What is Ancient & Planned Countryside?

Recapturing the countryside of the past – what it looked like and how it was used – isn’t always easy because such a lot has changed.

One key insight in understanding the development of the English countryside comes in the distinction between “ancient countryside” as opposed to “planned countryside”. These terms were first used by F.W. Maitland in his book Domesday Book and Beyond (1897) but were extended and made famous by Oliver Rackham in The History of the Countryside (1986).

Both historians draw a distinction between two contrasting types of countryside: planned countryside and ancient countryside in lowland Britain. ‘Planned countryside’ describes the area which was to be redrawn in the 18th and 19th century Enclosure Movement, creating a landscape of isolated farmhouses within regular fields enclosed by hedges.

straight hedge
Good example of an enclosure hedge in planned countryside. Credit: David Lally

‘Ancient countryside’, meanwhile, was the product “of at least a thousand years of continuity and most of it has altered little since 1700”  (Rackham, p. 5). In what follows, we will explore the Anglo-Saxon landscape and consider the different characteristics of ancient and planned countryside, and what these tell us about how land was used in different parts of the country and why.

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This article is primarily about planned countryside, but will also touch on ancient countryside by way of contrast and explanation since the two go hand in hand. The designations ancient countryside and planned countryside describe characteristics we can still see in the countryside today.

Ancient countryside is characterised by hamlets and small towns, ancient isolated farms, roads which are not straight and may be sunken, many footpaths, and woods which are likely to be small.



Planned countryside, meanwhile, tends to include villages, isolated farms which date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hedges which are mainly of hawthorn and very straight, straight roads, and few footpaths.

These modern differences in the landscape reflect historic differences in land organisation or features. Ancient countryside did not include open fields or, if it did, they were abolished before around 1700.

Read More: Ridgeways, our Prehistoric Road System Before Roman Roads

Most of the hedges were ancient rather than introduced in the modern period, it contained many woods and much heathland, and it had many ponds. Planned countryside, by contrast, had a strong tradition of open field agriculture which began early and didn’t end until the Enclosure movement which began in the eighteenth century. Most hedges are modern, woods are either absent or large and few, heathland is rare, and it has few ponds. (Rackham, 1986, pp. 4-5).

How and why did these stark differences emerge?

These different “zones” emerged in the Anglo-Saxon countryside. The Domesday Book (1086) allows us to imagine how much of the English countryside looked and was used in the period AD 850-1066.

Thatched cottage
Ancient countryside populated by isolated farms and hamlets.

In The History of the Countryside (1986), Oliver Rackham draws on this information to estimate that roughly 35% of land recorded was farmed as arable, around 15% was wooded, and around 30% kept for pasturing animals. The remaining 20% was made up of waste such as upland moors and fens.

The Domesday Book, moreover, suggests that fertile land was intensively farmed during this time with arable ploughlands, hay meadows and wood pasture. By this time, there was a monetary economy which meant that surplus agricultural production could be sold at market.  

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For the period before Domesday, we rely on the evidence of place names – for example “barton” indicates the presence of “barley” – and charters to give us insight into how the land was used.


Evidence from charters tells us that the Open Field system was already being introduced in some areas in the middle of the Anglo-Saxon period, long before Domesday.  Agricultural development proceeded differently in different areas, however, and it is this which created the stark difference between ancient and planned countryside.

Countryside around Hincknowe, Melplash, Dorset, England. Credit: Derek Harper

Rackham distinguished three zones within the English countryside. Alongside the two types of lowland countryside, “ancient” and “planned”, he also identified the Highland zone. The Highland zone includes the Peak District, Devon and Cornwall, and northern areas including today’s National Parks.

“Although not all of high elevation” Rackham writes “this is the land of moors, dales, ancient oakwoods and a mountain way of life”  (Rackham 1986, p. 4). In these areas, in contrast to the lowland, agriculture was more of a challenge and less abundant.  

Read More: What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

Open Fields

The waves of enclosure which arrived with particular intensity from the eighteenth-century on would transform all of these areas to some extent, but would have a particular impact in the zone identified as “planned countryside”.

“Planned countryside” are the areas of the UK which were most dramatically altered by enclosure. Before enclosure, these landscapes would have looked very different from how they do today, when they are predominantly characterised by hedged fields and isolated farmhouses. Before enclosure the scene would have been quite different: nucleated villages would be accompanied by two (later, three) large open fields. Each of these fields would have been divided into strips or selions.

medieval ridge and furrow
Beautiful example of medieval ridge and furrow

The use of these strips for cultivation would be allocated to members of the village but these rights would rotate and no individual had a permanent claim on a specific piece of land.  This system of farming is known as open field because the internal subdivisions were not marked by hedges or fencing. 

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Before Enclosure

Beyond the open fields, wastes provided additional grazing for animals and were open to the use of the whole village community according to local customary rights and regulations.  Traces of the open field system can still be seen in ridge and furrow markings which remain visible today within grazing enclosures. This open field system was not used in all the regions of England, even before enclosure.


It was only used in the planned countryside zone identified by Rackham and others. If it was used elsewhere, it was in a minor way and was abolished before around 1700.

This zone stretched from the East Riding and Vale of York in the north, sweeping southwards across the East Midlands to the south coast. Lowland areas which did not employ the open field system were designated “ancient countryside” by Rackham.

Read More: The Story of our Prehistoric Woodland Clearances 


This ancient countryside, Rackham wrote, is “the England of hamlets, medieval farms in hollows of the hills, lonely moats and great barns in the clay-lands, pollards and ancient trees, cavernous holloways and many footpaths, fords, irregularly-shaped groves with thick hedges colourful with maple, dogwood and spindle – an intricate land of mystery and surprise” (Rackham 1986, p. 4).

bluebells in ancient woodland

Planned countryside, by contrast, had been dominated by open field agriculture and was then transformed by the coming of enclosure and the agricultural revolution.

Oliver Rackham believed that the open field system which defined the “planned” zone, went back as far as the middle of the Anglo-Saxon period, long before the Domesday Book confirmed its continued use after 1086.

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One reason for this confidence is his analysis of the language used to describe the landscape in the Anglo-Saxon charters. For example, the Old English word furh, meaning ‘furrow’, was eight times more common as in charters belonging to areas of planned countryside as opposed to ancient countryside.

Units of measurement associated with open field organisation, such as “furlong” and “acre”, were also more frequent in areas of planned countryside.

enclosure hedge
Another good example of a straight road with straight hedges, all drawn out by the planners. Credit: Philip Halling

In The Common Fields of England (1992), Eric Kerridge suggests that the earliest reference to the common fields can be found in the ‘Dooms’ of King Ine who ruled the West Saxons between AD 688 and AD 726.


This reference to the open field runs as follows:

‘Gif ceorlas gærstun hæbben gemænne othe other gedalland to tynanne and hæbben sume getyned hiora dæl sume næbben and etten hiora gemænan æceras othe gærs gan tha thonne the thæt geat agan and gebete tham othrum the hiora dæl getynedne hæbben thone æwerdlan the thær gedon’.

‘if churls have common meadow or other deal-land to fence and some have fenced their deal, some never, and their common plough-acres or grass be eaten, go they then that own that gap and make amends to them others that have fenced their deal for damage that there be done.’

Paul Allison
Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village. Looking north from old Fish Pond. Credit: Paul Allison

Key words in this document include “gemænne”, which means “held in common”, and “gedalland”, which means “land which has been divided up”.  This appears to describe the process by which open fields were held in common but divided up for use by individuals as described above.

Kerridge argues that this document proves that the introduction of the common fields started before the year 726, the end of King Ine’s reign (Kerridge p. 22).

Archaeological and documentary evidence suggest that there was no open field farming in Roman Britain, so their emergence can be pinpointed after 383AD (when the Roman’s withdrew) and before 726 AD (David Hall, Medieval Fields, 1982, pp. 45-6).

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

Dark Age

This change to open field farming in areas of planned countryside, Rackham argues, brought about a change as dramatic as the later enclosure movement would be in the eighteenth century:

‘From the Dark Ages onwards, a “De-Enclosure Movement” flooded like a tide. … The English Midlands were submerged so widely and for so long that now little remains of the pre-open-field agricultural landscape. … Open-field with its rapid spread has all the marks of a Dark Age invention. … It appears also to have been part of a social revolution, in which people took to living in villages instead of the earlier hamlets and farmsteads.’  (Rackham 1986, p. 178)

This revolution, however, only appears to have taken hold in the areas Rackham identifies as “planned countryside”, leaving the “ancient countryside” untouched to continue as it had done previously.

Soil and altitude play a part in this division, but it also appears to have had a political dimension and was possibly related to the expansion of the kingdoms of Northumbria, Wessex, and Mercia.  Just like the enclosure movement which would sweep it away, the coming of the open fields likely had agricultural, economic, and political motivations.