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history : a walk through the archaeology of Castle Bytham : fish stew

added 27/07/04

Along the floor of the valley lies an extensive and exceptionally well preserved system of earthworks. The most obvious to the walker is the rectangular hollow with a raised central platform in the field to the left known as the "Fish Stew". The system continues downstream with a long kidney shaped embankment which now encloses the modern cricket field.

These earthworks represent an extremely well preserved example of an extensive fish rearing system and are protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Such earthworks are notoriously difficult to date as they have usually been remodelled over many years as practices and demands changed, although they are very likely to have a medieval origin associated with the nearby castle. The earliest possible reference to these pools is from the 1316 record of Margaret de Colvile's widow's portion and dowry, which included a Magnum Vivarium (Great Fishpond).

In their present formation the complex has been compared to the modern 'Dewbish System' for breeding carp. The fish would be spawned in the 'Fish Stew' where the raised central area would create an area of warm water to facilitate this. The fry would then be moved through a series of sluices into a shallow nursery pond where they would feed on algae, the growth of which would be encouraged by the dumping of manure and compost into the pond. Finally the growing fish would be transferred to the main lake (where the cricket pitch is) before harvesting. The entire process would take place on an annual cycle with the winter set aside for maintenance of the ponds, which would need to be cleaned and lined with clay to ensure a watertight seal.

Fish farming was an important source of revenue for the landed classes in early medieval England and fishpond complexes can be found around many medieval manors, abbeys and castles. Fish can be easily salted and stored, making them an excellent food source and well worth the effort involved in farming them. Land based livestock would normally be slaughtered before winter as feed stocks dwindled, so by the end of the winter fish would become an increasingly important source of protein.

The high point of medieval fish farming is thought to have been the 12th century. An earlier date for the fish farm than 1316 may be implied by the record used by John Wild in 1871 when he stated that after subduing the 1221 rebellion King Henry, "learnt that the Bytham rebels had a quantity of salt fish stored in St Leonards Priory ... [and] ordered the bailiffs of Stamford to seize, and place in safe custody, till he gave them further orders about it"

The system at Castle Bytham is likely to have produced a quantity of fish in excess of the Castle's own needs and so any surplus may well have been stored close to a major market such as Stamford where it could easily be traded.

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Heritage Lincolnshire is an independent charitable trust working to promote and enhance Lincolnshire's rich heritage for the benefit of local people and visitors.

The Trust is supported by County and District Councils, national heritage bodies and through commercial activities and sponsorship.

Acknowledgment ...

The text shown on this page has been reproduced from a booklet written by Dan Ratcliffe, from the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire, to accompany a walk around the village of Castle Bytham which he led as part of the Midsummer Fair in June 2004.

We are grateful for their permission to reproduce the document on this website.