THE BURGHAGE PLOTS IN NEW ALRESFORD

The burghage (or burghal) plots laid out by the developers employed by Bishop de Lucy in about 1200, when his "New Market" was being planned, form the basis of the Town's layout. These were some 330 feet long and 33 wide, almost exactly 100 by 10 metres, or, in the measurement of the day 20 by 2 rods, poles or perches - making a total area of 40 square rods. They were narrow so as to enable the maximum number of properties to be fitted into the frontage on the streets, and long to allow for the burghers to run a self-sufficient house and business. This required a vegetable garden and orchard, barns, stables, store rooms and workshops, and perhaps accommodation for out-door servants.

It is extraordinary that many of these plots still exist, notably in Broad Street but also in West Street. There are few other such survivals in other new towns in England dating from this period of rapid economic growth, though there are many similar examples in France from the number of new towns built in the 13th century, called 'bastides'. Their survival in Alresford may owe something to the fact that the town, heavily dependent on agriculture, suffered from the agricultural depression during much of the 19th century from 1840, with the result that there was very little development, and little increase in population, during a period when other towns saw rapid increases in size and wholesale re-building. However that may be, the surviving plots represent the most ancient and most precious inheritance from the days of the founding of the town, and in national terms a rare survival.

Of course, very old preserved boundaries are common in the case of ecclesiastical properties or the great medieval merchant cities; in Winchester, the lines of some streets date back nearly two thousand years. Here in Alresford we have preserved something much more unusual, the remnants of the works and days of ordinary country people - corn merchants, inn-keepers, dyers, skinners, saddlers, wool merchants, dealers in cheese and bacon, smokers of eels and trout - who handed on their properties, by inheritance or purchase, intact over a period of thirty generations. Dare we break that chain to build a supermarket or an executive home, or other ephemeral constructs?

In West Street only three plots remain intact, on the South side. There are traces of others on that side of the street, but none that can be identified with certainty on the North side. These three are of particular importance because they relate to the determinants of the original layout of the town. The surveyors were constrained in determining where the East-West axis of the town should run by the existence of an ancient trackway, running East-West along the ridge of high ground a little to the South of where West and East Street now run. Few things are more durable than a right of way. They must have measured the burgher plots here beginning at this track and running 330 feet North. Remnants of this trackway still exist, in the form of a pathway running from Station Road, down the side of Alders Court, along the back of the West Street houses to Jacklyns Lane. Thereafter, it was destroyed by the building of the railway. It ran East across the churchyard, forming the boundary of the church yard until it was extended in the 1880s, and just there it crossed with another trackway, the Tichboume Way, which is more complete and can be traced from the churchyard, along Jacklyns Lane and a footpath to Spring Gardens, and can still be walked from there over the fields to Tichbome. This track also determined the layout of the town in part, and in particular the positioning of the Church: but that is another story.

These three plots are particularly vulnerable to development, as we have recently seen. Of course, no damage is done by building or re-building within their boundaries. They could even be split, though this would be very regrettable, if the existing lines remained discernable. But if the boundaries are breached the town would lose precious evidence of its original development that has survived, almost miraculously, for eight hundred years. The three in question are the garden of The Alders and two neighbouring properties to the East. Of these, the Alders plot is especially important. On most other plots in the town, including the other two in West Street, the boundaries have over the centuries shifted a few metres this way or that, and changed slightly in their alignment. The Alders plot however retains its straight North/South alignment, is still a perfect rectangle, and measures precisely 100 by 10 metres. So there we have a property the boundaries of which have been maintained since the beginning of our history, the Southern boundary of which marks the starting point for the survey that determined the shape of the town and the course of two of its three streets as we see them today, after eight centuries.

A property boundary does not have the same visibility as a building, but historically it has in my view equal significance. In our ancient town we have so little that is really ancient: there is a part of the Church Tower from the early 1200s, an even older Rood fixed to it, and bits of 14th century houses in Mill Hill, and the Fulling Mill (though I doubt the early date attributed to it). These apart, there is not one stone upon another that remains to tell us where we came from. These boundaries tell us where it all began. Ignorance or lack of care has destroyed many of them, especially over the period 1850 to 1950. Today's Alresfordians have no excuse for ignorance. My sources for the lines of the trackways are more than a century old, and successive guardians of our traditions, including the Alresford Society and local historians, have celebrated the survival of the town plan for longer still. We do have every good motivation to take care of this extraordinary inheritance, and indeed I submit it is our duty.

Peter Pooley
March 2007

alsford