Tiny Village with High Hills, Big Church and 'Killer' Sheep; LOCAL HISTORY CHRIS UPTON Delves into the Medieval Past of a Warwickshire Village, Where Sheep Helped to Prove the Downfall of Inhabitants
Byline: CHRIS UPTON
One of the cult films of the year in 2007 was a New Zealand movie about sheep who kill people. It's an understandably recurring nightmare in a country where sheep outnumber humans by about ten to one.
Luckily for those who live in sheep-infested regions - Wales, the Cotswolds and the Wolds - sheep are simply not organised enough to seize the reins of power.
Their only concern in life is how much grass they can consume before the sun goes down.
Yet this nightmarish vision was not so far from the truth in medieval England. The sheep did not so much kill the rural peasants as turf them off their land and eat them out of hearth and home.
The Black Death which began its killing spree in 1348 did not only carry off a third of the population, it also changed the whole economic structure of the countryside.
Landlords reacted to a sudden shortage of labour and the decreased demand for food by ploughing up arable land and replacing it with grazing for sheep.
Sheep and cattle needed less labour to keep, and produced meat as well as wool and hides.
The simplest way of achieving this was by enclosing the land and this was easier to manage with less tenant farmers on it.
Enclosure was commonest in the intensive farmed arable land of the south Midlands. In the West Midlands the proportion of pasture land increased from an estimated 10 per cent in the 1340s to 33 per cent in the 1490s.
As a result, by 1363 English wool exports to the Continent had reached 31,000 sacks a year, and each sack contained at least 250 fleeces.
The effects of this depopulation can be seen across the region, but let's concentrate on a tranquil bit of Warwickshire called Burton Dassett.
If you've never taken your children and car into the country park which is the Dassett Hills, they will come as a big surprise.
Warwickshire was surely not meant to be this hilly. They look like a gentler version of the Long Mynd or a particularly sadistic golf-course.
A few of those who stride about the hills will follow the sign and potter down to the church, locally known as "the cathedral in the hills", and inside they will find one of the least-spoilt medieval churches in the county.
There are crumbling wall paintings on what's left of the plaster, medieval tiles covering most of the floor and a host of curious creatures carved on the capitals of the stone columns.
The church is sort of wedged into the hillside, with steps up from the west door and even more steps up into the chancel. A split-level church, in fact.
But what's most striking about All Saints is the sheer size of it. "cathedral" might be something of an exaggeration, but it's a considerable building, given that it's in the middle of nowhere.
Outside there is only the wind and the distant hum of the M40 rolling past, whilst across the field a handful of llamas graze contentedly.
Everything about Burton Dassett is odd.
As usual with such mysteries, history provides most of the solutions.
In the early Middle Ages the population of the parish stood at around 350 souls, including one ambitious landlord.
The latter - John de Sudeley - applied for a market charter for the township (as well as an annual fair) and in expectation of the crowds beautified and expanded All Saints.
Later lords of the manor continued to make improvements to the church and the little town appeared to prosper.
So much so that by the 1330s Burton Dassett was paying in taxes to the king's treasury around a quarter of what the mighty city of Coventry - of the largest in England - was paying. …