from the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury who, as Lord of Wrockwardine, had previously enjoyed the right to graze cattle across all of the moorlands from Sleapford to Newport. In exchange for an annual rent charge of £40, the Earl agreed to extinguish his claims to the moors and allowed Leveson to set in motion a programme the like of which had not been seen before.
Measure for Measure
By the mid-1580s, tenants of the Lilleshall Estate were said to have enclosed all of the moors between Wrockwardine and Kynnersley, leaving only the marshiest and poorest soils in their wake. The main method behind this transformation involved improving local drainage and included scouring and widening the River Strine between Crudgington and Rodway to a new width of six yards — a task for which tenants of the estate were provided with a special measure! It proved so successful that scouring the river subsequently became seen as a recognised means for townships in the north of moors to imply their right of common on land adjoining the waterway.
While Leveson’s programme certainly had the desired effect in creating new pasture, allowing grazing and the mowing of hay to take place for the first time in many areas, his lack of regard for the common rights of others created ill-feeling and resentment among those who had seen a noticeable reduction in the amount of land they could use for grazing. The agreement Leveson had reached with the Earl of Shrewsbury arose directly out of a series of incidents where mobs of up to 60 people from Wrockwardine and Eyton had descended on Kynnersley Moor, destroying hedges and a bridge over the Black Dyke constructed by Lilleshall tenants. The progress of enclosure was such that incidents of this kind became increasingly commonplace in the west of the moors, as rival landlords sought to assert their own exclusive rights to the area.
The results of territorial squabbles between local landlords can still be seen on the moors today. Water’s Upton Moor, which lies on the south bank of the River Strine below Crudgington Green, was effectively created in 1640 when 135 acres of ‘waste’ were awarded to Sir Henry Wallop, Lord of Waters Upton. He received the land in arbitration after a series of disputes between his tenants and those of Sir Richard Leveson’s estate in Cherrington; who had been accused of overstocking cattle on moorland belonging to Water’s Upton.
After unsuccessfully petitioning Leveson to address their grievances, the villagers took it upon themselves to remedy the situation, impounding Cherrington cattle and in 1637 marching onto the moors to dig a large ditch, which diverted the Strine and enlarged their own part of the moor! It was in this vicinity that Kynnersley residents had maintained peat doles for at least 60 years, although what effect Wallop’s agreement had on that practice is hard to quantify. However, at least one traditional moorland pursuit appears to have gone by the wayside as a consequence of the accord. In exchange for Waters Upton Moor, Leveson won the exclusive right to fish all the watercourses in the moorlands. He appears to have upheld the privilege rigorously, decreeing that any inhabitants of Water’s Upton found fishing in local waters should have their nets cut!
Outnumbered by Sheep
By the early 1600s, the agricultural improvements of the previous century had reaped great dividends for local landowners. Yet, while the Weald Moors became highly-valued for summer pasture, the area began to suffer the consequences of overgrazing; as specialist graziers from outside the area increasingly brought animals onto the remaining commons during spring for fattening before winter sale. Although the practice caused consternation among many locals, it appears to have persisted over the next century or so. Writing in 1707, Reverend Plaxton of Kynnersley commented ‘I have heard some graziers say, they could not by their best upland hay feed an ox so fat as the moor hay would do’.
Drainage improvements also appear to have had a catastrophic effect on the delicate hydrology of the wetland habitat, resulting in the erosion of moorland peat deposits. Of the changing landscape around Kynnersley, Reverend Plaxton noted “these grounds have been formerly much higher, for I have observed oaks or other trees, where the soil is so much shrunk and settled from them, that they stand upon high stilts, and are supported from the great fibres of the roots, so that the sheep may easily creep under them”.
Although hundreds of acres of moorland had been brought into regular cultivation, the area had not earned the name of the ‘Wild’ Moors for nothing and, as events of the 18th Century would show, local landowners were still some way from gaining mastery over the area… a lesson the moors original improver-in-chief, Walter Leveson, certainly found out to his cost. Despite being knighted in 1587, he later fell on hard times and was locked up in the Fleet Prison for being unable to pay his debts, where he died in 1602