Fairfield Orchard is lovely in spring when the trees are in blossom. It’s a good place to just stop and listen. You can hear a thrush or blackbird, singing loudly high up at the top of a tree; a goldfinch or even a willow warbler or blackcap, hidden in the branches. A little wren might be chattering away low down near the ground.
And in the summer the hedgerow is full of blossom which attracts bees and butterflies such as the Gatekeeper in the picture.
In the not-too-distant past, the farmers brought their cattle across here to graze in the fields that now form part of the reserve. You can see signs of this agricultural heritage in the stone gateposts, some of which we have recycled, and in the laid hedges. Fairfield volunteers are continuing the tradition of hedge laying and you can see more recent examples along the footpaths as you walk around. Laid hedges are thick at the base and provide valuable “corridors “ for wildlife.
In the rushy area which we call Big Meadow, stands a solitary old alder tree. It is solitary because we take out the saplings which grow up around it. If we didn’t, the wetland would gradually turn into a marshy woodland. Alders thrive in wet conditions as the wood doesn’t rot in water.
The great cities of Amsterdam and Venice were originally built on Alder piles. The timber was also used for wooden pipes and buckets. Perhaps country women with wooden pails from the 17th century used these paths to and from the city.
As well as ducks and moorhen, Alder Pond has dragonflies in the summer. The heron is often to be seen there too.
What do you think the magpie is doing? Taking insects or stealing hair to line a nest?
Since 2011 the Fairfield Association has leased the land, now known as Hay Meadow and Big Meadow, from Lancaster City Council, for a peppercorn rent, to create the 16 acre nature reserve known as Fauna. The area was one large field with no public access. Fencing and the path were installed so now people are able to enjoy the view across the fields up to Aldcliffe or the Castle and Priory church beyond the allotments or spot a song thrush on a fence post.
As you walk along the Fauna Path, look across the Hay Meadow to the line of Willow Trees. This is Lucy Brook. Behind it lies a hidden area called Upper Sowerholme. It is very wet and uneven under foot. There are reed beds and rushes. In the winter it is a safe haven for snipe, water rail and woodcock.
More snipe are found in the rushes on either side of the path.
Each month in the winter we do flush counts which involve a small group of sharp-eyed people trudging through the rushes in wellies and counting the snipe as they fly up with a great whirr of wings. Several people are needed to watch where the snipe come down again and hence avoid double counting! We get up to 150 snipe each winter, though you may never see one, as they are so well camouflaged.
Another access into the nature reserve is through the gate at the bottom of Cromwell Road in the vicinity of Carr House Farm, “Carr” is an old word for boggy land in which trees such as willow, ash and alder, have become established. This still characterises the land around this area today, which skirts Lucy Brook.
Three stone axe heads, dated between 2,000 and 3,000 BC, have been found in this area. They were probably made in the Langdale area of Cumbria which was a stone tool manufacturing area during the Neolithic period. They are polished and do not appear to have been used, so they may have been placed here as part of a ritual to mark a special place.
This land has had various owners; the Ripley Hospital Trust, the Borough of Lancaster, and Lancaster Corporation, which is now Lancaster City Council.
It has been farmed by the same family of tenant farmers, for generations, about 100 years. It was mixed farming but mainly dairy, with about 20 cows. The milk was bottled on the farm and delivered in the Fairfield area up until the 1970’s.
From the mid 1900’s there was a playing field here used by local schools. A number of local residents who attended Dallas Rd and other schools remember having their games lessons on it well into the 1970’s. One said “they did not farm around or mow the playing field, the cows grazed it and we children had to avoid the cow pats!”
It is not known when it went out of use and reverted to pasture though it is shown on Lancaster maps into the 1990’s.
Our graziers provide a much needed service by grazing their White Park cattle, an ancient and endangered breed on the nature reserve.
The cattle graze the grassland and assist in the creation of the wildflower/hay meadow. In spring the meadow is covered in wild flowers such as yellow rattle, yarrow, sorrel, clover and buttercups. They are excellent for bees and other insects, which in turn are good for birds.
There must also be small mammals here as a barn owl has been seen flying over the hay meadow at dusk.
In July or August the hay is cut and stored for winter feed forthe White Park cattle.
From the top of the hill, by Pony Wood, there is a panoramic view of Lancaster and the different eras that have left their mark on the city. The small hills here are deposits left as the glaciers of the Pleistocene Ice Age melted slowly away. There is also evidence of the nuclear power age with the pylons marching their way to Heysham; the wind turbines are evidence of the present Green power movement. This is the hill from which thousands of pink-footed geese can be seen gathering in late-winter mornings.
Beyond the roofs of Abraham Heights, evidence of the manufacturing age can be seen in the tall chimney which was part of the power station (coal fired) of Williamson’s lino factory.
Coming round to the north there is a view of the Castle and the Priory built on another Drumlin ice-age deposit. This area is also the site of the Roman Fortress including the garrison’s bath house.
Around to the East, the spire of the Storey building can be seen. This was the new Mechanics Institute, built in celebration of Queen Victoria’s jubilee.
Finally there is a view of Williamson Park and Ashton Memorial. The Park was landscaped from a quarry site created by James Williamson to provide employment in the 1870s for the local labour force during the American cotton famine.
Part of Edenbreck Farm Cottage is one of the oldest buildings in Lancaster. It is thought that medieval monks stayed in the stone dwelling next to Sunnyside Lane on their way north to Furness Abbey. In early maps this is shown as a barn, maybe because animals (cattle and horses) would have been stabled at ground level and people would have been lodged in the upper storey.
The building became a farmhouse in the mid-nineteenth century and since then it has mainly been the home of the Loxams who farmed the adjacent fields. The family lived in the small stone cottage that abuts Sunnyside Lane and the rest of the building provided the dairy, milking parlour, loose box, outdoor Dutch barn and piggery.
The Loxams had a dairy farm that extended across the fields which we now call Fauna, the Girls’ Grammar School field and Fairfield Orchard. The extensive pasture, which included the paddock, the allotments and Fauna was known as Tewit Field, a reference to the call of lapwings. The Orchard, on the other side of the public footpath, was then known as the Hay Meadow.
The Loxams gave up dairy farming about thirty years ago and their White Park cattle now graze the land.
Now we see the pleasant pastures of Lower Sowerholme. Not so some 700 years ago when plague and famine were common-place events; not to mention the wasting of Lancaster and the surrounding countryside by marauding Scots.
Imagine the scene before you. The townspeople of Lancaster desperately searching their fields for food. Their children facing starvation and probably certain death in the bitter winter months to come.
On a brisk late autumn morning, the last golden leaves fluttering in the breeze and the west wind bringing the first chill of winter; step back in time and walk along with some of those people who may have travelled this path many centuries ago. Pass a monk on his way from Aldcliffe or Cockersands to the Priory; follow a farmer as he drives his oxen to plough his strip field on Flora hill, his weathered brow as furrowed as the fields he ploughs. Or maybe pass a young peasant girl wrapped up against the chill wind as she travels to the town to sell her wares.
Amongst the finds that the metal detectorists found in the Flora fields was a collection of halfpenny coins. They suggested that they may have been from a purse on account of their close proximity to each other. Could a purse such as this have belonged to such a girl? All her worldly wealth lost.