THE MYSTERY OF THE MINNISES
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Reproduced, with permission, from an Article in "Kent on Sunday"
August 2004, by Dan Tuson.
The Kent Downs is a rich hunting ground for the budding place name researcher (etymologist), with its unique landscape and successive waves of settlement all adding to a melting pot of intriguing, curious and occasionally baffling sounding place names.
Most of the place names associated with our villages and towns stem from Saxon origins. Despite their well earned reputation for marauding and generally causing mayhem, the Saxons managed to stamp their mark on the Kent landscape in a way that the Romans, Jutes or Normans could never do. So it comes as no surprise then that many of our downland place names relate to saxon words for the uses that a particular location would have had.
In an age when much of the Downs would have been covered in woodland, this relatively remote part of Kent would have been ideal ground for woodland clearing grazing pastures. Words like 'stead', 'den', 'tye' 'hurst' , 'fold' and 'minnis' all bear witness to this former land use. Frinsted, Milstead, Densole, Elmsted, Bredhurst, Olantigh, Stansted to name a few. The word 'minnis' is perhaps more intriguing, particularly as most of the 'minnises' in Kent occur in a small corner of the east Kent Downs. No fewer than five different 'minnises' could be encountered on road signs on a day out exploring the network of country lanes in east Kent: Stelling Minnis, Rhodes Minnis, Ewell Minnis, Swingfield Minnis and River Minnis.
The word 'minnis' is said to derive from the saxon word '(ge)maennes', believed to mean 'common land used as pasture.' It has been suggested that these areas, which were characteristically on the higher reaches of the Downs, formed large tracts of common unenclosed 'waste' grassland utilised by a number of distant settlements. Swingfield Minnis for example may well have formed an area of common pasture for the surrounding settlements of Alkham, Lydden, Wooton and Hawkinge. Kent is almost unique in having a great many of its hamlets and settlements situated on or near parish boundaries. This is particularly noticeable in the Kent Downs, perhaps indicating that these settlements grew up on areas of common pasture being exploited by neighbouring villages.
Today, most traces of the former use of these 'minnises' have disappeared and our only clues lie in the place name itself. Given that all the 'minnises' were located on the higher 'plateau' of the Downs we can gain a fair idea of how these broad expanses of unenclosed grassland would have appeared. The sands, clays and sometimes gravelly soils in these areas would have supported rough grassland probably dotted with clumps of gorse, fern and small pockets of woodland. Much of the woodland would have been coppiced and the grassland grazed extensively, perhaps with pigs.
As the 'ownership' of these commons gradually became absorbed into the manorial estates, the rights of the 'commoners' became more and more controlled. On Swingfield Minnis in the 1630s, all commoners' livestock were to be branded, and the owners of hogs and geese found on the Minnis were to be fined one farthing each. For the poorer classes, commons would have been of great value as their sole means of maintaining livestock, and it was these people that particularly suffered when lords of the manor excluded commoners and 'enclosed' the land for their own use. The Reverend Barham , better known as Thomas Ingoldsby, author of the 'Ingoldsby Legends' wrote in a letter of 1842 "We have been rather busy of late carrying into execution the enclosure of Swingfield Minnis under the auspices of my Lord Radnor".
For the landscape detective, tantalising evidence can occasionally be found in surviving remnant clumps of gorse in hedgerows and field edges in the 'minnis' areas. However, the Kent Downs is fortunate in boasting one particular Minnis that has largely escaped the fate of enclosure. Stelling Minnis sits on the plateau of the Downs south of Canterbury and lies close to the Roman 'Stone Street' between the Petham and Lynsore valleys. In line with the view that many of our downland hamlets have grown up on former 'shared' common land, Stelling Minnis is a classic example of how the modern day village has grown up independently from the earlier settlement of Stelling situated a mile or so away.
The sandier soils of the upland minnises make for an interesting range of plant life contrast to the 'lime loving' chalk grassland flora that thrives on the valleys and scarps of the Downs. Pockets of heathland, a comparitively scarce habitat in Kent, and a much diminished habitat throughout the country, support plants such as heather and western gorse (one of only two sites within the county). The slender 'sheeps sorrel' with it's distinctive 'halberd' shaped leaves can be found within the grassland along with the delicate harebell, one of the few flowers that is able to tolerate both alkaline and acidic soils. In summer months look out for butterflies such as the Small Heath and Meadow Brown.
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10 August 2004 - Updated 12 November 2009
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