Wednesday, May 4, 2022

New Romney, Kent

On the Marsh, 1

Driving across Romney Marsh in Kent, near the border with Sussex, you cross a flat landscape, characterized by pasture, occasional drainage channels, and isolated, scattered settlements. Here and there the emptiness is relieved by a small medieval church and here and there you spot tiny buildings in fields, like stone or brick sheds. Too small to be houses or barns, they’re lookers’ huts, a unique phenomenon of the marsh, and one that might have vanished completely had it not been for the interest of a few enthusiasts.

The lookers owed their existence to the economic changes that occurred after the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The plague killed a vast number of people (estimates vary between a half and one-third of the population), and the remaining landlords on the marsh bought up small landholdings that no longer had owners or tenants and combined them into larger estates. Here they ran sheep in extensive flocks, and they employed ‘lookers’ to tend them. Lookers worked over a large area, and needed a base where they could store equipment and food, and that would sometimes provide a bed for the night. Hence their huts, which were basic in the extreme (one window, a door) but also had a chimney so that the looker could keep warm in the winter. The lookers’ huts that survive today are not as old as the 14th century – I’d guess most of them are 19th century.

The huts were useful all the year round and vital during the lambing season, when the sheep needled to be constantly checked and cared for, and during shearing, the shepherd’s other time of intensive hands-on work. By the early-20th century, agriculture and then transport were transformed, and there was no longer a need for lookers or their huts. Although robust, many of these buildings, left to decay, have now gone. Around 20 remain, some well maintained, others in ruins. The example in my photograph is a reconstructed looker’s hut at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, outside New Romney. It’s there to explain the story of the lookers and their buildings and, as long as a few huts remain in situ, to answer the inevitable questions of observant tourists, who want to know why these tiny structures were sited in the middle of Kentish fields.

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For an account of the similar ‘hovels’ of Worcestershire, see my earlier post, here.


David B said...

A book on the subject exists.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

My late wife's uncle of East Dean near Eastbourne used the term "lookering" when attending to sheep on the South Downs. (1950s, 1960s) These open pastures are not as extensive as the Romney Marshes, and the lack of water, except for dewponds, should have made finding them easier. Walking through a field at Friston near East Dean, I was surprised that ewes with young lambs made no attempt to run off, but sat placidly watching me with an untroubled eye. In Glamorgan they would have scarpered before I got anywhere near, or set up a furious bleating to collect their lambs. "Lookering" is achieved in South Wales with quadbikes, so there is no need to remain overnight. Never found certain remains of a shepherd's hut, though there must have been some once. History suggests the ewe-milkers worked from a 'hafod' or more primitive hill house during the productive summer months. Did the Romney Marsh sheep get milked?