Clifton Ings is an ancient flood meadow with an unbroken history stretching back over a thousand years. Rawcliffe Meadows, however, has a much more chequered history. Medieval townships in the Vale of York would each contain hay meadows (often on floodplains), arable fields and moors. The latter were areas of communal grazing land but also provided resources such as turf or peat for fuel: in February 1585, a riot took place on Rawcliffe Low Moor when Clifton men tried to demarcate a new boundary, the taking of turves by Clifton commoners having been a source of much rancour.
The hay meadows and arable were held in strips by many different tenants, rents being due to the land owner and tithes (payments-in-kind) being payable to one church institution or another. Although tenants harvested the hay or crops from their individual strips, the meadows and fields were managed communally and open to common-right grazing after the harvest.
Much of what we now call Rawcliffe Meadows lay within the arable land of Clifton township. The Ings Dyke appears to have been the boundary between the floodplain meadows and the arable, which seems surprising today. The Clifton Hospital fields towards Shipton Road still bear the well-preserved ‘ridge and furrow’ landform created by oxen plough teams repeatedly working the same furlongs, long since fossilised beneath the grass sward. These show up particularly well on aerial photographs accessible here. More fragmentary remains of ridge and furrow can also be seen on parts of Rawcliffe Meadows.
During the late Middle Ages and into the Tudor period, there was an increasing trend for land owners to carve out enclosures from the open arable fields. These closes would be surrounded by fences or hedges and farmed privately, either by the landowner himself or leased-out. Normally, this involved converting arable to grassland (either meadow or pasture). Successive Tudor monarchs tried unsuccessfully to curtail this process, fearing that it would lead to the depopulation of villages.
The Robinson estate
The Manor of Clifton was held by St Mary’s Abbey before the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s and was sold by the Crown in 1600. Alderman William Robinson, a wealthy York merchant, purchased the manorial rights in 1606: his descendants remained Lords of the Manor until the title was transferred to York Corporation in 1919. Robinson had acquired the Manor of Rawcliffe in 1582.
The enclosure of Clifton’s arable fields seems to have taken place in the early 1600s. A legal dispute held before the Council of the North in 1622 heard that the Robinsons had began enclosing after acquiring the Manor. In a dispute over tithes held at the Court of Exchequer in 1728, a witness claimed that eighty years earlier, the Robinsons had enclosed the open fields, often without holding the deeds to do so. The Civil War siege of York in 1644 provided a convenient excuse for the Lords of the Manor, who claimed that records had been destroyed during the fighting. Whatever the circumstances, the open fields were broken up and mostly converted to grassland between 1600 and 1650.
The southern half of Rawcliffe Meadows lay within an enclosure known as Ing Ends Close. This may still have been part of the arable open field when Alderman Robinson acquired, inter alia, half an acre “in the Yngs Endes” from a Robert Metham in 1603. The Close was mentioned in a lease of 1651 and in 1691 was leased to local inn-keeper John Rummans at a rent of £29 per annum. He was not allowed to plough the land (implying that it was permanent grassland) but was granted a reduction in rent to cover the cost of spreading 200 loads of manure. In 1728, Thomas Mellor of York took the lease for “the Great Close now in 4 divisions, containing 27 acres of meadow or pasture, adjoining Clifton Ings on the west to the highway on the north east called Ing Ends.” This was a 21 year lease worth £27 per annum. Over the next two centuries, the layout of Ing Ends Close changed a number of times, with the grassland being divided and amalgamated along various internal boundaries. During the first half of the 19th century, the close was divided into several smaller fields but by the 1930s it was a single unit again, including what is now the main area of hay meadow at Rawcliffe Meadows and the caravan field to the south.
A smaller field called Toft Lands or Reddlands was situated to the north of Ing Ends Close. This had been enclosed by 1648 and was, at that time, leased to several small farmers. In 1657, Reddlands was leased to inkeeper Michael Cook for 21 years at £10 per annum. As landlords, the Robinsons included clauses in their leases either prohibiting ploughing or imposing punitive surcharges if land was ploughed during the last seven years of the lease – clearly grassland was a much more valuable asset than arable at this time.
Blue Bridge Close was situated to the north of Toft Lands: this took in the area including Blue Beck, the modern-day flood basin and the allotments.
Map 1: Changing layout of fields between Clifton Ings and Shipton Road, early 1600s to 1840s
The best examples of species-rich grassland at Rawcliffe Meadows are within the former Ing Ends Close, and it seems likely that these have been grassland since the 1600s. Certainly by the early 19th century, this area was entirely grassland. An estate sale in 1836 was documented in a detailed auctioneer’s brochure, providing us with a detailed inventory of field boundaries and land use (Map 2). Interestingly, most of Ing Ends Close and Toft Lands was hay meadow but there were arable plots within Blue Bridge Close.
Map 2: land use in 1836
The North and East Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum was established in 1847, “with a grazing farm of 50 acres” [C. Whellan (1859). History and Topography of the City of York and the North Riding of Yorkshire]. What we now call Rawcliffe Meadows may have come under a single ownership as part of the hospital farm, though up to the 1960s it was still divided into three fields.
Rawcliffe Meadows passed from the NHS to the former Yorkshire Water Authority in the late 1970s when the Clifton Washland flood defences were constructed. When the water industry was privatised, the National Rivers Authority then the Environment Agency became the succeeding public-sector owners.
Anecdotally, the site had been hay meadow up till about 1970 but was then let to a local farmer as pasture until work began on the York – Beningbrough cycle route in 1990.
Ordnance Survey maps
The Ordnance Survey has been plotting detailed maps of Britain since the 1840s. When we look at early editions, we can see some interesting changes in the local landscape alongside the changing field boundaries. The Copse Meadow was established on part of Rawcliffe Ings in 2008 by dividing an existing field along a convenient line. However, this turns out to be an earlier field boundary, shown on 1:2500 OS maps published between 1909 and 1958 but not before or after. So we have, quite inadvertently, restored an historic boundary, albeit a relatively short-lived one! On the other hand, we once thought the parkland-style iron fencing around the New Meadow was perhaps a feature of the old Hospital Farm – but it turns out that this only became a separate field in the 1960s, though we still haven’t fathomed out why.
The Copse itself did not exist when the first OS surveys were completed in the 1840s, but appears as broadleaved woodland on each successive edition since 1893-95. This is, then, a mid- to late- 19th century plantation and has no connection to any old-established woodland. It was referred to as a “particularly fine poplar stand” in a study of the Ouse corridor published by York Civic Trust in 1965, though the poplars have long since disappeared.
A Victorian floodbank ran along the line of the modern day barrier bank as far north as the brick wall which marks the northern boundary of the original Clifton Hospital. This was only extended northwards in the 1970s, when works were undertaken to upgrade the flood storage capacity of the Clifton Washland.
The above account is based largely on the Robinson estate papers housed at York City Archives, along with some material in the Newby Hall Papers held by West Yorkshire Archives. Ordnance Survey maps have been accessed at www.old-maps.co.uk
© Martin Hammond, 2014