Circular Issued to Superintendents – Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire – from the Chief Constables Office, Cambridge 2nd January 1865
“Numerous complaints having been made as to the drunken disorderly, and in some cases, intimidating conduct of the Mummers on the last year’s Plough Monday, the attention of the respective Superintendents and Inspectors is directed to the suppression of the same … [the mummers] are liable to be treated as vagrants, rogues and vagabonds”
The Origins: Pagan and Christian The origins of Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany, on January 6th) are not entirely known. The tradition is found almost everywhere north and nowhere south of the border which divided Danish England from Saxon England. Plough Monday could have originated as a pagan tradition to ensure good harvest. It has also been suggested that the origins could be a tax gathering custom as the plough was taken house-to-house to ensure that the tariff was paid by all who used the communal plough.
This communal plough would often be kept within the parish church. During the medieval period “plow lights” are recorded, these were candles burning in parish churches to seek divine blessings on farmers, fields and their equipment (most obviously the communal plough). By the 15th century ploughs were being led around communities in a procession ending in a church service (similar perhaps to Rogation Sunday where Parish boundaries are walked and blessed). Needless to say the Reformation and Puritan leanings of the 17th century did away with these “superstitious and Papist customs”, and yet, the custom did not fall away…
Whether the traditional giving of pennies, parish procession and church service (with or without plough) continued with the secular and ecclesiastical authorities turning a blind eye is unknown. There is an account of manslaughter in 1684 where the defendants argued their ancient right to charge a 1d toll on Plough Monday! Almsgivings by local landowners occurred sporadically on Plough Mondays throughout the long eighteenth century, at Kimbolton, Stonely and over the border in Barnack. These are the only hints that the custom was not entirely extinct.
The Raucous 19th Century The first reference to Plough Monday in the local press was in Godmanchester in 1840, where an assemblage of six “ploughboys” (with an average age of 78.5 years!) met at the Wheatsheaf. No further details are given and so whether the celebration of Plough Monday or the great age of these individuals was the newsworthy item is unknowable.
Plough Monday celebrations in the 19th century seem to have reached a heyday; generally speaking the Huntingdonshire celebrants were ‘Plough Witches’, although on the Northamptonshire border ‘Plough Bullocking’ also occurred. Both required those taking part to be in disguise, usually in female attire with soot blackened faces, it was also normal to fashion grotesque humps and breasts with straw stuffed under clothing.
The Plough Bullocks would fasten themselves into a Plough team and drag the plough through the town soliciting “donations” from passersby and businesses, most of which would end up being reinvested into the local ale houses before days end, if the local press can be believed!
The Plough Witches would carry brooms and likewise drag their plough through towns, knocking on the doors of houses and businesses, and asking for donations of money. In the event that these donations were not forthcoming the front gardens or paths would be ploughed up before the witches proceeded to their next victim – a form of agricultural trick or treating!
By the 1850’s the celebrations in Godmanchester were being repressed, with the local press discouraging people from giving donations or taking part; in 1858, constables arrested some of the Plough Witches. During the 1860’s the actual participants seem to have no longer been farm labourers for whom “the thing don’t pay” and instead were itinerant workers, and increasingly truant school children. The only exceptions to this were years which are reported as being hard winters; the coldest of these were 1888, 1892 and 1897. On these occasions the celebrations seem to have been much larger and presumably included labourers struggling to make ends meet or without work as the weather was not good enough to work the land.
To add to the spectacle of their Plough Monday processional, the Ramsey Plough Witches borrowed heavily from the traditions of Whittlesey over the border in Cambridgeshire and brought one or more “straw bears” along. This was a member of the troupe bedecked out in a bear suit made from straw, first recorded in 1880 and attending every Plough Monday until 1893. These straw bears “grotesquely dressed in straws” were accompanied by older men who would play instruments for the bears to dance to, in the way that bears would have done for entertainment in the medieval period.
Decline By the very late 19th century, the traditions of Plough Monday were in an almost terminal decline, the exception being only the harshest winters, which saw “a slight revival of these moribund practice[s]”. By the turn of the century the sight of a plough being taken through the streets on Plough Monday was unknown and even the straw bears so popular in Ramsey were no longer to be seen.
The Plough Mondays of the early 20th century were the sole remit of school boys. The celebration in Godmanchester in 1904 saw a dozen boys with neither disguise nor plough begging house to house, the final Godmanchester Plough Monday in 1914 saw; “a few farm lads going the rounds with a collecting box soliciting donations”.
Generally speaking the First World War saw the final end to this custom in most corners of the county. The final recorded Plough Mondays in St. Ives, Alconbury, Kimbolton, Yaxley and Farcet falling in the decade before WW1. Some places maintained the custom longer yet with children leading Plough Monday celebrations at Great Gidding (1928), Holme (1931), Ramsey (1934), Earith (1934) and Warboys (1937). The children still dressed garishly, blackened their faces and begged passersby and homeowners for copper pennies with cries of “Remember the poor Ploughboy” or “Just one copper, just one” shaking their tins and driving their plough.
The final nail in the coffin was the Second World War, although one enterprising group of Plough boys from Holme in 1940 used Plough Monday as an opportunity to raise 11s donated to the “Comforts to the Troops Fund”, the final hurrah for a centuries old tradition.
Revival Throughout the latter decades of the 20th century there were abortive attempts to reinstate Plough Monday within Huntingdonshire. Events were held in St. Neots, Gravely and Fenstanton with Morris Dancers, Plough processions, Plough blessings, Traditional Folk Songs and donations gathered for local good causes. Ramsey (with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund) held a series of Plough Monday celebrations from 2008 including reintroducing traditional Ramsey folk songs.
The best known Plough Monday celebrations in the region are over the old county border in Whittlesey, where the annual Straw Bear Festival is celebrating its 41st year in 2020!
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
Irvine, R. D.G., “Following the Bear: the revival of Plough Monday traditions and the performance of rural identity in the East Anglian Fenlands”. 2018, EthnoScripts: Zeitschrift f ̈ur aktuelle ethnologische Studien, 20(1) pp. 16–34
A much loved local institution the Huntingdon Drama Club are celebrating 75 years of community theatre this year. Club member Michelle Gibson shares a history of the club from inception to modern day;
In some ways, 2019 has been a unique year for Huntingdon Drama Club. It began with a series of personnel changes in the committee; with three long-standing members resigning at the same time, some re-shuffling of duties was put into place, as well as the admission of some new people. It has also been the year in which the town held its first Arts Festival, in which the club was honoured to participate, and presented an exciting challenge of devising an original work based upon local history and folklore. In addition, it has seen the re-opening of the Commemoration Hall, the long-time “performance home” of the club, until its closure in 2017 for the purposes of refurbishment.
But perhaps the biggest marker for this year is the fact that 2019 serves as Huntingdon Drama Club’s 75th anniversary. To perhaps put that into greater perspective, we were a functioning society as far back as World War II, at a time when Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were all in power. Officially founded in the spring of 1944, the first inaugural meeting took place in March of that year, at what is now the Cromwell Museum, but was then the Old Grammar school. The minute book declares that “Mr. Jarrett opened the meeting by saying that its object was to start a Drama Club in Huntingdon for play-readings and theatrical productions.” Membership fee was 2/6d (two shillings and sixpence) per quarter and by the end of that year, nineteen individuals had paid subscriptions.
In February 1945, by which time the club had been going for eleven months, the chairman’s summation of HDC’s first year was recorded in his opening remarks. It is quite fascinating to get an insight into the experiences and hopes of our very first members and they serve as a reminder that, whatever the cultural differences of the 1940s, the successes and struggles involved in amateur dramatics are very much the same. “The club,” it is noted, “was formed not only for pleasure but for knowledge and cultural interest. The club was ambitious to put over some really good plays and had done its best in a not uncommendable way. The greatest difficulty in a production had been to find a suitable place. The importance of a good stage and hall in Huntingdon could not be stressed enough.”
It was to be another fifteen years before we had the luxury of a good stage and hall – this being upon our move to the Commemoration Hall as a venue in 1960 – but in the intervening years, Huntingdon Drama Club established itself as an active community group, putting on two productions per year. Titles throughout the 1950s include A Lady Mislaid, See How They Run, The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Seagulls Over Sorrento, reflecting a number of genres from comedy to drama to mystery. Since joining in 2015, I have seen first-hand the club’s efforts to appeal to a broad array of tastes and this is shown in the diversity of plays that are chosen. From viewing the titles of past productions, it’s clear this is an ideal which was promoted at the very outset.
Throughout the club’s history there have been a number of repeat productions, with The Crucible first being performed in 1971 and, more recently, in 2017. Others that have popped up on more than one occasion include The Happiest Days of Your Life, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Habeas Corpus. Overall, it’s quite eye-opening to see the breadth of separate plays the club has produced over the years and quite inspirational to consider the artistic and creative vision of those who came before us.
1960 saw the beginning of Huntingdon Drama Club’s long relationship with the Commemoration Hall. Providing a stage, dressing rooms and kitchen facilities, the Hall was in many ways our ideal venue. In recent years, a number of the club’s members and supporters have also been closely involved with the running of the Hall, so there has been a considerable amount of interplay and cooperation between the two organisations. The last event held in the hall before its temporary closure was our 2017 production of Alfie, which gave the experience a bittersweet feeling, as we were saying goodbye to our “home” of nearly sixty years. The town was fortunate to see the hall re-open earlier this year and we are delighted to be performing once again in the space to which many of us have grown quite attached.
One of the most notable productions in the club’s history was its first foray into science fiction. In the year of our fiftieth anniversary (1994), Huntingdon Drama Club performed The Empress of Othernow, a Doctor Who play written especially for the club by Peter Vialls, who at the time was serving on the committee. The play, which involved a time paradox set around Ancient Rome, was almost two years in the planning, with the script itself first needing to be finalised, as well as the process of receiving permission from the BBC to use their characters and finding appropriate costumes. Finally, as recalled by Peter Vialls, “the club’s publicity team went into overdrive. The name Doctor Who created interest the Club did not usually get for its productions; we even got Anglia Television to bring a camera and reporter from Norwich to report on the show, as well as getting coverage in all the local press. There was a general ‘buzz’ around the area about the play, and all four performances played to substantial audiences.” The promotion paid off, with The Empress of Othernow being, to that date, the most financially successful production that the club had presented.
As is the case with many clubs and societies, we have seen our trajectory of success dip and climb at various points. Long-time chairman Michael Black recalled that in 2004 “, there was a serious risk that the club would fold, because of a lack of people willing to form a committee. A crisis meeting was publicised in the local newspapers, and was attended by around 35 people, many of them past club or audience members who didn’t want the club to fail. Luckily a committee was formed, and the club went on to greater success, which has continued to the present.”
The past five years have been a successful, creative and challenging time for Huntingdon Drama Club. We have seen our audience numbers rise and several productions, including The Crucible and A Bunch of Amateurs have won NODA awards. We have not been afraid to present less well-known works of drama in addition to conventional fare and the absence of the Commemoration Hall as a venue has led us to seek ways in which we might more efficiently and creatively use our performance space. The re-opening of the Hall means that we are once more back in the venue that has for so long been a part of our history and we hope to continue our legacy of producing high quality, entertaining and thought-provoking pieces of theatre to our community.
Huntingdon-born and bred, Michelle is involved in a couple of local community groups, one such being Huntingdon Drama Club. A staunch admirer of the arts, she has been an avid reader since childhood and includes writing and acting amongst her other interests.
Huntingdon Drama Clubs Autumn Production “Cathy” an updated version of the classic film Cathy Come Home is running Tuesday 26th November until Friday 29th November, with tickets available on the door or in advance from their website: http://www.huntingdondramaclub.org.uk/wordpress/
With evenings drawing in and Halloween around the corner, thoughts turn to ghost stories and folk tales. This month’s blogpost is a collaboration with Huntingdon Drama Club. The poems below were used for their original devised production performed during the Bridge Festival earlier this year, based on local history and folklore.
The poetry will introduce you to monstrous dogs, nefarious spirits, a murderer most foul and their innocent victim. We will also delve a little into the stories and facts behind the tales.
With no further ado, grab your torch, pluck up your spirits and venture out into the night…
The Monstrous Myth of the Beastly Black Shuck
“He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound.” – W. A. Dutt, “Highways & Byways in East Anglia”, 1901
Softly along the lamp-lit street
Trod a single pair of feet
The misty air was fresh and sweet
As a man breathed in the night.
The sky was shrouded with a starry gown,
As the sleepy townsfolk bedded down
Across the bridge and into the town
Walked a man in the night.
Off the road and onto track
On he walked not looking back
Deeper now into the black
Blinded by the night
Onto the common by the hill
Upon which stood the silent mill
And through the fog he felt the chill
Stumbling in the night
As the darkness took its hold
Suddenly he did behold
Burning eyes of red and gold
Vision of the night
Before the man could scream or stir
The Black Shuck shook its ink dark fur
Demonic dog; unholy cur,
Terror in the night
The beast opened its gaping maw
And from its throat came a deep roar
Which sounded across fen and moor
Echoing in the night
Back it drew across the fen Immortal hound and fiend to men Until the day it returns again Bringing death by night
The story of a monstrous black dog, the very sight of which causes death or ill luck, is common across East Anglia, with hundreds of sightings across Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. The shuck itself varies in size from a cat to a cart horse but generally speaking it is the size (and shape) of a large dog, black and shaggy with glowing red eyes (although some sources claim it only has one eye). The first recorded sighting is from 1127 in the Peterborough Cathedral chronicle;
“the hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough”
Interestingly, there are accounts of the Black Shuck as both a dangerous harbinger of death and a saviour, leading (or chasing!) lost travellers from the fens back onto paths, attacking would-be criminals and on one purported occasion in the 1930’s scaring a man off a road moments before a car with no lights passed along it.
The most famous sighting was not in Huntingdonshire at all but in the quiet Suffolk village of Bungay. On the 4th August 1577, during a great thunderstorm, a giant black dog burst into the church, slew a man and a boy and then collapsed the steeple, the beast than fled across the fields to Blythburgh where it passed between two grown men breaking their necks as it passed. The beast supposedly left his burnt mark on the church door and the event is remembered in local folk rhyme;
“all down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew”
It is easy to put these events down to a superstitious mind and, in the midst of a great thunder storm, apportion the blame to a lightning strike. This would explain the sundered steeples and deaths at Bungay, lighting strikes can also cause broken bones perhaps explaining the unfortunate men at Blythburgh and the burnt marks on the church door.
It is also possible there was a giant black dog. Excavations in 2014 at Leiston Abbey in Suffolk revealed the skeletal remains of a dog, estimated at being 7 foot nose to tail and weighing upwards of 14 stone. The remains were dated by pottery sherds to the 1500’s…
The Tragic Tale of Poor Mary Ann Weems
“Ere Crime you perpetrate survey this Stone, Learn hence the God of Justice sleeps not on his Throne, But marks the Sinner with unerring Eye” – Inscription on the Grave of Mary Ann Weems
The Dead are full of stories
For those who stop to listen
One voice above others
Begs to be heard.
Not so long ago, she lived in these parts
Trod the streets that we pass without thought
Mary Ann Sawyer, our tragic ancestor
I pluck her tale from the remains of her soul
As we turn our eyes
Towards the past.
’Twas the cruellest of Fates which led Miss Sawyer
To her courtship of Thomas Weems!
She – modest girl of “unprepossessing appearance”
He – burly brute “of strong build and rough exterior.”
What lies love weaves across our eyes!
Alas! – we all are prey to the poisons of romance – which overrides reason.
Whispers of conception swept throughout the town
Landing upon the ears of authority.
Thomas Weems – found, arrested, forced into wedlock.
Curse that rain-swept day in 1818
When Mary Sawyer became Mary Weems!
Months passed, no child forthcoming.
Curse the wicked twist of fortune
That ignited the lustful eye of Thomas Weems upon Maria Woodward.
And curse especially the reluctant husband, whose mind soon turned towards
Plots! Connivance! Deception!
How best could Thomas Weems extract himself from his marriage?
Vile bewitcher of women, Thomas Weems!
Draw in and face your deed.
Confess to your lies and your villainy
Tell of how you knelt before your wife
Humbly begged forgiveness
Pleaded for a new beginning.
How poor Mary’s trusting heart leapt at her husband’s words
Believing this wretch reformed.
Weems, you hound!
Will you tell of how you led your wife into a field?
How you broke bread together
For the very last time
Of how you squeezed your hands around her throat
And rasped “Now I am going to be the death of you!”
Your foul fingers pressed upon the pure flesh
Of a lady who had done you no wrong
You crushed her throat
As she crumpled in your arms
A flick of the wrist, one brief callous movement
You tossed her corpse upon the ground
Disposed of, abandoned, forgotten.
Recognition grew of your evil
As you were seized from your path
The Day of Reckoning was at hand.
Judgement arose like terror in the night
Cowed before justice, your countenance –
Grotesque and shrivelled and puny –
Trembled before the eyes of your jury
Your weakness exposed
As you slumped on the stand.
For one hour, you swung from the scaffold
Then wrenched down and placed before
The cool gaze of Science – that we might understand
The mysteries of this deviant corpse
Electrical charges pulsing through your body
A galvanic hell
Thrashing and jerking in violent spasms
Eye to heel contorting – what powerful agony!
Can we hope that your soul also felt it? Can we hope that Thomas Weems suffers still? Can we hope that justice chains him to his crime That he may never find peace As the shards of Mary’s shredded spirit Flutter in the breeze.
Not a single soul is lost for you may never bury the past – Carried upon the Wisps As they duck and shimmer and twist
The events in the poem are very much true to the events as they occurred. Mary Ann Weems (nee Sawyer) was a Godmanchester girl who fell in with Thomas Weems, a man of “strong build and rough exterior”. Following reports that she was made pregnant by him the parish authorities forced a marriage, however no child arrived. Whether Mary faked her pregnancy or miscarried, none can say, but finding himself with an unwanted wife Thomas left Godmanchester where he met another woman. Three years later he returned to Mary, convinced her he was repentant and following a quarrel on the road to London took her into a field outside Wendy (now Wendy-cum-Shingay near Royston) and strangled her there.
The body was found and returned to Godmanchester, where so many people came to view her corpse that it was displayed in its coffin on the table by the parlour window; it is believed that this was at what is now The White Hart. Mary’s body was interred beneath a very fine gravestone in Godmanchester churchyard raised by public subscription with a warning for the local youths as to what may occur if they were not careful…
Thomas Weems was soon caught, tried at the Cambridge assizes and hanged for murder at a few minutes past noon, 6th August 1819, but it didn’t end there. At this time the barely understood science of electricity was being investigated across Europe, with experiments involving running currents through dead animals and men to see what happens occurring.
By 1.45pm Thomas Weems’ body was in the anatomy theatre in the Botanical Gardens, where various professors were waiting. After an hour of running currents through various parts of the body a more formal dissection took place the next day to which the public were invited. Even then Thomas Weems was not interred in his tomb, well not entirely. A square of skin was cut from the body and sent to the university bookbinders to bind a book for the Christopher Wren library, the volume may well still be there today…
The Long Lost Legend of the Will O’ The Wisps
“will-with-a-wisp … a kind of device of the evil spirit to draw human beings from the road they were pursuing into some frightful abyss of misery; and there leave them without any hope” – R. Parry: “The History of Kington”, 1845
Faerie lamp, fen flame
Jack-o-lantern, ghost light
Elf torch, Travellers bane
Witch fire, Pixie light
Will o the wisp.
He missed the last bus
Its an hours wait for a taxi
“Well, It’s not that far to walk”
Google maps and bright torch to hand
“Follow St. Christopher’s drive for 1/3 of a mile..”
Heading out past slumbering homes
Street lights at wider intervals
Nights gloom creeping in,
Before the last light,
Serene, alone, the end of the town, the last house, the boundary
Walking fast on the dark lanes
Not that far to go,
Passing high, dots of planes, reminding him that he’s alone
Amongst the stars, and soaring planes
One more light woven in nights cloak
Battery low, “well not far now”
No signal, “I’ll pick it up soon”
Torch splutters, batteries going
Phone dying, location not found
What’s in the dark?
“There’s nothing there”
“It’s just branches catching at my hair”
“Those are the eyes of rabbits”
“There’s nothing out here tonight but me”
How wrong can a person be?
In the distance dim light
Blinding in that velvet night
“Must mean a house right?”
People, tea, a fire bright
A lift on home
But a young man alone,
“Anyone could live there”
“But, anyone could be out here”
A moments indecision,
Climbing up and over hedge
Off the path, over fen
Leading on and on again
Far from road, and into mud
Scratching thorns drawing blood
“Who’d live out here so far”
He asks, wiping blood with his cuff
“How do they get here in their car”
Then goes out
A cry starts,
“What the hell do I do now”
Turning round to find his path
Nothing to show where he’d been past
Turning round, and round again
Edge of fen
Police requests for information
“Went missing on the night of..”
The posters say
TV adverts, Radio, Facebook shares
To find them
The old men grumble
Nursing their pints on a winters night
They ain’t missing,
Least nowhere they’ll be found
Only a fools out there of a night
Only a fool will follow the lights
Faerie lamp, fen flame Jack-o-lantern, ghost light Elf torch, Travellers bane Witch fire, Pixie light Will o the wisp
Will O’ The Wisps, also known in Latin as “ignis fatuus” (fool’s fire) and across East Anglia as “The Hobby Lantern” or “The Lantern man”, are a common legend in any area with marsh, fen or swamp. They occur across the United Kingdom and Northern Europe and as far as afield as South America and aboriginal Australia!
According to legend, these lights are either souls turned from heaven and forced to walk the earth for their unrepentant behaviour, or mischievous fairies with stolen torches or lanterns, hence other regional names include “Jack o’ Lantern” and “Kit with the Candlestick”.
They are commonly held to be malevolent, delighting in luring travellers off paths or roads and out to drown in the hidden depths, whilst some legends say they lead travellers to great treasures if you are brave enough to follow them (a somewhat dangerous contradiction in intent!). In Huntingdonshire the will o’ the wisps are a passive light, a false beacon whilst across the border in Norfolk “the lantern man” was a more proactive danger, chasing down lights at night and attacking anyone who failed to show respect by whistling or mocking him.
Scientifically speaking, the the likeliest cause of these sightings is down to the nature of decomposition of plant and animal matter in waterlogged areas. As the dead matter decomposes under the water it releases methane, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and phospines. These phosphines are flammable toxic gases which when combined with methane and oxygen produce a dense white glowing cloud which would appear to hover over where the dead matter is decomposing. The lights going out would be explained by the air or water being disturbed as a person approached cutting off the methane and phosphines and putting out the light.
Maybe safest not to follow the lights either way…
Do you know any other local folklore or ghost tales? Please feel free to share them with us via Facebook, email or comments below!
We’ll be continuing to work with Huntingdon Drama Club next month as we have guest blogger Michelle Gibson telling the history of the Drama Club in celebration of their 75th anniversary this year! Watch this space…
The Monstrous Myth of the Beastly Black Shuck – Victoria Calleway (née Spurway) Victoria Calleway is a very amateur historian indeed but learnt to be discerning about her sources through her English Literature and Theatre degree. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite things, along with board games, cheese, and her cats, Asparagus and Macavity.
The Tragic Tale of Poor Mary Ann Weems – Michelle Gibson Huntingdon-born and bred, Michelle is involved in a couple of local community groups, one such being Huntingdon Drama Club. A staunch admirer of the arts, she has been an avid reader since childhood and includes writing and acting amongst her other interests.
The Long Lost Legends of the Will o’ the Wisps (and additional notes) – Matthew Calleway Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
The Huntingdonshire we know and love today could hardly be described as a “forested” area; as part of Cambridgeshire it is one of the least wooded counties in the country. In a 2008 survey, just 3.6% of the county consisted of woodland, compared to the wider UK which had 11.3% woodland cover.
Surprisingly enough, this has not always been the case…
Paleolithic Forests 70,000 years ago the landscape of Huntingdonshire was entirely unrecognisable from today. At this time huge forests of Oak, Elm, Birch, Yew, Alder, Hazel and Willow would have covered the entirety of the county, stretching far across Cambridgeshire and into Norfolk and Suffolk. Stone Age peoples would have lived a nomadic lifestyle in these woodlands, hunting the birds and mammals (the remains of wild oxen, deer, boars and horses have been found). The forests of the Stone Age grew due to the incredibly fertile peat soil which lay across the area, unfortunately the very same peat would prove to be the downfall of the trees…
Deforestation #1 There was a mass deforestation over a course of years which left millions of tree trunks buried between one and four feet below the surface across the East Anglian fens. These “bog-oaks” must have destroyed hundreds of ploughs over the years, and some excavated trunks have been over 100 feet, or 30 metres, long! Some historians believed this was caused by humans; stone age wood fellers and fire setters or even Romans, both of which seem unlikely as the lumber was left to rot (or not as the case has been!) where it fell.
The currently accepted theory on the death of these woods is that rising water levels turned the peat soil into peat bogs, the water slowly rotting away the roots and killing the trees, so that when winter gales blew in from the south-west, the dead trees fell north-eastwards, which is how they have been unearthed ever since. The result was a landscape which was largely fen, with pockets of trees on ridges of highland now islands in the flooded landscape. Huntingdonshire would have been less affected, with its slightly higher ground compared to most of East Anglia, the forests persisting more-or-less up to the edges of the fens.
Pre-Roman Life The inhabitants of this area would now be living in settlements, farming having been introduced across Britain between 5,000-4,500 BC. The Proto-Celtic and Celtic tribes would have cleared spaces in the woods or else exploited natural clearings to establish settlements, the cut wood being used for building and fuel. There is some evidence of making woven wood roadways to cross the fens as in the Somerset Levels and hollowed out log canoes have been discovered near Stanground, Whittlesey and Warboys.
What Have the Romans Done For Us? The Celtic religion was based around respect for (and fear of) the beings which inhabited the woods, rivers, hills and fens. Celtic roads would have worked within the landscape, avoiding sacred landmarks. Ridges of high ground were used as roads to cross long distances; the Icknfield Way, bisecting the country Norfolk to Dorset is one such road, the Bullock Road running near the A1 at Sawtry and upwards north another.
The Romans, when they came, would have had little of this reverence. A manner of establishing Roman power over areas was to build over the landscape rather than working through it; “the landscape itself could be reshaped to reflect and consolidate the military and economic interest of the empire”. The Romans cleared woodland, set out stone laid roads and famously went arrow straight, these swathes of woodland cut back began to compartmentalise the “wild wood” of Iron Age Britain.
In addition, Roman fortresses and settlements would have required spaces to be cleared, timber for building, wood for industry and fuel, and of course, space for farming on a scale hitherto unseen. The rich soil, temperate climate, long days of sunshine and plentitude of water for irrigation made farming here a very attractive prospective. Large amounts of woods would have been cut down to increase arable land, a trend which would only continue down the years.
The Birth of Place Names After the departure of the Romans and the start of the “Dark Ages” the landscape did not regress to a wooded state, as might be expected. The population was still largely in place and the farmland cleared was still in demand to keep people fed. Likewise, with a decline in stone building good timber was in demand for construction and so woods would have been kept well managed.
It is around this time that the naming of places we know today began; the majority of place names in Huntingdonshire have their origins in Old English as it was spoken from the 5th Century AD. The etymology of place names is an endlessly fascinating subject with huge amounts of variation, however there are many repeated word elements which give clues as to how a particular place was named.
Any Huntingdonshire settlement with “wood” is an obvious giveaway such as Woodwalton, Upwood or Woodhurst. In addition, anywhere with “-ley” as a place name ending, was derived from “lēah”, which translates as “clearing”, for instance; Yaxley, Sapley, Woolley, Stonely, Abbotsley, Pidley and the Raveleys. There are also more obscure local examples in field names with words like “Stockings” in their name; referencing the stumps left after trees were cut down, or “Grub”; where tree roots were grubbed, or dug, up. If you look at a map the vast majority of these sites are located in the North West of the county where the less fertile clay upland soil made farming harder work and gave lesser crop yields. Indeed the Hundred-name of Hurstingstone is derived from the Saxon settlers, the “hyrstingas” or “forest dwellers”.
1066 and All That The Norman Conquest of England would have been another seismic change in the county’s fortunes. The Saxon county would have had an almost complete change of landowners as Norman knights were granted tracts of land (arable and forested) for their service to William I. The relative prosperity of Norman England saw a huge increase in population nationwide (potentially tripling between 1086 and 1300) and this was seen in Huntingdonshire too. The increased population required more food, more fuel and of course housing, all of which necessitated controlled deforestation, for lumber and more farmland. In Huntingdonshire food (fish and fowl) and fuel (dried peat turfs) came largely from the fens due to the designation of large amounts of the landscape as a Royal Forest.
Royal Forest The midlands had been largely deforested during the Dark Ages and the relatively heavily wooded Huntingdonshire was valued as a result, not only as a source of timber but also as a hunting ground. These early Norman Kings of England were enthusiastic hunters as most landowners were, and they lay claim to all game animals on their estates. This was a major change from the way game had been legally owned; before the Norman invasion all game was “res nullis” or “no one’s property”, and this legal change would have resulted in serious food problems for many across the country and been incredibly unpopular. On top of the hunting restrictions the monarchy also started adding new land to their Royal Forests, their avariciousness knew few bounds, and whole tracts of countryside were designated Royal Forests. By 1189, between a third and a quarter of England was designated as such.
This land included not only forests, but farmland, villages and whole towns whose inhabitants were prevented from gathering living firewood, hunting and “waste, assart and purpresture” which is to say felling trees, using the land for grazing or appropriating land for building or farming. The final authority on the “Forest Law’ which governed these Royal Forests was the monarch, who was obviously slightly biased! The harsh laws surrounding the Royal Forests were not challenged until King John I (the Bad King John in every Robin Hood film you’ve ever seen) was brought to account in 1212 when land added by John or his two predecessors was returned to previous owners; even then it would be many years until Forest Law was fully reined in.
Of Brigands and Outlaws Who owned the wood made little difference to the commoner who would be treated the same if poaching or tree felling on Royal Forest or the local Landowner’s Forest. The draconian laws around the use of woodland is one reason for the brigandage (violent crime) which was rife. Another reason for the high rate of crime was the fact that large parts of society could be expected to go to war; to kill, maim, loot and burn and then peacefully return to their farming, quite often without full pay. To such men the opportunities offered by a life of robbery probably seemed quite appealing.
Such was the fear of roadside theft and murder that the woods along major roads would be cut back to be outside of bowshot and prevent outlaws loosing arrows from the tree line against travellers. We know that were outlaws in the woods of Huntingdonshire, as Archers Wood near Sawtry is allegedly named for the outlaws who made it their home. The woods also offered a safe sanctuary for less common criminals such as John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester. He was a Yorkist commander in the War of the Roses, also known as the “butcher of England”, and was dragged from his hiding place in the Forest of Weybridge (a wood which stretched across Alconbury, Ellington and Brampton and whose remnant survives at Brampton Woods) and would end his life on the headsmans block at the Tower of London.
Bucken Woods: “the Great Park” To track the changes in the forests in detail over the following centuries it is worth following the fortunes of the well documented woodland at Buckden. The substantial woodland at Buckden (around half the whole parish) was gifted to the Bishops of Lincoln whose palace was Buckden Towers in 1155. They were given permission to divert the Kimbolton-Huntingdon Road around their wood in 1215, which gives some idea of the size of the woodland. The crown took the wood away from the Bishops sometime in the early 14th century after the forest keepers were found to be driving the kings deer into the wood from the Royal Forest at Sapley! The wood was restored to them in 1354.
By 1512, the wood was being leased out in part for grazing and being carefully managed with tree felling and underwood clearance bringing in nearly £40 during the years 1512-1519 (around £26,500 by todays standard). The park survived the ecclesiastical uprisings of the reformation when many Bishops had their land holdings reduced and by 1599 a local man Samuel Hooke was “keeper of the Great Park”. The job included a lodge, suit of livery, £3.10s. annual wage (around £482 today) and the rights to pasture two horses and four cows in the park.
Buckden Woods: Deforestation #2 By 1606 a morose Bishop Chadderton noted that “part of the parke has been plowed and sowne”. His successor did much to restore the woodland until his fall from grace and imprisonment in the tower of London in 1637, when the solicitor put in place to run the estate “felled the timber, [and] killed the deer of the park”. Even with this negligence, by the end of the 1640’s when the estate was being surveyed for the “Sale of Archbishops and Bishops Lands” the Great Park was estimated at 425 acres, with 200 deer and nearly 7,000 Oak trees.
The park was brought by a London Alderman Christopher Packe who would preside over its near total destruction, partly to turn a quick profit from the sale of timber and then by turning the land into farmland. By 1699 the deer were gone and the 425 acres were all enclosed fields save for three small pockets of woodland “24 acres in all”. In the 1831 Enclosure Map, the whole village of Buckden had over 50 acres of woodland in total, by the time of the 1887 OS Map these remnants are also gone.
The Huntingdon Elm In an 18th century nursery in Brampton a sapling was being carefully grown. This hybrid tree Ulmus x hollandica ‘vegeta’ would become known in time as the “Huntingdon Elm”. The tree would prove to be very popular as it is fast growing and can grow up to three meters a year in the right conditions. It also has a wood so waterproof it can be used for boats, shipbuilding and even as a water conduit; cities across England including Southampton, Bristol, Reading, Exeter and Liverpool had Elm water mains before the advent of metal pipes.
The tree had some resilience to the lethal Dutch Elm Disease which decimated the Elm population of England in the 1960’s but even so it is not as prevalent as it once was and is likely to be found (if at all) as a lone survivor in a park or hedgerow.
Surviving Woods Despite the years of deforestation there are still ancient woodland spots to visit in Huntingdonshire, mostly clustered in the west of the county on that soil which proved so unpopular with our farming ancestors. Below are five of my personal favourite local woods.
All the sites listed below are free to visit but for exact details on how to find them, where to park, etc, it is worth visiting the links provided.
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
Bibliography: Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, 2004, 1st Edition
Anon, “LOCAL HABITAT ACTION PLAN FOR CAMBRIDGESHIRE AND PETERBOROUGH”, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Biodiversity Action Plan, 2008, via: http://www.cpbiodiversity.org.uk/downloads, Accessed On: 1st September 2019
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary and bizarre events in the history of Huntingdonshire and the wider fenlands, occurred in 1774. From July 16th to August 6th of this year the Rt. Hon. George Walpole, Third Earl of Orford, led an armada of converted river barges called fenland lighters on an extended pleasure cruise through “the narrow seas of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, and Norfolk”.
The Fleet: This expedition was no small undertaking. The fleet included “The Whale, The Alligator, The Shark and the Dolphin … The Pristis, The Centaurus, and The Chimera; The Fireaway Bumketch [a punt gun boat] and The Cocoa Nut Victualler [store barge]” along with crews of men, fishermen, hunting dogs and birds, a party of engineers and carpenters, a horse called “Hippopotamus” and presumably a lot of alcohol. Generally speaking the boats were converted Fenland Lighters; these were kind of wide barge with very shallow berth; ideal for transporting goods and livestock along shallow fenland rivers and even over flooded fields. The Fenland lighters were currently in the middle of their heyday, which had started in the earliest years of the 18th century and would go on until the 1850’s when railways and industrial fen drainage would all but kill off the industry.
The Admiral: The man behind this madcap voyage, the Rt. Hon George Walpole, Third Earl of Orford (henceforth referred to as Orford), “the most dissolute man in Europe”, is a clichéd playboy and rake. An only child, he was born into a family where both parents were peers of the realm, and was brought up by his father (2nd Earl of Orford) and his father’s mistress (Hannah Norsa) a Covent Garden actress. Upon reaching his majority he took on several ceremonial sinecures – jobs with no responsibility but with financial benefits. It’s hard to believe that Orford did much as High Steward of Yarmouth and Kings Lynn or that his duties as Lord of the Bedchamber to George II and George III were especially onerous.
His real passions were hunting (he was a famously good grey hound courser and falconer) and being reckless. It is quite likely he inherited an estate in financial difficulties and left it entirely bankrupt. His frivolous lifestyle as evinced in this voyage, would lead him a few years after our account here takes place to sell to Catherine the Great an extensive art collection inherited from his grandfather. Despite the efforts of the British Museum to save this art for the nation and build a new gallery, the sale went ahead to great dismay and uproar (which just goes to show that nothing changes and arts funding was as much a problem in the 1780s as today). Lord Orford would become increasingly eccentric and died aged 61, insane with no heirs, the title passing to his uncle Horace Walpole.
But this is getting ahead of ourselves, for now cast your minds back to a balmy summer day in 1774…
July 16th – Expedition is launched, departing along the river Nene stopping their first night at the indelicately named “Whores Nest Ferry”, which is seven leagues (24 miles) from the junction of the rivers Nene and the Ouse.
July 17th – They pass through Outwell, Upwell and stop outside March for lunch where “the numerous inhabitants of the town … sat admiring our vessels”. The town obviously made a good impression, Orford describing it as the “handsomest we have seen”, however the ladies made less of an impression, “many very old women … the sex in general, extremely ugly”.
Throughout their voyage, Orford and his companions seem to be much interested in the relative attractiveness of the women they encountered or saw; generally speaking they were unimpressed by the inhabitants, a feeling which I am sure was mutual…
July 18th – The fleet start from outside Benwick continuing along past Ramsey where delays are incurred waiting on permission to demolish bridges.
The fenland lighters that the fleet was largely using were designed for these waterways, however being rich gentlemen they had of course outfitted the boats with every extravagance and comfort and sailing masts. The fleet had engineers and carpenters attached who went ahead of the fleet measuring bridges. If a bridge was too low they would demolish or lift it and then the fleet having passed, reinstate it, or on other occasions the fleet simply rammed bridges and passed over the wreckage!
July 19th – Fleet is on Whittlesey Mere for the first time. The fleet would spend a lot of time throughout their travels fishing and carousing here. At this time it was the largest lake in England outside of the Lake District, according to Orford it was 24 miles around the lake and no more than 5-7 feet deep and “in the whole meer a bed of weeds is not to be found”. He was especially taken with the fishing the lake offered routinely catching eels, perch and pike some of extremely large size.
Passing across the mere, they sail over to Farcet and up Farcet Dyke to Stanground, where they went to the horse racing.
July 20th-21st – Moored up on the Nene in Peterborough, beside the town bridge where the Cathedral and Bishops Palace can be seen. The Bishops palace does not impress – in Orford’s words “it hath not a grand appearance”
July 22nd – The fleet sails back via Stanground to Whittlesey Mere, another boat (apparently a sloop) described as “a boat filled with company” is already on the mere.
July 23rd – They remain moored up in Farcet Bay, Whittlesey Mere whilst the Centaurus is refitted in Peterborough, the boat returns with new mast but no sail. The sailmaker had been plied with free ale by electoral candidates in the Peterborough by-election and, as Orford describes, had “forgotten to execute my orders, and his own promise to fulfil them”. The Centaurus does bring back two haunches of venison and another gentleman walks to Stilton for a cheese.
July 24th – Orford explores Trundle Mere [near Yaxley] in a smaller boat. In the afternoon Lord Sandwich joined the fleet briefly on his new yacht “which made a handsome appearance and seems to sail well”. At this time Lord Sandwich was First Lord of the Admiralty, his third time in that office, and quite what he made of Lord Orford’s “fleet” can only be imagined.
July 25th – The fleet entertain Lord Sandwich with fresh fish caught in Whittlesey Mere and “festive enjoyments”.
July 26th – Strong winds blow up overnight, knocking the anchored boats together and causing great chaos as those on board fear they are being blown on to some “hidden rock”, the cook suffers from sea sickness as a result of the bad weather.
July 27th – The fleet sail from the mere up via Stanground to the Nene where they moor up a mile west of Peterborough. Orford indulges in some botany, gathering water lilies from the river and carnations from the lock-keepers garden.
July 28th – A Post-chaise and pair (small carriage and two horses) is summoned and a party from the fleet embarks on a trip around the countryside; leaving Peterborough they pass the (then separate) villages of Paston, Warrington, Glinton and Deeping where they failed to get fresh horses.
Continuing they came along the Little Turnpike to Spalding, commenting on the “exceedingly wet” Spalding common where cattle were eating up to their bellies in water. Having reached Spalding they lunched at the White Hart, went horse racing again (where they found the farmers wives and daughters “much handsomer”) and returned to the fleet at Peterborough via St. James Deeping, a round trip of some forty miles.
July 29th – Orford and his gentlemen are entertained by the Bishop of Peterborough with whom they enjoy dinner, wine and a tour of the palace gardens. In the evening, whilst visiting a playhouse in Peterborough, a Mr Roberts of the fleet breaks his shin helping a lady over a bench; the only casualty the fleet sustained throughout its time at “sea”.
July 30th – The fleet departs Peterborough, via Stanground and stops at Horsey Bridge where the explore the fortifications (this is still to be seen at Stanground, and is the remnants of an English Civil War defensive sconce, the A605 passes its northern face).
Having passed back out to Whittlesey Mere they punt across in order to visit Ramsey Mere. The fleet stop at the far end of Farcet Bay which Orford names Sandwich point. Whilst Orford is fishing some bargemen steal joints of salted pork from the victualling ship Cocoa Nut.
July 31st – Orford and his companions continue moored on Whittlesey Mere, waiting for the wind to drop to carry on their journey.
August 1st – Fleet spend another day on Whittlesey Mere as the wind is still too strong to sail into the Ramsey River and on to Ramsey Mere. The storm causes The Fireaway Bumketch [gun punt] to slip her moorings and start to drift away, until she is saved by two sailors from The Swallow.
August 2nd – Winds continue and the fleet carry on fishing and carousing. The fishing was done in several ways during the voyage, by traditional angling, using small nets and using “trimmers”. These were stakes with line wound around and bait on the end with a float, when the bait was taken the float would move away and these trimmers could be checked at intervals, and reset if they had been successful, “their use was more like sowing a minefield than angling” in the words of one modern historian.
August 3rd – The fleet is towed down to Ramsey by Hippopotamus [their draught horse], breakfasting in the town and walking up to the ruined abbey. Orford “found the [female] sex much handsomer”, something he attributed to the influx of French Huguenot blood. Ordering up carriages they travel through Bury, Upwood and Hartford to Huntingdon for lunch with the Duke of Manchester and Lord Sandwich followed by horse racing on Port Holme.
The local agriculture was a major talking point on the journey to and from Huntingdon it seems, with Orford seeing “a turnip field for the first time” and a lady of the fleet buying a 15lb cabbage for 3.5p. They return to the boats via Warboys, “a much better road”.
August 4th – The fleet is towed by Hippopotamus back out of Ramsey and into the Nene, Orford visits Mr Fellowes the owner and proprietor of Ramsey and Ugg Meres. Strong winds mean that there is no fishing to be done.
August 5th – Sailing from Ramsey Mere to the Nene, they pass Benwick at 6am, reaching March at noon where they reappraise the locals and find “no reason to alter our former opinion [on the] ugliness”, passing on to Upwell for 2pm they found Hippopotamus ready “to drop”. Breaking for dinner they carried to Salters Lode for 6pm where, the sluices being shut, they stopped for the night.
August 6th – At this point the Nene becomes semi-tidal, and river traffic can only pass through the sluice gates at certain times. A misunderstanding of this slows the progress of the fleet and results in the immediate discharge of the Master Harry. Eventually the fleet carry on up the Ouse turning into the Little Ouse, and meet waiting coaches at Lakenheath bridge having “finished without accident this agreeable voyage in twenty-two days”.
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He
can often be found behind a desk planning things for the
Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire
countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
Sources: Childers, J.W. “Lord Orfords Voyage Round The Fens 1774”, Reprint of Original, July 1868