Strip Lynchets Medieval Features in our Landscape

Strip lynchets, also known as strip lynchet terraces or strip cultivation, are archaeological features found in agricultural landscapes. They are linear earthworks that consist of a series of parallel, stepped terraces on the slopes of hills or inclines.

Take a journey through the British countryside and you wouldn’t have to travel far before you came across a field bearing the distinctive ridge and furrow pattern most of us will have learnt about in school.

In the open field system of the medieval period, fields were ploughed in strips. The plough would move the soil from left to right, resulting in peaks and troughs. Where this land has continued to be farmed, these ridges and furrows have been destroyed over time.

strip lynchets
Medieval strip lynchets originated during the medieval period as a form of agricultural terracing. ©Brian Robert Marshall

On land that hasn’t been ploughed using modern methods, however, the recognisable pattern remains. An equally striking but less well-known feature of these ancient field systems are strip lynchets. These appear as a series of stepped terraces on a hillside. There is some disagreement over whether these were manmade to aid ploughing or happened incidentally over time as a result of ploughing.



Before we consider the formation of strip lynchets, we need to be clear on what the term means. The word ‘lynchet’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlinc’ meaning a ridge. The term ‘hlinc’ is used frequently in boundary charters from the period. It consistently seems to be used to refer to a naturally occurring ridge, rather than having any agricultural connotation.

strip Lynchets
They showcase advanced medieval land management and agricultural practices, revealing adaptability to varied terrains. ©Andrew Smith

The first time the word ‘lynchet’ seems to appear in writing is in ‘Systema Agriculturae’ (Worlidge, 1669), where it is defined as “a certain line of Green-sword or Bounds, dividing Arable land in Common Fields”, with no mention of the hillside.

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The first use of the word to refer to terraces used on hillsides appeared in ‘Observations Chiefly Relative to the Natural History, Picturesque Scenery, and Antiquities of the Western Counties of England’ (Maton, 1797), though this was in addition to the original meaning, rather than replacing it. This has further muddied the waters when it comes to understanding the creation and purpose of lynchets.

strip Lynchets
They had significant economic implications, allowing for more efficient use of land and resources in medieval agrarian societies.


Due to the double meaning of the term, cartographers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used the word lynchet to refer to a huge range of terracelike features, including, for example, soil build-up behind a Neolithic wall and a large number of terraces whose creation cannot be explained by either natural processes or farming practices.

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The term ‘strip lynchet’ first appears in ‘Air Survey and Archaeology’ (Crawford, 1923). The author used it to differentiate the terraced hillside meaning from the definition used in the Anglo-Saxon period. This phrase was quickly adopted by geographers and historians.

However, there are regional variations in the terminology. In the south of England, lynchet and similar terms are common. The word lynchet is used in Wiltshire and Dorset. Lynch and lince are used in both Dorset and Hampshire and lanchard is common in Somerset. In the north, the term rein or raine is also used.

How were strip lynchets formed?

There is some dispute over whether strip lynchets occurred over time as a result of ploughing or were manmade to aid with farming.

The traditional theory was that strip lynchets occurred naturally due to ploughing practices, in a similar way to the ridge and furrows mentioned above. The shape of the plough meant that soil was shifted from left to right, resulting in build-up over time.

strip lynchets
They can still be identified as step-like features on hillsides, although many have been eroded or ploughed out. ©Mick Garratt

On a hillside this would be exacerbated by gravity and weathering. The disturbed and loosened soil would slide down the hillside to create a protuberance known as a positive lynchet. Where the soil had moved from would form a negative lynchet. The shape of each terrace would naturally follow the curve of the hillside.

However, another theory is that strip lynchets were formed intentionally to make it possible to plough steep hillsides and to prevent erosion and slippage. The size, spacing and number of rows of many strip lynchets suggest that this is true in many cases.

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Because of questions over their creation, strip lynchets were a popular focus of study in the early twentieth century. A study in 1939 observed that the size of the positive lynchets was in many cases too large to be accounted for as a natural by-product of ploughing alone.

The study therefore suggested that in these cases the structures must have been artificially formed. It seems likely that the more extreme examples, usually found on steeper hillsides, were manmade, while the less severe terraces on gentler slopes are more likely to have been formed naturally as a result of ploughing.

What was the purpose of strip lynchets?

If some strip lynchets were purpose-built, the inevitable question is – what was their purpose? It has been noted that it made it possible to plough steep hillsides, but why would this be necessary?

strip lynchets on an OS map
You can find them on an OS map

Many strip lynchets date back to the medieval period. In the early fourteenth century, the huge increase in population and the lack of good quality arable land meant peasants had to think creatively.

Although it would take a good deal of hard work, the creation of terraces on steep hillsides would make this land suitable for the cultivation of corn and other crops. As the population decreased following the Black Death, the need for land decreased also and these terraces would have fallen into disuse.

When were strip lynchets formed?

There is evidence of lynchets dating back to the prehistoric period. Examples can be found in the soft, limestone landscapes of Wessex and southeast England. Little is known about the origins of these systems.

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They appear very different to medieval terraces, more angular in shape and much wider, often over 100 ft wide. If these were created intentionally for agricultural purposes, it seems likely that they were abandoned over time as people moved towards the more fertile soils of valley areas.

strip Lynchets
The purpose was to increase the amount of usable agricultural land in areas where flat land was scarce. ©Brian Robert Marshall

Many lynchets have also been found in areas close to Iron Age forts and Roman earthworks. Some are even associated with barrows from the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods.

Because of the nature of their construction and abandonment, the strip lynchets you are most likely to observe today are those created towards the end of the medieval period to maximise the land usable for food production. These were created on steep land and are therefore most pronounced.

Additionally, when they were abandoned as the population decreased, the land was often left unused, meaning their construction was undisturbed. They often remain recognisable today.

Where can strip lynchets be seen?

Strip lynchets are particularly common in south and south-eastern England. Notable examples include those in West Dean, West Sussex; Bishopstone, Charlton St Peter, Bishops Canning and Mere Down in Wiltshire; Hinton and Dyrham in Gloucestershire; Hawkesbury Upton and Cold Aston in the Cotswolds; and Challacombe in Devon.

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There are four groups of well-developed and extensive strip lynchets on the slopes of spurs at East and West Man, located 3 miles west of Swanage in Dorset. The surviving strip lynchets cover around 40 hectares.

medieval ridge and furrow enclosure act
Perfect example of an enclosure act. You can see the medieval ridge and furrow of the once open field system that has been enclosed with hedges.

The rest of the open field system in this area seems to have covered an area of around 80 hectares. The terraces on lower-lying land have been subject to much ploughing over the years and the terraces have been lost. On the steeper ground, where the land has ceased to be ploughed, the terraces are well-preserved. These strip lynchets are thought to be from the medieval or early post-medieval period.


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Many further examples can be seen across the county. Particularly of note are those at Loders that resemble an amphitheatre overlooking the village. Further examples can be seen at Summerhouse Hill in Yeovil, Somerset. Yeovil is known for being hilly, and Summerhouse Hill is the tallest of these hills, at 353 feet. It is no surprise that strip lynchets would be needed to make this hillside useable for farming.

strip Lynchets
Strip lynchets enabled the cultivation of a variety of crops on otherwise unsuitable slopes.

Remains of these strip lynchets can still be seen on the northern slopes of this hill, where the land is now used for grazing beef cattle. Unfortunately, the strip lynchets on nearby Forest Hill were lost when a housing estate was built on the land.

Strip lynchets aren’t, however, restricted to southern England. There are many to be found on the steep scarps of the Chiltern Hills, which extend through Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire. The best examples are in Barton le Clay, Bedfordshire and Streatley, Berkshire.

Looking even further north, great examples can be seen in the grounds of Wharton Hall, near Nateby and Waitby Castle, near Kirkby Stephen, both in Cumbria. Strip lynchets are also common across the hills of Yorkshire, a prime example being on the slopes of Elbolton Hill, near Skipton.

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