A key characteristic of the onset of the period was the extension and intensification of agrarian activity, enabled by the Dissolution and made essential to sustain the ensuing population growth. The medieval manorial system of land use was reorganised from the 16th century, leading to the enclosure of ‘waste’ and common land as a result of population pressure and innovations in agricultural practice. Where the resultant ‘piecemeal’ enclosure of fields, generally of irregular shape, survives as a landscape feature, it is usually bounded by hedges in the lowlands and drystone walls on the Pennine fringe.
The importance of the rural environment to the study of Post-Medieval archaeology has long been recognised in the research agenda put forward by the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology (1988), and yet this had not been reflected to any significant degree in archaeological research into the Post-Medieval agrarian landscape by the early 21st century. Indeed, the paucity of excavation and survey work on Post-Medieval rural sites, and the need to investigate improvements in plant and animal varieties through palaeo-environmental evidence, was cited previously as an important omission from the existing archaeological dataset (Newman and McNeil 2007, 119). This has been addressed to some degree, as a considerable amount of survey, evaluation and excavation of Post-Medieval rural sites has been carried out since 2006.
Large-scale investigations of rural landscapes of particular note that have furnished new evidence for Post-Medieval agricultural practice and settlement include those at the Kingsway Business Park near Rochdale (Gregory 2019; Gregory et al forthcoming a), the former open-cast mining site at Cutacre near Bolton (Gregory et al forthcoming b), and the Cuerden Strategic Site in South Ribble, near Preston (Cook et al 2018). The application of archaeological science to some of these excavations has yielded useful insights. At Cutacre, for instance, palaeo-environmental sampling yielded important data on the medieval environment, which was seemingly dominated by oak woodland with significant open areas available for agricultural practices. In the 14th century, however, it was noted that cereal-type pollen was no longer present, and indicators of pastoral activity were recorded at the onset of the Post-Medieval period.
Palaeo-environmental data recovered from an excavation in 2007 at Chorlton Fold in Eccles (GM) similarly furnished some evidence for the character of the 17th– and 18th-century rural landscape from waterlogged plant remains. Whilst there was no direct evidence that the plant remains were from crops, seeds from arable weeds such as stinking chamomile and knotgrass were identified. The other seeds in these samples were from plants of grassland, ruderal communities, broad ecological groupings, waste ground and wet places (Gregory and Miller 2011). Palaeo-environmental data recovered from excavations at Openshaw West in East Manchester in 2010-11 similarly concluded that the 18th-century landscape was probably a damp environment with some scrubby vegetation and areas of waste, open or cultivated ground. Amongst the plant species present were bristle club-rush, rushes, sedges, creeping buttercup, black bindweed, and nettles (Miller 2013).
The work carried out at Kingsway, Cutacre, Chorlton Fold (GM) and Cuerden (L) examined relatively low-lying agricultural landscapes and their attendant farmsteads on the fringe of large urban areas, whilst the significant number of landscapes surveys carried out across the Lake District since 2006 have provided detailed evidence for upland agricultural practices. During just one survey of a Western Lake District valley, for instance, more than 60 previously unrecognised sheepwash structures were identified, and several sheepfolds were recorded along the edge of Post-Medieval enclosure during a survey at Black Beck in Longsleddale (C). In addition to sheep farming, the Lake District surveys have provided evidence for Post-Medieval woodland agriculture, such as bark peeling and peat cutting, and charcoal and potash production. The East Coniston Woodland Survey, for instance, recorded 232 such sites that had not been recognised previously (Schofield 2010).
Detailed archaeological surveys elsewhere in the region have been carried out by OA North (Schofield 2006), UMAU (Mottershead et al 2009) and, most recently, by the Holcombe Moor Heritage Group at Holcombe Moor, near Bury (GM). This relict Post-Medieval farming landscape on the upland fringe has been used by the Ministry of Defence as a training ground for many years, and public access to large swathes of land has only recently been made available by arrangement. This has shown that the landscape retains much physical evidence for early field systems and farm sites, together with early water-powered textile mills in the valley floor.
The Pennine fringe has also been the focus for a community-led project that has been carried out by Pennine Prospects working with volunteers as part of the ‘Celebrating Our Woodland Heritage Project’, facilitated by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This project involved nearly 30 surveys of woodland, enabling numerous Post-Medieval charcoal-burning platforms and other evidence for woodland industries to be identified on the West Pennine Moors around Blackburn and Darwen (L), and the South Pennines in Rossendale (L), Oldham and Rochdale (GM), together with areas in West Yorkshire (Atkinson (ed) 2019).
Interesting new evidence for Post-Medieval agricultural practice on a very different type of rural landscape was recovered from excavations near Hutton, on the edge of the Ribble Estuary (L), where the discovery of fish traps in 2010 highlighted the importance of fishing to the local agricultural economy. Two structures consisting of settings of upright stakes, representing the remains of the fish traps, were unearthed in fields immediately adjacent to the south bank of the River Ribble. Radiocarbon dating suggested that they been in use for a prolonged period, including phases between the date ranges of 1610 to 1670 and 1730 to 1810 (Vannan and Plummer 2010). A similar structure was recorded subsequently on the River Esk at Drigg (C), although dating was less precise (Davis and Davis 2013).
An archaeological approach to landscape analysis has also been undertaken as part of the English Heritage-sponsored Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) projects, which have been carried out in Lancashire (Ede with Darlington 2002), Cheshire (Edwards 2007), Merseyside (Museum of Liverpool 2011) and Greater Manchester (Mitchell and Redhead (eds) 2012). The chronology and character of Post-Medieval enclosure in upland marginal areas have formed a major part of the HLC Programme, and have demonstrated the complexity of Post-Medieval enclosure history in different parts of the North West. The Greater Manchester HLC, for instance, examined the evolution of the county’s entire landscape, using geo-rectified mapping, 54,000 polygon records and time-slicing to show how it transformed during the Post-Medieval period. Notwithstanding the densely developed character of Greater Manchester, the rural fringes cover 445km2 and represent some 35% of the county, incorporating lowland arable land and pasture to the west and the more marginal hill farms of the Pennine uplands of the north and east. The net result of the Greater Manchester HLC was the creation of a highly detailed interactive GIS map with related interpretations that chart the historical development and present-day historic character of the modern county (Mitchell and Redhead (eds) 2012).
Pipeline projects undertaken since the start of the 21st century have offered an incredibly useful opportunity to investigate linear transects across the region’s rural landscape. One of the largest such projects in the North West was the West East Link Main water pipeline, which extended some 54km from Prescot in Merseyside to Bury in Greater Manchester (Gregory 2013), with similar projects in Cumbria including the Nether Wasdale Pipeline, the South Egremont Pipeline, the West Cumbria Pipeline (Schofield and Leighton 2014), and the Quarry Hill to Stainburn and Cockermouth extensions (Peters and Newman 2015). Numerous historic landscape features were recorded during these projects, although in the absence of a regional synthesis of the data, the overall contribution to a better understanding of Post-Medieval agricultural practice has been restricted largely to noting the presence of tracks, ridge and furrow cultivation scars and field boundaries.