The Parish Boundary
adapted from 'The Parish Boundary', Common Ground 1987 (Currently out of print)
The Boundary as Tangible History
The age of many of our parish boundaries is astonishing. The Christian church even adopted some prehistoric estates for which the boundaries were visible and known in the landscape. Certainly many parish boundaries include prehistoric elements. On Dartmoor several incorporate 'reaves' which are low banks of stone and earth constructed as territorial boundaries in about 1500 BC (Fleming 1978;1983). Part of the boundary between the parishes of Meavy and Walkhampton is described as 'an old reve' in an early 17th century document (Devon Records Office/Meavy Glebe Terriers/210). Elsewhere boundaries commonly include prehistoric barrows or other ancient earthworks, stones and crosses distinctive points along the boundary, reflecting the continuity of human involvement in the landscape and the continuing importance of 'landmarks' in creating a sense of place. Unusual deviations in the boundary can often be explained by the former existence of a man-made feature, as at Butcombe and Wrington in Somerset where two nearby semi-circular 'kinks' record the existence of prehistoric enclosures (Rackham 1986, 22 fig. 2.5).
Boundstones were frequently set up at special points, and in open country such as moorland were sometimes the only visible indication of the course a boundary took. Some were inscribed with the initial letters of the parishes (each having a distinctive style), or in more detail. In Boughton in Northamptonshire two stones give the names of townships (subdivisions of a parish) responsible for the upkeep of a medieval park boundary wall where it follows the parish boundary (Steane & Dix 1978, 21). On Dartmoor, 19th century granite boundstones dividing the parishes of Ilsington and Bovey Tracey have evocative names inscribed on them such as Old Jack and Victoria. On Hampstead Heath in London, boundstones and boundary oaks march together through Kenwood.
The Historical Record
Our rich archives, stored in County Record Offices and elsewhere, are full of wonderful descriptions of parish boundaries. For example, part of the parish bounds of Breocke in Cornwall were described as follows in the early 17th century:
'Hedges are sufficient bounds between the lands of our parish and certane lands belonging to St. Issey from a place called Pynxkin lye(n)g upon the shoare of the great River of Allen to No mans land and from thence to a yet ( = gate) called Floud yet, from thence by a deepe valley and after by a way to a place called i(n) the Cornish Tongue Mene Gurta which signifyeth in English - a staie stone where a stone standeth for a bound betweene land of our parishe and land of St. Wen of a huge bigness'
O Padel Transcript of Cornwall Records Office/HC/62 Terriers
In May 1615 the parishioners of Holy Trinity, Exeter, an urban parish, traced their boundaries passing along streets and through houses and gardens belonging to brewers and plumbers among others, besides following the City walls, and even getting into boats, 'and weare thearwith convayed upon Ex unto the Key, and theare landed...'
Devon Records Office/1718A/PVI
Placenames too can remind us of boundaries. No Man's Heath on the A453 between Tamworth and Ashby de la Zouch reflects a meeting point of the counties of Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire and their respective parishes. Flittermere Pond in Cambridgeshire means 'disputed boundary pond.' It is now in Great Gidding parish but was clearly once a focus of rivalry between it and four adjoining parishes, probably several hundred years ago (Hooper, Hoskins et al 1971, 12-13). The element 'hore' can also indicate a boundary as in the placenames 'horestone,' 'harepath' or Horrabridge (in Devon, where the bridge was once the meeting point of the parishes of Walkhampton, Sampford Spiney and Buckland Monachorum).
The Boundary as Living Nature
Many parish boundaries survive as hedges, and sometimes as substantial earth or stone banks containing a rich variety of trees, plants and animals. The number of shrub species can actually give a clue to the age of a hedge - as a general rule the number of shrubs increases by one species for every 100 years of its age. Some parish hedges were once part of a continuous forest, since cleared. Hatfield Broadoak parish in Essex more or less coincides with the 13th century boundaries of a forest of the same name (Rackham 1976, 159).
Trees have long been important as specific boundmarks, such as Quitchell's Oak at Haileybury in Hertfordshire which is a corner bound of St Margaret's parish and which was mentioned in 1634 (Wilks 1972, 25). The tithe map of 1840 for Garway in Herefordshire records particular crab apple, oak and yew trees as points along the parish boundary.
At Buckland Newton in Dorset 'a large bound Ash Tree marked WN' is mentioned in 1758 (Dorset Records Office/NDI). The ancient boundary hedges of Charlbury parish in Oxfordshire have recently been surveyed and, typically, contained the following variety of tree and shrub species: Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Field Maple, Dog Rose, Elder, Hazel, Ash, Wayfaring Tree, Holly, Privet and Dogwood (Porter & Spicer 1985, 15). The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Naturalists' Trust have a lease for Oakley Parish Hedge as a nature reserve - it was once the county boundary between Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
The biggest of rivers and quite small streams are often used as boundaries. Beating the Bounds can prove interesting, for example a boat is required to carry the Mayor of Medway, who holds the title of Admiral of the River, to trace the boundary down the centre of the estuary.
The Lord of the Manor's Rent Book details a perambulation in Dorset on June 8 1808 which included "following the course of the River due north.... to the Watering Place, opposite to a meadow called Hayward's Meadow, where John White swam across the River, with Levi Warren on his back, and landing in the said Meadow proclaimed Two Acres thereof as belonging to the Parish of Marnhull". The description ends - "Memorandum Rushes were cut in different parts of the river on the said Perambulation, ascertaining the Lords right to them". Reference to these peculiar moments of history can be found in the county archives.
Boundaries as a Celebration of Community
These have always been occasions for great celebrations in order to ensure that the participants did not forget the boundary points. In 1595 a parishioner in New Buckenham in Norfolk said that he 'better remembreth' that the boundary went to St Andrews Church 'for that he had druncke Beare out of an hande Bell' (Norfolk Records Office / PD254 / 71). In Dorset, cakes were thrown down hills at specific points 'for the Boys to run after and Scramble for' (Dorset Records Office / NDI). In 1753 in Alphington in Devon a parish feats was prepared including ale, rum, pork, beef, cheese, butter, cabbage, mutton, bread, cider, beer and tobacco which were all provided by the parish (Devon Records Office / 1481 / PW5). On a perambulation of Lydford (Dartmoor Forest) bounds in the early 19th century, which included mostly wild moorland, the superintending parson declared at one point, ''Now we must make a shout here that we may recollect the bounds.' The people then Huzzard and took off their Hats.' (Devon Records Office/924M/B1/8 Proof of Wm Rogers p9).
Many parishes still beat their bounds, sometimes at intervals of several years. In 1976-77 the parishioners of Culmstock in Devon walked their boundary, as Hoskins advised, and wrote an account of it, which included the following paragraph:
'And so ended our parish boundary walk, a walk that has surely given us an insight into more than the physical limits of our Devon parish. Always near to the surface of our thoughts were the Anglo-Saxon settlers who drew the boundaries, those who were living here when Domesday was written and the thousands of farmers and craftsmen through the centuries who lived and worked in Culmstock.' Culmstock: A Devon Village, n.d., 10.
A dramatic celebration on horseback is carried out at Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway where since 1816 there has been an annual Common-Riding to mark out the boundaries of the town. The day is accompanied by races and games. In Oxford, the parish boundary of St. Michael-at- the- Northgate passes through the Roebuck Inn.
Craftsmen and women have, traditionally, had a major part to play in the maintenance of boundary features. Hedge-laying, stonewalling and coppice wood management are just some of the skills that a parish boundary may demonstrate. Stonemasons will have shaped and inscribed some of the boundstones, probably cut from small local quarries or taken as surface stone.
Geoffrey Grigson said of his parish of Pelynt in Cornwall: 'I feel that extraordinary magnetism coming to me, for example, from a meadow on the boundaries of the manor of Pelynt and the manor of Trelawne where the tenants of the two were constantly in dispute, nearly seven centuries ago, over the use of a spring into which I can still dip my fingers.' Grigson 1954, 26.
In 1986 at the start of its Parish Map making, Buckland Newton, Dorset, Beat the Bounds for the first time in 200 years.
Just a little out of breath, I must admit,
I climb with the sun to the end of the lane,
To the end of the chalk-track's combe-end brow,
That sudden divide between slope and sly.
Turning, looking over the pattern of fields,
I recall that this, since time unremembered,
This frontier marking the edge of the down,
Has been, and remains the parish boundary.
As my eyes roam slowly over the farms,
Beyond the grouped houses, the mellowed church,
I note other marks of the parish border:
A stream and a roadway, hedges, a knoll.
Between these, imagined though long disappeared,
In my mind stand oak trees, bound-posts and stones
Recorded as landmarks in ancient charters
And quaint old accounts of perambulations.
I ponder, this valley was once a world
To men who rarely if ever went outside;
Their wives and their children maybe never did.
The border was a boundary of their lives.
Yet, though boundary now is hardly noticed,
And parish welds itself into wider worlds,
There ever remains an unmarked bond of bounds
That plots the parish out as its own world.
Hardy Frost, 1986
Starting Points and Ideas
'Conservation begins precisely where the pain and destruction of modern development are most keenly felt - in the parish, that 'indefinable' territory to which we feel we belong, which we have the measure of.' Mabey 1980, 248
There are some 10,000 parishes in England and Wales. Most have parish councils (community councils in Wales) which are the smallest political and administrative units recognised by central government and are thus potentially very important for decision-making about the local environment. Each has a civil parish boundary which in many cases coincides with the ancient ecclesiastical boundary. Where civil parishes do not exist, as in some urban areas, the starting point can be the ecclesiastical unit.
Many Ordnance Survey maps show parish boundaries - maps of 1:25,000 (2 and a half inches to the mile) and larger scale do, but the latest 1:50,000 maps (1 and a quarter inches) most regrettably do not.
If you are keen on old maps and documents visit your County Record Office and ask to see the Tithe Map of your parish which will date to about 1840. These were large scale maps prepared with an accompanying register of great detail when there was reform of the system of the payment of tithes in the mid-l9th century. They exist for most parishes, but there is uneven coverage. If none exists for your parish then there may well survive an Enclosure Map of similar date. The usefulness of these maps is that they often show individual fields, and give their names as well as those of their occupiers and owners, besides recording the state of cultivation. Many show details of woods, roads, tracks and boundary marks, and even of individual gates. Glebe Terriers can also be fruitful. They were registers of church land kept in place of formal conveyancing documents. In the early years of the 17th century several terriers include a detailed description of the bounds of the parish.
New boundstones could be made by modern masons or sculptors, celebrating distinctive features and places in the parish. New ditches, banks and fences could be built, as well as perhaps new stiles of stone or wood for a circular parish boundary walk if appropriate, and if negotiated with landowners.
Projects involving schoolchildren could include an exploration of the boundary and its history, plants, animals and importance to the community. Trees could be planted at specific points along the boundary perhaps using the same species as are sometimes recorded on the Tithe Maps where there is a significant change in direction or particular association, and new boundstones could be commissioned from craftsmen or sculptors. If access could be negotiated along the circuit of the boundary, a parish walk could be organised at least once a year. The very shape of parishes can provide scope for imaginative artistic activity, perhaps for a parish 'logo', or design for a parish noticeboard or posters.
All these ideas should provide a starting point for working towards the creation of a Parish Map, which eventually would be publicly displayed in the parish and which would be a celebratory focus of the whole parish territory, containing information about what it is that gives the parish its distinctive character and what it is that local people really value about the place.