THE PHYSICAL FACE OF CHELSWORTH
In this review of our landscape, we will be looking into the detail of Chelsworth’s physical makeup. At the outset, it is interesting to think about the physical and social logic behind our landscape. Why was a settlement established in just this location? Why were its boundaries fixed as they were, long ago, and why do our highways lie as they do, determined for the most part many centuries past? And what, in later years, caused the fields to be divided up in the way they are, and parcelled out into commons, pastures and so forth?
First of all, we note that the layout of the land is quite straightforward:
- a nucleated valley settlement between hills which rise up from the riverside plain to the north and south:
- a river running from the west to the south-east, with substantial banks giving evidence of a strong and regular flow in earlier ages;
- tributaries feeding the river from the north at each end of the parish;
- a main road running from west to east above the river
The present centre of the village settlement lies around and to the east of the church: but in earlier years another focus, possibly the more important, was at the west end, right up against the parish boundary - which leads back to the first question: why was a settlement established in just this location?
One simple answer may be that it was simply the result of allocating the attractive riverside lands to settlers along the course of the stream, from Lavenham through Brent Eleigh and Monks Eleigh and on to Nedging, Semer and Hadleigh. However, this analysis may be too simple, assuming as it does that some authority, rather than pure chance, acted as a sort of arbiter to mark out the settlements before anyone put down firm roots.
A particular difficulty is that the Chelsworth settlement is too close to that of Monks Eleigh for mathematical precision, and even for comfort. Though we have no record of such a serious conflict, it would be surprising if there had been no arguments over boundaries in the early days, when there appear to have been important houses and inhabitants right against the borders between the two parishes.
An Important Road / River Junction?
I have two suggestions to offer to explain how the settlement
The Parish Boundary
Why, though, was the parish boundary established immediately beside this old crossing and landing point? It may well be that it was not effectively established in this way until centuries after the Romans left. King Edgar’s Charter of 962, which details the parish boundaries, begins, perhaps significantly, with this western extreme of our village, denoting possibly that the ford which it names here as ‘Caford’ was an important border crossing.
More clearly, the Charter reminds us that at the time, both Chelsworth and Monks Eleigh (then hardly a settlement, more a scatter of farms) belonged to the same royal person, the King’s stepmother. She proposed to leave them in her will to different religious institutions (Bury Abbey and Canterbury), so possibly for the first time a precise division of the two was required. The old disused Roman road, together with the two watercourses, may well have represented the most obvious markers for the newly-defined western boundary in this situation.
But if this western end were the main economic focus of the parish in early times, however, why then did the settlement’s centre later shift to the east? Both the church and the main bridge over the stream are there (the pub too, but it was probably not an inn in mediaeval times, so this is not significant). The suggestion, based upon Geoffrey Pocklington’s analysis, is that the first Chelsworth Hall was deliberately constructed on a rare piece of “rising ground” beside the river - possibly as much for status as for defensive reasons: and the church, and also the two mills in the demesne, were subsequently built close by the Hall. (The rising ground - mentioned in the 1602 Chorography of Suffolk - was likely to have been an alluvial deposit, laid down from a runoff by what is now Claypit Lane).
An alternative view, of course, would be that, after King Edgar split