Looking as far back as the Middle Stone Age (10,000 to 3,000 BC), the soil in the valley bottoms was too heavy and wet to be worked by the primitive people with their deer-horn hoes. Instead, they raised their first crops on shallow downlands and hill sides, where narrow terraces were built.
The terraces are known to archaeologists as lynchets – or ‘little slopes’. On the south-western side of Braunton Down, a range of lynchets could once be seen and indeed appeared on the 1963 Ordnance Survey map as a ‘Field System’ but have, to a large extent, been ploughed down since.
Much of the rest of Braunton was covered in forest. The native Britons relied on hunting and gathering in the forest but, once crop cultivation became recognised as a potential food source, the Anglo-Saxons started to clear areas of forest. The success of crop-raising meant that people who had formerly wandered to seek food could settle in one place and this was the beginning of the community we know today.
Early Farming Techniques
Expansion of the cultivated land led to work on the deep soil of the lower levels, which had been made rich by the alluvial soils that had slipped down the hillside throughout the years. Teams of oxen, usually four to a team, plodded slowly to and fro with great ploughs. Behind them came beaters with long-handled wooden mallets to knock up the clods and children were employed, as soon as they could totter, to carry large stones to the edge of the ploughland
As sowers scattered seed, older children followed behind to scare off hungry birds. Behind them came another group of people with wooden rakes to cover the seed.
This labour-intensive activity was helped by ship-loads of immigrants, who combined to form a hunderdt (hundred). It is thought that the term was used to describe a group of a hundred fighting men, like the old Roman century. An area with enough families to provide a hundred men was known as such.
The Braunton hundred once reached from Ilfracombe to Filleigh (with Braunton at its centre), which shows just how much the population has increased since.
During the 8th century, a three-field system began – whereby one field was sown with wheat or rye for bread, one field was sown with barley to provide malt for beer and a third was left fallow. They were rotated every year, to allow each part to be rested once every three years.
The fields averaged about 400 acres, where each acre was measured locally as one furrow-long or furlong (220 yards), by one chain (22 yards). It was thought that an acre was the amount an ox could plough in one day and there were thirty ploughs in Braunton, according to the Domesday Book.