This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to witness the Laxton Jury Day and Court Day; the later I shall discuss in December, which I have been fascinated by many years. I had tried unsuccessfully before to attend but this year I was invited to attend. Much has been written about the unique survival that is Laxton and I can only briefly discuss it here. Of course, it is the calendared events which interest us here. And every final Thursday in November twelve local farmers who compromise the Jury, who are also called the Homage, who then come and inspect the fields and particularly the sykes and drains. These stakes mark where each strip should join the bordering sykes and gaits which remain uncultivated to secure access. Any transgressions, including ploughing too far or not far enough, are recorded and presented at the Court Leet the following week. With each transgression is a suggested fine agreed by the Jury, and the Court has the legal power to enforce them. A particularly unique situation at Laxton is the retention of the three fields which undertake crop rotation – a fascinating survival as every GCSE Geography student will tell you!
The land has been part of a landed estate as far back as records survive being first recorded in map form for the then landowner, Sir William Courten, in 1635 and despite a consolidation and reduction on the strips between about 1906 and 1913, the overall layout remains the same today. I have never come across a village with so many houses called ‘farms’ although the number of actual farms has diminished and despite about 50% of the village being now in private hands, the farms are still owned by the landlord and worked by tenant farmers. It is worth noting the key points about the farming system are that any farm tenancy includes the strips designated for that farm and although occasionally the landowner may make minor adjustments, generally, the strips worked now, were the same worked by his father and grandfather and by someone else before him. Hence the affection and significance they have in the community.
I turned up at the local pub, the Dovecote Inn, which has been central to the tradition for many years. Here I was warmly welcomed by the members of the Jury and some local curious people. The Jury overseen by an appointed bailiff has a different elected foreman for each of the three fields. Also, part of the group is the Steward who represents the Estate which was until recently the Crown but now nearby Thoresby, passing to them in 2020. These roles are life roles and indeed the fields themselves pass through the families and rarely pass into ‘outsiders’ hands. After warming with some teas, coffees and some early mince pies a large tractor with a trailer set up with straw bales for seating backed into the car park and we ascended the trailer to sit down. It was certainly a hold on to your hats situation as the trailer hurtled along the lanes and into the field which was being surveyed.
Soon we arrived at the field and here there was some confusion as to where the foreman was sending the team but soon grasping hammers and buckets full of posts two groups jumped out and soon disappeared down a lane. I jumped out to witness the action but soon realised a better experience might be following the steward who had his book ready to write down any transgressions firmly in hand. Therefore, I quickly rushed up to catch up with this group. Here the foreman was observing the previous post locations and guiding the insertion of new ones to mark the boundaries. At one point he observed some encroachment of the boundary, and this was duly noted in the book for future fining. The owners assembled took the potential of a fine very well I felt; particularly well when after some complaints from the foreman of the activity; the same offence was noticed at his strips! Too much hilarity I might add. Soon the different groups started to head to the central point where the tractor lay and after some brief discussion with the land agent and concerns over the survival of a tradition ill fitted to modern technology. After watching some evident pride from the Jurymen’s ability to find a suitable point for the boundary posts; I am not sure how well the observation from the Thoresby estate representative when he observed how well GPS would be to mark the exact location of the boundaries. Rather missing the point that the marking of these boundaries by posts probably has not changed in a 1000 years!
We got back on the tractor trailer and rather happy to have the job done the Jury returned back to the pub to eat a hearty meal and discuss the matters pressing from the Steward’s little book! Here the Bailiff convened a rather informal meeting of the Jury as they awaited the meal. With a weighty tone as reference, he asked for field back on what the jury had seen. Thus, a rather unusual discuss started about how much the transgressions should be fined with ostensibly those responsible. The discussion on how much to pay or whether the transgression should be let off with a warning was couched with injections such as ‘well you charged me £10 last time’ ‘it’s his second offence so it should be £20’ whilst these were perhaps trivial amounts of money, there were serious points to make. Despite some heated debate, the issues were put to bed for the week and we would await next month’s court’s thoughts on the matter.