Pastoral Puzzle: Why Did British Farmers Name Their Fields?

The traditional farm sign is a familiar part of the UK’s rural landscape. They often display a symbol or an image as well as the name of the farm, such as a heavy horse, a plough, or a cow or sheep. These days, it is mostly for decorative purposes, but before the era of mass literacy, the images helped workers and delivery people to identify the farm. 

This is also the reason that farms often have names that are closely related to the physical landscape, such as Hillside, Top o’the Stones, Lane’s End, and so on. It was simply the easiest way to tie the identity of the farm to its location and reduce confusion with other farmsteads or households in the area. 

However, many people don’t realise that farmers also name individual fields. This tradition also has its roots in ease of identification: agricultural labourers often worked on a freelance basis, and farmers needed to be able to tell workers who may be unfamiliar with the area where to go. 

For this reason, fields were often given descriptive names that simply referred to the size, shape, or use of the parcel of land. For example, common names might be Long Acre, Pony Field, Fish Ponds, Wheatfield, and so on. Of course, this wasn’t a foolproof method of identification and no doubt mix ups would sometimes occur.

The names were also useful for the farmers who might wish to sell or rent some of their land, so that they could be specific about which fields they were referring to without having to use written instructions. 

In the days before more formal addresses were in widespread use, there have been examples of named fields in legal documents, such as leases, sale agreements and wills. 

The tradition of naming fields still endures in many parts of the UK, even though the practice has outlived its origins. This suggests that farmers also named their fields as a means of strengthening their personal and emotional attachment to the land, which was often closely bound up in generations of family history and identity. 

This is reflected in the fact that some fields had names that were not prosaic and purely descriptive, but also personal or related to local history or folklore. For example, in Warwickshire, a local historian has found evidence of fields named ‘Billy’s Well’, ‘Paddy’s Piece’ and ‘Bell Rope Field’ (where the rent was used to provide new bell ropes for the local church). 

As land use rapidly  changes, smaller fields are often lost as they are incorporated into larger areas of land to maximise crop size or grazing acres. Fields are also regularly lost to new development and infrastructure, chipping away at rural history and culture. 

However, many farmers still use traditional field names and they are also a popular topic of historical research, helping to preserve this interesting relationship between land use and the stories of our rural past.