On Saturday 23rd October, at the third time of asking, twelve stalwart members of Sulgrave History Society met up at Stuchbury Hall Farm to field walk the lost village of Stoteberie. With the kind permission of Joan and Michael Tims we were to discover first hand (or should it be foot) the explanation of all the humps and bumps surrounding their lovely farmhouse.
Chairman of Sulgrave History Society, Martin Sirot-Smith, reports:
Having gathered around their enormous kitchen table with plans of the whole site, I was able to outline the interpretation of its topography. This was based on the researches of Field Archaeologist Patrick Leonard and his assistant Jean Walker from 1994, the map from Brian Davison’s (the archaeologist who excavated Sulgrave Castle) article on Stuchbury and the writings of our own, much missed, Peggy Fonge, who with her husband Les, farmed the area for many years.
f = Large top pond. f to g = Water spillway. A = Area of strip ponds, 3 feet wide, east/west across slope B = Large shallow pond with spill over to C and D = 2 divided ponds. E, K and L = Springs feeding into the system. M,N,O and P = Other areas of water catchment – types, sizes and depths according to requirement. Q = Channel to feed two lower ponds i and j. R = Extra “reserve” pond.
Methodology: Females kept in Pond f. Males separately in g. Many more females than males. Scent picked up by males – both hand stripped. Fry reared in other ponds. Sold – others kept to mature/sold/preserved.
Ponds M,N,O and P used for production of fresh water shell fish – much used by all classes – fresh winter meat.
a to b = Main street dividing Farm/Village – ancient trackway. S,T and U = Prominent house platforms with interlinking pathways. S = 40 feet by 60 feet, large L shaped building or two smaller ones. T and V = 25 feet by 50 feet, individual buildings. U = 25 feet by 100 feet. W to X = A row of small dwellings. Y = Row of accommodation of various sizes. These all likely to have been of Anglo-Saxon “Cruck” type. Z, d and e = earliest occupation, probably Celtic Round Houses (much “recent” shallow quarrying. 25 feet and 40 feet diameters.
Built round a defensive square – one entrance just a cart’s width. Main house along north side. Stabling on west side. Storage of grain and hay on east side. Rickyard area and “general garden” on west side of complex. Animal buildings for winter on south side.
What is in a name? Well, in this case, everything. In his researches Patrick Leonard found 19 different spellings of Stuchbury. But it is the earliest, Stoteberie, which is the most important. It is from the very old, pre-Roman, English tongue and is made up of two words Stote and Berie. Stote means a young ox or cow – a calf. Berie means egg but specifically the eggs of fresh water fish, oysters and molluscs. Thus the area was being used for calf rearing and the production of fish fry at least 2000 years ago!
The geology, vegetation and landscape of the area at that time would further support this interpretation. Oliver Rackham in his seminal work “The History of the Countryside” states 80% of this area was cleared of woodland by the end of the Stone Age. The middle of England has always, in historical times, been a pastoral one for producing and fattening livestock.
As Michael and Joan will quickly concur, the geology – oolitic limestones, boulder clay and henmould (a clay that stays permanently damp) lead to plenty of fresh water springs – seven completely surround the farmhouse. With this in mind and the dramatic fall of the landscape from the farmhouse to the river at the bottom of the humps and bumps between, represent the site of an extensive fish farm covering over 12 acres!
Right through Roman times, the Anglo-Saxon period, Norman and Medieval times, Stoteberie was an important centre for the production of fish fry. Why the need? Basically it was to supply other producers of fresh fish “meat”. Being far from the sea, to be able to produce fresh, year round, “meat” was a basic requirement. All communities, manors and ecclesiastical establishments had their fishponds. These needed to be regularly restocked. By the early Middle Ages England had a thriving export trade across the Channel of preserved fish, much of it in return for cloth. It must be remembered too, that with the church calling for two fish days a week and with the forty days of Lent, it meant that for nearly a third of the year fish was in great demand.
What of the people who worked the cattle and fish farming in Stoteberie? The Homestead, coloured red on the plan, would have provided a substantial dwelling for the Lord. It was built around a central courtyard, with the living accommodation on the north side to catch the sun. Stabling for oxen and later horses was on the west with the east side having barns for the storage of grain and hay. The south side of the building complex would have been to house animals at night and in bad weather. Just one cart width entrance would have given access, making the whole one and three quarter acre complex safe, secure and defensible.
The village, coloured green on the plan, would have been peopled, firstly by those of Celtic origin living in typical round houses. They would probably have been between 25 feet and 40 feet in diameter. Needing to be dug out, they would have been sited in the drier part of the village, points z, d and y on the plan. With the coming of the Anglo-Saxons a new type of living accommodation, the Cruck Beam House, meant square and oblong buildings could be constructed from ground level. Drainage was not quite such a problem so the village moved down the hillside towards the stream. The house platforms at S, T, U, V, W and X probably held such houses.
The vast majority of these people would have been serfs owned by the Lord, villains totally dependent on the Lord or cottagers renting by working half of the week for the Lord. In general terms they were all peasants. As far as can be determined the total population of the pre-Roman village was around 25. The Romans improved the production of the whole site and by 350 AD numbers had risen to 120. The coming of the Anglo-Saxons also benefitted Stoteberie, bringing Christianity and a further increase in population to around 180. However, the Viking raids through Northamptonshire in 1009 led to a great depopulation, probably down to less than 20. By the time of the Normans the Domesday Book recorded that it had risen to 75. Through the Monastic period of the Middle Ages, the activities of the village reached its height, with between 250 and 300 peasants residing and working in situ. Yet by 1380 the records of the Priory of St Andrews who had held the Manor since1107 AD, state “the village was cleared of people” and the land turned over to sheep and the production of wool.
So what was it that brought about this dramatic change from a thriving economic unit based on the production of cattle and fish fry to one based on sheep and wool? The answer would seem to have been the plague known as the Black Death. It started in 1348 and swept through England in 1349, it returned again in 1361, 1368 and 1375. The population fell from six million in 1300 to one and three quarter million in 1400. Both cattle and fish farming are labour intensive. Thus the workforce was decimated. Not only that, those peasants who survived were able now to demand high wages for their labour. Many moved into the towns. Food prices dropped through lack of demand. So throughout the country landowners switched to sheep. Northamptonshire alone in this period lost over 200 villages and Stoteberie was one of them.
From the late Middle Ages through the times of Lawrence Washington and his son Robert, who in 1606, had the whole village including the church, pulled down, to the present day, Stuchbury has never had more than 25 people living there. Throughout that time sheep and cattle rearing have been the main occupation of its owners. These activities required the area to remain as pastureland, which has favoured the survival of the evidence on the ground of the village, its life and past economic activity.
Having digested its history we then walked over the site. Firstly to the top of the village, then the Fish Farm itself, still with its channels and springs running. Finally, we walked down the old main street – part of an ancient cross-country trackway – and explored the house platforms of the main village. A good hour was spent inspecting, sometimes in the company of inquisitive young “stote”, every aspect of the old village.
Having completed our exploration we were welcomed back to Joan and Michael’s farmhouse kitchen to be treated with tea and an array of lovely cakes! It proved to be an excellent afternoon’s tramping. We were only rained on once, with bright sunshine being predominant. Thanks are due to our hosts especially and to those who came along. Hopefully they now have a good understanding of the humps and bumps that make up much of the landscape around Stuchbury Hall Farm.
Martin Sirot-Smith (Chairman, Sulgrave History Society)