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A history of the Hay Meadows of Kingsbury

At the time of the Domesday Book, in the year 1086, the parish of Kingsbury was a mainly wooded area. It was divided into two manors, one of which was Chalkhill, an estate that had belonged to King Edward the Confessor before being given to Westminster Abbey. By 1244 part of this land had been gifted to a religious order, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, and they had established a farm on Church Lane (where the Co-op now stands) with fields down to St Andrew's Church. This was called Freren Farm, after the Norman French word for "the brothers" who farmed it.

By around the year 1300 parcels of land from the other Kingsbury manor, Tunworth, had been let out to tenants who cleared small fields out of the woodland, a process known as "assarting". Three of these landholdings to the west side of Salmon Street became farms that lasted until the mid-twentieth century; Hill Farm (at the top of the rise near the junction with Mallard Way) and two named after the original farmers, Edwin's (later Little Bush Farm) and Richard's (which became Bush Farm, opposite the junction with Slough Lane).

In 1442 the Tunworth manor was granted to All Soul's College, Oxford, which collected rents from the tenant farmers for the next five hundred years. As part of a review of its lands, a map of Kingsbury was drawn for the College in 1597. From this map we can get a picture of the fields with their thick wooded hedges between, together with the wonderful old field names such as Half Yards Meade, Little Cherrylands, Short Down and Great Hillcroach, and details of the tenants at the time.

Most of the field names from this map remain the same in another document, produced for the Duke of Chandos (a notable local landowner, living at Canons near Stanmore) around the year 1730. At this time "Hill Farme" comprised 107 acres, including 76 acres of meadow and 28 acres of arable (ploughed) land in addition to the house, barnyard, garden and orchards. The tenant also leased 55 acres of woodland, mainly small local woods and thick hedgerows. A good illustration of how extensive these relics of the original woodland were is the hedge around Honey Slough, a field now crossed by Fryent Way just south of Valley Drive. The area of this meadow was 7.5 acres, while the woodland hedge around it was let separately as "one parcel almost round Honey Slough 3 acres, 3 roods and 22 perchs" (almost four acres).

The agricultural revolution of the eighteenth century saw the invention of new farm machinery, but the local heavy London Clay soil was not suitable for these modern arable methods and even more of the fields became pasture land. Most of these meadows were used for growing hay, grass which was cut in the summer then dried and stored in large stacks for sale as animal feed throughout the year. The fast growing capital city of London was only a few miles away, and this was home to many thousands of horses, both for riding and for pulling carriages and carts. So the farmers of Kingsbury sent their waggons up to the Hay Market, near Piccadilly, with food for the city's horses, and came back with loads of dung from the stables to fertilise their fields.

This pattern continued into the nineteenth century, but with small farms let on short leases and a single basic crop the hay farmers of Kingsbury did not become rich men. They hired itinerant labour (often Irish) to help with the haymaking, and in years when the weather was bad at harvest time or the local parish rates were high (to pay for relief to the poor) they often went into debt. An advertisement in March 1842 for the sale of the belongings of William Nicholls, a farmer who had been declared bankrupt, lists the equipment he used at Bush Farm. This included "two capital road waggons, nearly new", twelve hay, dung and other carts, hay making machines, a heavy pasture roller, a large number of rick cloths, two stack scaffolds, plus ladders, hay racks and forks. Another notice, just after the harvest in August 1847, advertised the sale at Kingsbury Green of  "400 loads of hay under a distress warrant for rent. 8 stacks of prime meadow hay. Sale of as much as necessary to realise the amount required."

A good overview of Kingsbury parish in 1865 is provided in a booklet published by the Ordnance Survey to accompany their 1/2500 scale map. Each plot of land on the map is numbered and described, and out of two hundred listed fields only two were in arable use, the rest being pasture totalling 1641.7 acres, virtually 90% of the area of the parish (1829.1 acres). Ten plots, generally between 0.5 and one acre each, are specifically described as "stackyard and sheds", where hay would be stored, including those at Bush and Little Bush Farms, Fryent (the modern version of Freren) Farm and Blackbird Farm (at the corner of Old Church Lane and Kingsbury Lane - now called Blackbird Hill). Honey Slough field, referred to above, was still pasture, but its area had increased to 10.8 acres, showing that most of the woodland hedge around it had been cut back since 1730.

Kingsbury at this time has been described as a rural backwater, but it was also beginning to be recognized as a place for recreation. Writing in "Our Lanes and Meadowpaths", an 1880's book which encouraged workers from the Metropolis to take Saturday afternoon walks in nearby countryside after their 51/2 days of labour, H J Foley included several routes through the parish. In one he tells his readers to:

"make for Piper's Barn just beyond the Green Man. Beside this building a long meadowpath begins. From here to Harrow, a little under four miles, no guidebook is required to answer our inquiries; for there is little else but picturesque scenes of natural beauty to suggest any. Our path simply threads its way through one meadow after another, round the base of a big green hill."

This path can still be followed today, and from Slough Lane until the bridge over the Jubilee Line leading to Shakespeare Drive the view across the meadows from the path is much as it was in Foley's day, apart from Fryent Way running across it.

By the end of the nineteenth century the hay trade was declining, in part due to the import of cheaper foreign hay. New uses were found for some of the pastures, including horse breeding and dealing, with stud farms at Roe Green and at Kingsbury House (opposite Kingsbury Green, where Express Dairies now stands). A few fields were sold for building country villas and houses for the well off, and by the turn of the century there was a Kingsbury Polo Club on the Kingsbury High School site in Bacon Lane, with polo grounds on what is now Roe Green Park in front of the school. But hay growing was still the main agricultural activity, and by way of illustration the 1901 census lists the occupations of the two adult male workers living at Little Bush Farm as "carter" and "hay loader" respectively.

The first half of the twentieth century saw the motor vehicle replace the horse as the main method of transport, and with the expansion of London's suburbs many former fields became housing estates. Luckily Middlesex County Council understood the need to preserve some green areas, and acquired the ancient fields east of the newly-built Fryent Way in 1938 as a Regional Open Space, to save them from the developers. Since then there have been other proposals for using this land, apart from renewed calls to build houses. At various times these could have meant the area becoming a municipal zoo, a golf course or an athletes' village (if a proposed bid for London to host the 1988 Olympics at Wembley had been successful).

The land continued to be farmed until the early 1970's, mainly as pasture but with some of the fields ploughed for food production during the Second World War and in the late 1960?s, when the tenant farmer tried to cut down a number of the hedges. In 1973 Brent Council decided to retain the fields as meadows, open to the public as part of what has become Fryent Country Park. Under an environmentally friendly management plan, the old hedgerows have been restored and the hay meadows have been returned to their former glory. With one summer cutting to encourage a wide variety of native grass species and wild flowers, and a large butterfly population that thrives in these conditions, the hay meadows of Kingsbury are not only a reminder of the historic landscape of this part of England but also a nature reserve of regional importance. Just as important, they are a beautiful local area that everyone is welcome to enjoy throughout the year.

Philip Grant

[This article was originally prepared for Brent Archive in June/July 2004. You can find lots of interesting information and pictures on local history on-line at Brent Archives. A version of this article was also published in the "Observer History" series in the Wembley Observer newspaper on 5 August 2004, in conjunction with a report and photograph of the 2004 hay harvest on Fryent Country Park.]