ASHLANDS - Unearthing Our Fields

The name of Ashlands Road was chosen in the 1950s by using using old documents that named nearby farm fields - and some in our area such as Ashlands, Kingsmead and Barbridge occur frequently across the centuries. There is no shortage of such documents, although it takes patience to decipher the older ones, largely because of the style of handwriting.

A survey made in the year 1617 is a useful document. It records the ownership of land in the entire parish of Cheltenham, and includes the area known as Ashland Field or Ashelands. Like most place names it can be safely assumed to date back much further, at least to the year 1200, maybe as far as 900 A.D. In those years the words, 'Lands' and 'Fields' were quite specific, referring only to communal arable farmland (that is as opposed to 'meadow' which referred to ground for stock). The first part of the name is a clue that ash trees were the most conspicuous feature of the ancient landscape for those medieval farmers here.

The communal system of farming used then meant that Ashlands Field was not in the ownership of any one individual. In the record of 1617, small portions of Ashlands Field were assigned to a variety of tenants, such as John Packer, William Gregory, Richard Pates, Alicia French and Robert Yarrneton. The surnames of these characters crop up throughout the centuries in local records. Also listed is John Mason who had a house 'in Ashland field', which could therefore be taken as his address.

Incidentally, the medieval system of land management had one severe drawback:- it could not adapt to a change of population. Hence the village of Arle probably had approximately 30 households throughout several centuries. The people of 1617 mentioned above would have found it unbelievable that their land could now support over 6000 households; and if they could have been told it, they would surely think Arle had experienced a tremendous success story.

In 1834 the Inclosure Act applied locally abolished that complex system of land ownership. However, already by then Ashlands consisted of just three plots of ground. On a large and colourful map of our area drawn at that time, each plot is assigned a number, and the relevant plots are numbers 108, 109 and 112. The key to the map shows that the numbers 109 and 112 known as Ashlands belonged to a Mr Cooper. Plot number 108 known as "Ashlands Meadow" (and also named as such on the map) belonged to a Mr Burge.

Notice that under the old definitions of words mentioned above, the name Ashlands Meadow was a contradiction in terms, but this doubtless did not worry Mr Burge. Field names of this sort are not uncommon and show that farmers had a pragmatic playfulness in adapting their medieval inheritance.

Ashlands Meadow is one of the more straightforward names locally, but trying to decode these field names is among the most involving of historical studies, being a kind of archaeology without digging.

Following the re-distribution of farmland under the 1834 Inclosure Act, all three of the above plots were owned by Mr Thomas Butt, the owner of Arle Court Farm.

Thanks to a local resident who has shown some deeds of this area to the Neighbourhood Project, we know that by 1939 development was under way. The southern edges of Ashlands had been bought by housing developer H.G. Pye. However, he was halted in his building efforts by the outbreak of war.

In 1946 the southwest corner of Ashlands was acquired by St.Barnabas Church for their first building. It was not until 1952 that the remainder of Ashlands was developed. Pye Bros company continued building on their land, whilst the remaining farmland and orchards were compulsorily purchased (see Volume Two) from Mr J.R Brown of Arle Court Farm by the Borough Council, and given their current appearance. The area concerned, as shown on this map, is not where Ashlands Road and Brown Close now commemorate these names, but rather a little further north around Dormer Road.

Lands and Meadows

Medieval agriculture made use of three types of farmland. 'Lands' described the method of dividing ploughed ground, for planting crops. 'Pasture' was permanent grazing for animals, usually planted with perennial rye-grass. 'Meadow' was the least intensively farmed ground, but was no less valuable for all that. Meadow was grassland, cut by scythe to make hay in summer to be stored, for winter bedding and feed for the animals. Meadows might be ploughed over occasionally to keep down larger weeds, but vegetation was otherwise natural.

From around the year 1600 onwards a reduced demand for arable crops meant that many lands went out of use. These were usually converted to pasture, resulting in a grassy field with parallel ridges across it, generally known as a lays (or a leys) because the soil had been 'laid to grass'. Lands converted into meadow were more unusual:- in our written records Ashlands Meadow was the clearest example.

As mentioned in the 'History of Hesters Way Volume 2', there are still a few places locally where you can see leys, that is ridge and furrow pastures. However there is only one place locally where you can see a 'lands meadow', or indeed any kind of old-fashioned meadow. This is in the area of 5 acres south of Beverley Croft at Fiddlers Green, under dispute during summer 2000 between camped campaigners and a car-park for GCHQ building workers. It also lies in the way of the newly proposed 'by pass'.

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