Calstock Agriculture

The history of Calstock in north-east Devon is littered with farmers and farming. Apart from brief spells of mining in the late 19th century there has been no other significant industry in this small corner of England. The rural landscape is still dominated by fields and hedgerows, dotted with charming thatched cottages and old farmhouses. This article looks at the agricultural history of Calstock, its people and their work in the fields. It covers its changing landscape, the types of crops grown throughout history, livestock kept for meat or milk, how people worked on the land and what life was like for those who lived and worked here.

Calstock is in the centre of a vast tract of land that was once forest and heathland, where great forests of oak, ash, and hawthorn, with a tangle of undergrowth, covered large areas of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. There were also small patches of cultivated land dotted about the landscape, some of which have been identified by archaeologists. This cultivation was mainly for self-sufficiency and to feed small numbers of livestock kept for meat or milk.

In Calstock there are two examples of ancient fields that have survived from this time. There is also a large piece of disused agricultural land west of the village that has been identified as a prehistoric field. The pattern of cultivation seen in all these ancient fields is the same - a large, roughly rectangular, open field, bordered by large banks, and smaller banks marking out separate strips. These mark the division of the fields into separate strips of land, each cultivated by a different family or individuals, with each having their own supply of hay and crops.

This was the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. Agriculture was mainly for subsistence, with the focus on growing enough food to feed the population and livestock. The economy was largely self-sufficient, with farmers producing not only what they needed to survive, but also goods for trade with other countries. There are many examples of Roman fields and settlements in the landscape.

Prehistoric agriculture in Calstock

Prehistoric evidence suggests that the landscape of north-east Devon would have been covered in thick oak forest. This would have made it difficult to grow crops, so it seems likely that the area was used for livestock farming, with people living in small tribal communities.

Finds of animal bones suggest that people kept cattle, sheep, pigs and goats. Other bones have been found that may have been from aurochs, a type of wild cattle. This evidence suggests that animals would have been kept in small herds and would have been hunted for food, rather than being fenced in. Cereals such as wheat and barley were grown, but were probably used for making beer and bread, rather than being eaten as food. The people of Calstock would have used tools made from wood, stone or bronze. These tools would not have been very efficient, but they would have been enough to do the job.

Roman agriculture in Calstock

The Romans invaded Britain and Devon in 43 AD, and they remained here for the next 400 years. They brought with them new technology and ideas, including better tools and new breeds of animals. The new technology transformed the way people worked in the fields, making the most of the land to grow more crops. Research at a Roman site near Calstock suggests that the area was used to grow wheat, barley and oats. The seeds came from species that would have grown best in the soil of north-east Devon, suggesting that the Romans brought seeds with them. They also brought animals that were used to ploughing and harvesting the land, including pigs and oxen.

Anglo-Saxon farming in Calstock

The Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century and Britain was split into different areas each with its own ruler. Northern Devon came under the control of the Anglo-Saxons, and their way of farming was very similar to that of the Romans. There is little evidence that farming practices changed much from this date until the Norman Conquest of 1066. The landscape would have been similar to that of the Romans, with fields growing crops such as wheat, barley and oats.

The Anglo-Saxons kept many of the same animals as the Romans, but they bred pigs for meat, rather than for work. They also kept chickens for their eggs, and sheep for their wool. Much of the farming would have been done by hand, using tools made from wood, or from wood with a blade made from iron.

Medieval farming in Calstock

The medieval period saw some technological advancements in agriculture, including the arrival of the horse collar, which allowed horses to do more work with less effort. This was important in the transition from an economy based on sheep to one based on cattle. The Black Death also arrived in Britain during this period, killing many of the people who worked on the land. The Black Death was a plague that killed millions of people across Europe in the 14th century. It arrived in England in 1348 and killed around half of the country's population. The people who survived were able to farm more land, and they made more money. They built new houses away from the towns so they wouldn’t catch the disease again. These houses were made of stone and some of them have survived.

17th Century farming in Calstock

The 17th century was a time of civil war in England, and it was a time of hardship for many people. It was also a time of change, with the introduction of new ideas and technologies, including the mechanical plough. The mechanical plough was invented in 15th century Italy, but it was during the 17th century that it became more widely used across Europe. The use of the mechanical plough revolutionized the way that land was farmed and allowed more land to be brought into use. It also meant that the soil was turned over better, so that weeds weren’t able to grow as easily. The mechanical plough had to be pulled by a team animals, and it was much more efficient than ploughs pulled by humans.

The 17th century saw the introduction of new farming techniques, including the use of artificial fertilisers, such as animal manure and night soil (human excrement collected at night). The method of strip cultivation was introduced, which involved leaving strips of uncultivated land between the strips of cultivated land, so that land could rest and be enriched with the decaying vegetation. There were two common types of 17th century field in Devon: long-ridged and embanked. The long-ridged fields were narrow and long, with the ridge of the fields running north-south. These fields were mainly used for growing cereals. The embanked fields were created by building banks to separate the fields. These fields were mainly used for pasture or growing crops that needed a lot of water.

18th Century farming in Calstock

The 18th century was a time of change in all areas of life, including agriculture. The Enclosure Acts of the late 18th century allowed the owners of land to close off fields and bring them under cultivation. This meant that more people could be fed from the same amount of land, but it also meant that many people were forced off their land, as they did not have enough money to buy the land. When the Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century, people began to look for new ways to power their factories and mills. Some people in Calstock experimented with using a river to create power for a watermill, but the technology was not advanced enough to make it efficient. The next century would see huge advances in all areas of life, including farming.

19th Century mining and 20th century farming

The 19th century was a time of huge change and industrialization in Britain. New technology transformed many areas of life, including farming. The railways brought new technology to the fields, with mechanical seed drills and threshing machines. These machines were powered by steam, and were able to work faster and more efficiently than people using scythes and sickles. The 19th century also saw the rise of new chemicals and fertilizers, including bone meal and guano, which were imported from South America. The climate had also begun to change, and it was becoming increasingly wetter. This meant that farmers had to change the way they cultivated their land. Instead of ploughing the fields, they now turned the soil with a spade, and planted crops like potatoes in clamps, which are rows of soil that are turned over.


The Agricultural history of Calstock is colourful and diverse, and the landscape has changed dramatically over the centuries. The crops planted have changed, and the methods of farming have changed, but the people working in the fields have remained much the same. This is a history that is still being written, and the agricultural landscape of Calstock will continue to change as the years go by.

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