Plats, Quillets & Cliff Gardens Are a Westcountry Gardening Technique That Can Teach Us Much About Gardening And Growing Crops. At Branscombe & Weston Plats There Are Examples That Go Back To the 1800s Or Before And Were Farmed Until the 1960s.

Weston Mouth, Where Many Market Gardening Plats Hung On to the Cliff Side. Crops grown included Branscombe Potatoes / Teddies
Weston Mouth, Where Many Market Gardening Plats Hung On to the Cliff Side

Plats are a form of market gardening or cliff farming that goes back to at least the 1800s. The cliff plats were small areas of land, often cliff ledges, on which local people grew crops. Commonly these crops were potatoes, broad beans, cabbage and even wheat. In Devon the village of Branscombe was known for its early Branscombe potatoes which rivalled those from Cornwall and even the Channel Islands. Farmed by local people, as part of what today we’d call the Gig Economy, other income was derived mainly from fishing and farm labouring, though other income streams were also exploited. In a sense these were the allotments of their day, but they went much further as they not only generated food but also an income to cash strapped locals.

Plat farming required tenacity and an entrepreneurial mindset, not perhaps words you’d expect about people living on the edge of both cliffs and financial jeopardy, but true nevertheless less.

The Plat Farming Mindset

A Devon Cliff Farming Plat, Recovered From The Scrub. At Weston Plats Crops Grown Included Branscombe Potatoes / Teddies
A Devon Cliff Farming Plat, Recovered From The Scrub at Weston Plats

The whole idea of plats and the “plat mindset”are something I intimately understand because it is one I lived as a market gardener in the 70-80s. In this article I reflect upon Plat Gardening from that perspective.

Plat farmers were men (and occasionally women) that understood plants, growing and the market economy of the day. They knew that growing potatoes wasn’t enough, they needed early potatoes that commanded a premium price, because they were early and also because the flavour and quality was unique.

In my market gardening days I focused on growing out of season crops and unusual crops, such as when I pioneered spring and autumn grown iceberg lettuce under glass, and when I grew ethnic crops such as fenugreek and coriander.

Plat farmers didn’t depend soley on growing edible crops. Some also grew flowers. They often grew them after the potatoes had been harvested and hence double cropped the ground with cash crops as part of a crop rotation. There was another reason though and again it’s to do with their mindset. They understood that it was far easier to harvest flowers everyday, and carry home an armful for market, than it was to dig potatoes and have to move a hundred weight at a time on the back of a donkey. More on donkeys later.

The flowers weighed little but commanded good prices. The plat farmers undoubtedly understood how this was infinitely better than harvesting heavy veg crops, once their own stomachs were full. Because of course the plats were first and foremost a form of subsistence farming that was necessary for survival.

Forget any notions of idyllic gardening on the cliff tops. This was undoubtedly a tough life and plat gardens never made a plat tenant rich. They scraped a living in tough times, and went hungry when times became even tougher. Records show that from time to time they also laboured for others. At all times they would’ve been looking at which combination of “gigs” was going to feed their families.

Note in the image above, recently taken at Weston Plats, how the cliff face comprised buttresses of expos rock in the top left of the picture. Exposed rock made cultivation impossible in parts of the area, whilst other areas had a sufficient depth of fertile soil to grow crops. Indeed, that fertility persists as can be seen by the range ands type of plants now growing on the reclaimed plats. Many of the “weeds” now present are indicators of fertile, nutrient rich soils. It will be interesting to see if any market gardening escapes still exist in the area, though the intervening period of natural succession post the 1960’s makes this less likely.

The Origins Of Plat Farming

At Weston Plats there is a signboard erected by the National Trust. You can see it on their website where they write,

“Cliff farming was originally developed to keep the local fisherman occupied”.

I think that is nostalgic rubbish. The fishermen didn’t need to be kept occupied. They weren’t bored and looking for a hobby. They had families that needed feeding and the turbulent sea, on a coast with no natural harbour, couldn’t feed them every day. They needed to scratch a living on the cliffs and on the beaches, where they harvested seaweed for fertiliser, just to survive. And as a further supplement some of the 19th century plat farmers risked prison and worse by doing a little smuggling. And those that didn’t would pay heed to Kipling and “Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by“.

Record of plats in the Branscombe and Weston area of Devon go back into the 19th century.  They consist of a mix of tithe maps, census returns; birth, marriage and death records; newspaper records and more. But I suggest there might well have been some form of crop growing going back even further. It might have been casual and started with picking blackberries or sloe on areas where they managed the plants. Perhaps they improved the apple trees found growing wild with a grafted bud or two. Maybe they picked the flowers and berries of the elders or even planted a few. Perhaps they put a rhubarb crown in a sheltered spot and harvested it in spring. We can’t be sure. It might then have grown with more apple, plum or pear trees being planted or a few cabbage or carrots planted on a landslip. This this in fact an early form of food forestry, before they started a more formal type of cropping? We dont know, but I suspect so.

But I’m sure that these areas were populated by a tenacious entrepreneurial folk that knew how to gain succour from the land, however meagre it may have been.

Am I right in saying the practice would have had small beginnings before records began. I can’t prove it but surely the practice didn’t just start one Monday morning! In rural landscapes these things start slowly and gradually evolve into a more formal and substantial way of life.

At its peak the record show that 50 or so people worked the plats around Branscombe. Numbers are hard to assess as the census records and parish records don’t always concur. Maybe someone was recorded as a fisherman or labourer rather than a plat gardener simply because the census “didn’t have a tick box for plat farming”.

Interestingly a few years ago I met a man on Madeira who described himself to me as an organic fruit farmer. He showed me around his fruit trees high one the steep slopes of the local mountains. He told me about how he sold fruit in the local market and I had no doubt about his fruit farming credentials. Later I realised that fruit farming was his second income stream. His full time job was as a bombeiro .. he was a fireman. But in his world he was a fruit grower. It’s what he identified as!

So maybe plat farmers gave different occupations depending who was asking.

What Is A Plat?

I’ve said plats are cliff side market gardens.

True, they are. But there’s more to it than that.

The smallest plat or plat of land I’ve seen mentioned measured 6 feet by 6 feet. Just a few square yards/metres. The maps of the day also show bigger plats, often isolated on the cliffs, with difficult access. Here for example is a link to the 1873-88 OS 25 inch map that shows a 1.6 acre plat. The linked map has the advantages of showing the OS map of that date against a recent aerial image. The plats are now largely overgrown. They have reverted to nature and are lost to us. However, what is clear, is how relatively inaccessible they were. It’s easy to see that access was limited to men and their donkeys. And that growing crops here, and transporting those crops back to home or the market place was an arduous business.

There are records of how plat gardeners grew anemones for the local florists. They carried them back, armful by armful, left them in water overnight and then took them to the florist on the bus the next day. Today of course getting the bus would be harder as many of the places plat farmers lived are no longer on a bus route. And Branscombe has only a limited service. Progress?

Though many plats were steep, the ideal plat would have been close to the villages and not too steep. Indeed they would haver been more like cliff side terraces than vertical gardens!

Plats were not normal farmland. They were hard won from the scrub, often on steep cliff sides. They are mainly the result of geological movement, perhaps where landslip moved a clifftop field down the cliff. Such landslips are common on the geologically unstable coastline. The most famous being the nearby Great Bindon Landslip of 1839 which saw 50 acres of cliff top farmland destroyed overnight. See the video of this from the Sidmouth Science Festival below.

There is of course the question of how the land was then brought back into a state capable of being farmed. Where a grass field slips down a cliff and lands horizontally it would appear easy to cultivate provided access was available. But nature is rarely that kind. In many cases the land probably had to be won back from nature, with trees and or scrub being cleared before it could be farmed. I intend to consider this question in a future post. To date I’ve seen no records on the winning of plats, but I do have experience of winning land back from nature and will write about how I’d have gone about it in those days.

Why Farm On Steep Cliff Sides?

In addition to the land initially being vacant and freely available for use (later use was as tenants but more of that later), the cliff sides had the benefit of a unique micro-climate. Being close to the sea the plats were largely frost free. Plus, being angled towards the south, they caught the sun so much more efficiently than level land. In addition their location sheltered them from the cold north winds.

This meant the soil warmed earlier here than at the top of the cliff. The consequence being earlier crops. Water, where needed, was also plentiful and was found on many slopes as it emerged from the rock strata as springs. There is however some indications that watering was not a common practice as growers felt that once started with water some crops would continue to need water.

Though the soil was frequently dug, little artificial fertilisers were used and this would have benefited the soil mycorrhiza and benefited the crops. Indeed, in the early days of plat farming artificial fertilisers weren’t manufactured and therefore weren’t available.  In those days soil fertility was due to the seaweed that was transported up the cliffs from the beaches below. It wasn’t No-Dig but did feature many of the same principles.

The kinder climate engendered by topography, coastal proximity and shelter would also have produced other benefits. I’m thinking in particular of the lack of some diseases. For example the warmth and humidity combination would have held blight at bay. Of course, the potato crop would have been largely harvested before blight was likely to be a problem. But we mustn’t forget that blight also affects tomatoes and they were certainly grown on the plats in the 20th century. And an outdoor crop of tomatoes would certainly be fruiting at a time when blight would be an issue with crops grown inland.

What Was Grown On Devonshire Plats?

I intend to cover this in more detail in a later post. However, suffice for now to say that the cropping had two main functions. To feed the family or to sell for money. There are also records indicating that barter took place between plat market gardeners.

The Napoleonic War brought great hardship to the poor. Cereal prices escalated and bread doubled and then trebled in price. The poor were short of food and starving. In this situation even the smallest patch of land could produce enough grain for a loaf and would be exploited as far as possible. This was subsistence farming at its worse.

When times were better than corn was probably dropped in favour of a wider range of vegetables. Early potatoes weren’t primarily for the plat farmers kitchen but intended for the hotels of Sidmouth and beyond and were fuelled by the growing interest in seaside holidays.

Georgian Sidmouth became popular as a holiday destination. And this only increased with the coming of the railway and the opening of the station on 6 July 1874. People with money came to Sidmouth and could afford the Branscombe potatoes served in the hotel restaurants. Undoubtedly these uniquely flavoured early potatoes soon become well known and a market for them was created.

Branscombe potatoes (Branscombe Teddies) would have became a “brand” in Victorian society and known far and wide. With this it’s easy to think they were a distinct cultivar of potatoes. But records show that they were, in many cases, actually produced from Scottish seed potatoes. Some of the heritage potatoes grown today are the same varieties as grown on Branscombe plats! The key then was the fact that these were early potatoes, able to command a premium price. I see reports that  “Early Branscombe Potatoes” were sold as far away as London.

A 1943 record shows the range of crops grown during World War II. Again some varieties are familiar today. For example Bedfordshire Champion onions from seed and All Year Around lettuce. Both are varieties I’ve been growing for over 50 years. Tomatoes were also sometimes grown and, though I’ve yet to see a record of the varieties grown, I would expect heritage varieties such as moneymaker to be prominent with 20th century plat gardeners, as it was a mainstream variety that was available from 1913. Another heirloom variety they might have been grown is Mikado, which was first grown in the UK in 1886. Time and further research might teach us more about what was preferred.

1943 Time Lapse Photography

I’ve managed to source a copy of a 1943 film from the British Council on onion growing. It’s timely as it as I’ve also sourced the sowing record of a plat farmer from the same year. More of his sowings in another post.

More Information About Plat & Quillet Gardening

It is my intention to write more articles on plat farming as I believe it can teach us much about gardening today.

I intend to write more on the plat crops and varieties grown, the cultivation techniques used, how the plat land was cleared, why donkeys and not horses were used on the Weston and Branscombe plats, other animals kept on the plats plus I’d like to compare and contrast the plats here in East Devon with those in Cornwall and perhaps further afield.

The Etymology of Plats and Quillets

The noun, plat, is derived from the Middle English word for the flat part of a sword, a flat piece of ground or a plot of ground. It is influenced by the Anglo-Norman, Middle and Old French word plat which meant plate or flat.

It’s interesting how certain words and terms such as this continue, especially in rural locations, long after such words are discontinued in mainstream language.

Quillet is a similar word but is used in Cornwall to describe a small tract of land. Apparently it comes from the French word, cueillette which means (a) collection and was used in medieval French legal terminology. It then passed into English and Welsh law to describe small parcels of land separate from the main holding.

Quillet is also thought by some to be derived from the Latin, Quid Libet, meaning to “do as you will” or “anything”.

Both the above  chime with me as plats and quillets are both collections or parcels of land separate from a dwelling or farm. And they are places where the tenant or user can grow anything they like!

Interestingly the painting by Camille Pissaro entitled “La cueillette of pois” is about harvesting peas and I wonder about the connection between a cueillette of land and harvesting  /collection of a crop!

There will be more on Weston Plats, Cliff Farming, Branscombe Potatoes/Teddies, Donkeys, Crubs and Seaweed in Future Posts.

I’m still looking for source material on plats and cliff gardening/farming. If you have any source material please let me know. And if you have any observations about any of the topics covered please comment below.

I am indebted to the help given to me by the authors of “Cliff and Beach at Branscombe. Barbara Farquharson & Sue Dymond have carried out extensive research and written several fascinating accounts of the various Plats along this part of the coast. Their accurate is noted for its accuracy whilst my own is often supposition based on my experiences as a market gardener and farmer.

Cliff and Beach at Branscombe (Barbara Farquharson & Sue Dymond, Branscombe Project, 2014, 192pp + plus colour plates, ISBN 978-0-9555644-5-1). £7.50, available at Branscombe Project events; The Sea Shanty & the Old Bakery at Branscombe; Paragon bookshop, Sidmouth; or direct from the Branscombe Project (£2.50 p&p).

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