The Vile is a medieval strip field system below Rhossili village. The name doesn’t relate to anything unpleasant! Instead, it comes from how the word ‘field’ is pronounced in the old Gower dialect. The Vile is one of only a few remaining historical strip fields in Britain and the land is still farmed using the old medieval methods.
The Vile covers an area of approximately 390 hectares (over 500 football pitches). Each strip is about 180-230 metres long and 15-70 metres wide. The strips are divided into plots by earthbanks and dry stone walls called ‘landshares/ lanchers’. Each plot of strips is called a ‘bundle’ and has a name such as Bramble Bush, Sandyland and Priest Hay. The landshares look like raised walkways and can be used to walk through the Vile to avoid standing on the crops. The walls are built in the traditional Gower style with overhanging tops.
Strip field farming
Strip field farming, also known as an open field system, was introduced during the medieval period as a way for villagers to share the land. The field would have been owned by a local landowner and the villagers would rent strips in which to grow their own crops. The strips were often shared around so that the villagers would each have a fair share of the better and poorer-quality soils. This meant that everybody had an equal opportunity to grow the food needed to support their families.
Animals sometimes grazed on the Vile when the strips weren’t being used to grow crops. The animals would eat the weeds whilst fertilising the soil with their droppings.
Records of the Vile
There are no early records of the Vile or when it was first established, but it was most likely introduced to Gower by the Normans during the 11th century. The first record of the Vile dates from 1731, when it was managed by agreement of the strip holders (like a modern-day cooperative) and farmed for both crop growing and animal grazing. Before this time the land was owned by the local lord who would have rented out the fields to the villagers.
It wasn’t just the villagers of Rhossili who farmed on the Vile. In 1780, records show that the land was worked by 13 farmers – six from Rhossili and seven from Middleton. Parcels of land ranged from just one acre to 49 acres and were often retained by different families through the generations and managed communally. The ownership by families may explain how some parcels of land are so large. For instance, parcels of land were often combined when people from different families got married. The way land was handed down and kept by the same families could be the reason for the field pattern being so well preserved, as traditional farming methods continued to be used by each new generation.
The Vile was not the only strip field system in the area and other viles existed. One was located between Llangennith and Burry Green. Strip fields survive in a number of locations on the Gower, including to the north of Llanmadoc village; in Llanrhidian Higher between Llanyrnewydd Church and Cefn Bychan; and Bishopston, east of Longash Farm and south of Murton village.
How the Vile is managed today
The Vile is now owned by the National Trust and the strips are rented out to local farmers. The open field system still prevails, making this one of the last remaining places in Britain where land is still managed through strip farming.