Types of Land in Medieval Cottenham

We can identify several distinctly different categories of land within the parish which survived from the medieval period until the 1840s. These can be seen on the pre-enclosure map [link to pre-enclosure map].

First, the arable 'open fields' clustered on the Greensand ridge in the southern part of the parish, safe from flooding above the 20ft contour. Initially there were three of these, later six and ultimately five. Each huge field was divided into 'furlongs' and these further sub-divided into strips shaped 'selions' of around half an acre. Every year each field grew a different crops in rotation, and individual owners held strips scattered between the furlongs. Separating the furlongs were not hedges or fences, but paths, tracks, banks and drainage ditches. Drainage was further aided by ploughing parallel to any slight slope in the ground. In some areas the repeated ploughing of strips has left a distinctive 'ridge and furrow' pattern which survives today, but this is not characteristic of Cottenham.

To the north of the open fields, below the 20ft contour, lay an area mainly used for pasture. These lands, sometimes knows as 'hards' only flooded in the very wettest conditions and so were suitable for grazing most of the year. They would not have been divided by fences but were held 'in common', individuals having the right to pasture a specified number of animals.

Further from the village, and only just above sea level, were the 'low' fens. By the end of the medieval period most of these had been cleared of scrub and all but the wettest areas could be mown for hay or grazed. The silt which was deposited on them when they flooded would have made them particularly rich. Again, these were not fenced, but grazed in common.

The very wettest areas of the low fens were only suitable for special fenland crops. Setchell Fen is named after the sedge that was once grown there. Reeds were also cut, teasels for carding wool, there was an 'osier holt' (for coppice willow) and peat was dug for fuel in Chear Fen. These wet areas were also fished, particularly for eels, and hunted, particularly for wildfowl (later shot using huge boat-mounted 'punt guns'). However, these activities were never as dominant in Cottenham as in other fen and fen edge parishes.

The final category of land were 'closes'. This was land permanently fenced of hedged. Most of the closes in Cottenham were gardens and orchards around the houses in the village itself, but there were a few areas of 'old enclosure', particularly on the pasture land along the boundary with Landbeach. As we shall see, the permanent fencing of land was a source of much conflict.

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