A Stitch in Time: The history of Forrabury Stitches

Those that know Boscastle will be familiar with Forrabury Stitches. But what exactly are they, and how were they used?

The 42 strips of lands that stretch from Forrabury church are part of an ancient field system that was very much in operation during the medieval period.  Evidence on Bodmin moor shows that this agricultural practice was common amongst the Celts long before that too, and as such is one of the oldest forms of agriculture still in operation.

The land was split into carefully measured strips known as stitches in English or lylns / lenes in Cornish, each one roughly covering about an acre of land.  Their long shape allowed for easier ploughing.  Each stitch is separated by a balk – a slightly raised bed of stone and grass.  The balks allowed those tending to the land to avoid walking over their crop, as well as providing a sink for stones cleared from the soil and showing a clear boundary between each stitch.   

Each stitch could be sown according to the farmer’s preference for their own use, and it is thought that they shared the little tools they had.  However, after the growing season the stitches would be communally grazed, so crops generally had to be harvested at the same time, and each dividing balk had to be low enough for livestock to walk over.  Once the growing season restarted, the stitches would be cleared with beat-burning (to reduce pests and weeds), before being reallocated to ensure each tenant had an opportunity to farm the better stitches.

At one point, the entire open field would have been owned by the Manor of Bottreaux Castle with individual stitches farmed by individual tenants.  The Manor would have been responsible for resolving the many neighbourly disputes that must have arisen with this type of farming. 

Ultimately the practice became unsustainable.  Having to graze all the stitches at the same time of year restricted what could be grown and in what quantity, and with the rise of industry and farming technology, it became more efficient for farmers to work larger areas of land.  As well as this, the growing population meant that demand for land was high, and self-sufficiency was no longer viable.  People had to move to towns to work in industry which also meant that farmland was being taken up to build homes and factories.  It is a small miracle that the stitches weren’t ploughed over – even more so that they are still operated according to crop rotation. 

So, despite being the predominate farming technique throughout much of Northern Europe for 1000 years or more, Forrabury is one off just 3 places in Britain where you can still see the original stitches still being farmed. 

Take a journey back in time, and visit Boscastle.  Who knows what you’ll discover? 

A Stitch in Time: The history of Forrabury Stitches