Noakes Grove 6000 BC – 1400 AD  


Today Noakes Grove is a nature reserve in Sewards End. This is an attempt to trace its development from after the most recent Ice Age to the time when it first got its name'

Today one of the great debates in conservation ecology is what the post-ice age, pre-farmed habitat of Britain was like. Was it virtually all “wild wood” with close-packed trees such that a squirrel could travel from Southend to Saffron Walden without putting paw to ground? Or was it a wood-pasture habitat where the many grazing animals kept the habitat quite open, with just patches of trees? Today, oak trees fail to regenerate in closed woodlands but do fine where acorns get to unshaded areas which is one piece of evidence that may favour the wood-pasture theory.

My guess is the theory two is nearer the truth but that is all it is: a guess.


Roman Road

By Roman times we have a little evidence pointing to Noakes Grove not being all dense forest. There is a Roman road a little to the east and the local metal detectorists have found Roman coins in Arbury Field at Noakes Grove.

My guess is that people were more likely to drop coins if they were already farming the land or managing the wood in some way.


Domesday Book (1088) provides only a summary inventory of people, farm animals and land for each parish. It does not mention small areas or individual fields.

From the 12th century to its dissolution in 1537 the Benedictine Abbey of Walden made inventories of its extensive lands and provided detail of the creation of Noakes Grove and how it got its name that it still bears today.

These medieval documents have been studied in detail by Dorothy Cromarty (full unpublished thesis in Saffron Walden Town Library and summary in “The Fields of Saffron Walden in 1400” published by the Essex Record Office). Her study shows that one Nokes was given permission to make a virgate holding by clearing woodland near St Aylots. At that time there were large area of woodland that had disappeared by 1600. Keburdey Wood was 100 acres just south of Hales Wood and was probably the woodland from which Nokes felled his virgate. A virgate is believed to be about thirty acres and this would correspond with our Noakes field and Noakes Grove and some other, larger, plots to the east of Redgates Lane also with names (like Little Noakes) indicating they were once part of the same holding. Some later documents indicate that the Nokes family lived in a cottage on what is now our “Docks and Nettles” field beside Redgates Lane. Later records show that our “Arbury” field was not part of Nokes land but we don't know when it was created or by whom.

In 1400 most farms had large field, farmed in strips. Later these were enclosed and new hedges planted around each field. This was not the case with Nokes land: Cromarty says “A few of these tenements, e.g. Nokes, were obviously taken from the woodland and worked in closes from the beginning....” So the hedges around Nokes Grove were probably not planted but simply are bits of the original woodland that were left when the fields were created.

We have no record of how Nokes farmed his land but he probably had some sheep, as sheep-farming was a major industry in the Walden area at that time. The sheep were farmed mainly for their wool so they would certainly have been nothing like our Wiltshire Horn sheep that do not need shearing.


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Updated 1 December 2020