Home‎ > ‎Articles‎ > ‎

Neston Parish in the Middle Ages

I represent a group which has been seeking clues to the medieval development of the parish of Neston. We shall look at three of its Townships to illustrate the different kinds of evidence. They have been: the modern topography, an estate map of 1732, the tithe maps of the 1840s, and some scattered documentary evidence.

Parish of Neston
The parish consisted of eight townships which lie in two parallel lines. Seven of the eight townships are built on sandstone outcrops; the crosses indicate other villages, outside the parish, which are built on the same sandstone ridge as Great & Little Neston and Ness.


Between the two lines of villages, forming a spine for the parish, there runs the Chester High Road. Whether this line formed a through route in the Middle Ages between Chester and the Hilbre anchorages is open to debate; even if the road is a later development, it runs on a strip of heathland, not easily cultivable and much of it common land, which naturally divided the parish.

The topography suggests that the villages developed on dry sandstone footings which, in the case of the western group, had lands far enough from the river to avoid swampy ground, and in the case of the eastern group, avoided the infertile heathland in the centre of the parish.

The fact that in Domesday Book the tax assessments for the eight townships add up to the round number of 10 hides, gives a suggestion of the antiquity of Neston parish as a unit.

Great Neston
The houses shown on this map [below] are these drawn on the earliest plan we have of Neston, made in 1732. The town was built on a strip of exposed sandstone which ran from high ground on the left, to low ground by the stream on the right, with the church in the
middle.

It must have been the conjunction of sandstone and stream which determined the site of the first settlement. To the east of the town the crofts of the houses ran down to the stream, and on the west lay the Town Field. To the north there is a scatter of field names which suggest the probability of an open field in that area. In about 1250 the Weston Park was enclosed, thus preventing development in that direction.  Only the north and west boundaries of Neston Park are known for certain; the other two boundaries are deduced from the evidence of field names.

This map [below] shows the Neston Town Field as it still was in 1732, according to the Mostyn estate map. Amalgamation of the original strips has gone some way, but there are still 16 boundaries shown as unfenced.
At the top left corner of the Town Field, where its edge is shown as an embryonic lane, there is evidence from leases to suggest that the Town Field reached originally to the backs of the houses.

Ledsham
At the time of the 1839 tithe map, Ledsham consisted of 5 farms and almost nothing else.
It still does, and there is evidence to suggest that it was much the same in the 16th century.
It is possible that we have here a small nucleated settlement which has survived with little change in form since medieval times. On this map are shown those field names which may indicate a large open field system to the east of the village. The other fields round the village, not shown on this map, offer no hint of an open field system, and the latest enclosures were those of the heath land on which the Chester High Road lies. It would seem, therefore, that the medieval settlement built on sandstone found that its best-drained and fertile land lay to its east side, and formed its open fields there.

Leighton
Leighton forms the exception. Unlike its seven sister townships, it is not built on sandstone, but on clay. It does not seem to be a nucleated village like the others; in 1732 it had Leighton Hall and two other farms on one site, and a scatter of houses on a different site half a mile away. Was it once a nucleated village which decayed? Or was it formed by dispersal from Neston, perhaps a single holding which grew daughter farms? The answer probably lies in the unusual economy of Leighton, whereby agriculture was less important than its wood and its fisheries.

The field names on the map [below] show the surviving memories of Leighton Wood, from which the Black Prince gave four oaks in 1353. There is evidence from leases that the area next to Neston Park was also part of Leighton Wood. It seems likely, therefore, that Leighton Wood covered over half the township, most of the land between Leighton Hall and the river. If this be true, then the only land available for cultivation lay to the east, between Leighton Hall and the heathland of the Chester High Road. Here indeed we find field names which suggest an open field system.

Domesday Book recorded that Leighton had two fisheries. It is these fish traps or weirs, of continued importance throughout the Middle Ages, which explain the dispersal beside the river. It is quite likely that the community was never larger then we see here, if there was
sufficient wealth in both fisheries and woodland to support an independent owner, but insufficient arable land to attract a larger settlement. The choice of a site on clay would have been dictated by its convenient distance from the fisheries.

Geoffrey Place M.A.
Parkgate Society, Burton and District Local History Society.

Published in notes for The Cheshire History Conference, 1978