St. Ives Market: Abbey Fair to Monday Market

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

– Traditional English Nursery Rhyme/Riddle, Anonymous

We all know this famous rhyme, but why was this unknown man, his wives and a whole menagerie of cats going to St Ives? And which one?

The most likely St. Ives to be journeying to was of course St. Ives in Huntingdonshire, which was one of the most important markets in England for much of its history. It had a royal charter given as early as 1110 and in its heyday was selling 12,000 cattle a day from what is now the location of the bus station! So here is a whistle-stop history of this “most ancient market on the shores of the Ouse”.

In the Beginning…
St. Ives at the beginning of our history is known as Slepe, which can be translated as “slippery place” which for a small fenland village on the banks of the great Ouse is really no surprise. The small settlement was almost entirely unremarkable except for a local tradition that stated that the Persian Archbishop (later Saint) Ivo had made his home in the village. By the 10th century the village was owned and dominated by the Benedictine community at Ramsey Abbey, and it is through their actions that the village developed its famous market at all.

Ramsey Abbey was a fairly thankless when it was first built, cut off from the rest of the country for months at a time through winter floods, and in need of some way to develop itself. The best way for abbeys to do this was to attract pilgrims, however with so many saints body parts and holy relics around a ecclesiastic site needed something big. Fortunately, that would be forthcoming…

St. Ivo from a wall painting

St. Ivo
An unknown Saxon farmer ploughing one morning around the year 1000 would change everything. His plough caught against a coffin (probably Roman) and human remains were found. These were interred in the parish church, until the village smith had ghostly visitations from St. Ivo claiming that the bones were his. Despite some disbelief from the village bailiff (he is said to have remarked, “Should we translate and glorify the worthless remains of some old cobbler as those of a saint?”), the bones and dream were seized upon by Abbot Eadnoth of Ramsey Abbey. He swiftly built two shrines, one at Ramsey and one at Slepe, which was completed by 1017.

The shrine of St. Ivo became irrevocably linked to the settlement and soon enough the name Slepe was all but forgotten. As more and more pilgrims visited the shrine to be cured of such diverse ailments as leprosy, gout, blindness, deafness and toothache, so there would have been more and more individuals selling them what they needed, be it food, clothes, drink or souvenirs. To aid pilgrims and traders, by the 12th century the monks had a bridge built across the river by the early years of the 12th century and in 1110 St. Ives was officially granted a charter to hold an 8 day market over Easter.

The Early Market
The first markets at St. Ives would have been very small affairs. Most provincial towns and many large settlements had the rights to hold a market; as well as local farmers selling off what they could spare, there would have been traders who dealt in cloth, wool, hide and maybe a few dealing in expensive foods like spices and wines. In 1200, when renewing the royal charter for the market Ramsey Abbey also purchased the rights to hold a weekly Monday market, a tradition which is still practised to this day!

By the 13th century, there are records of merchants coming from as far afield as Lincoln, York, Beverely, Leicester and Coventry to trade at the market. The market must have attracted good quality traders, as there are records of Henry III sending his royal tailor and other staff to purchase cloth for making clothes for the royal household. In 1237 he purchased over 7000 foot of fabric as well as hoods, furs and “finer stuffs”.

Artists impression of a thronging medieval marketplace, not so different from how St. Ives would have been.

By 1250 the St. Ives market was increasingly large and of such importance that in a list drawn up in Douai, France, at around the time it is listed as a principal market of England alongside metropolises like Winchester and Northampton. With burgeoning importance and huge sums of money involved, one of the Church vs State tussles was inevitable and in 1250 it came with the king’s appointment of two market wardens.

“Will nobody rid me of this turbulent market?”
These wardens were appointed as royal officers to see that the market ran smoothly, legally and that nobody got away without paying the king market dues. Within two years the officials had overstepped the mark, extending the market by three weeks at cost to the abbey. The waters were muddied still further when Huntingdon tried to levy tolls on travellers passing over bridges to the market. Despite a commission being appointed, no clear judgement could be made on the legality of the wardens’ decision and in 1258, for a fee of around £300 and an additional £50 a year the king abandoned “all profits from the fair” and henceforth the fair was the sole interest of Ramsey Abbey.

The Benedictine Monks (like these) of Ramsey Abbey were the driving force behind the continuation of the fair.

Rules and Regulations.
The fairs of medieval England were strictly regulated affairs and the fair at St. Ives would have been no different. As well as standard units of measure being enforced and quality control checks being conducted, bailifs would place a seal on goods approved for trade, there were laws against trading outside the town (thus avoiding paying market fees), restrictions around cooking and selling food to limit the risk of fire, laws against cheating people out of their money with fake medicines or cures and even an elaborate system of debt recollection based on market circuits.

To ensure that laws and rules were followed, temporary courts were formed, known as Piepowder courts. The name came from the French “piers powders”, or “dusty feet”, referring to dust of the road that would cling to professional merchants who may be in town for one or two days only. These courts could administer instant justice and prevent the local authorities being completely overwhelmed. The remit of these courts can be seen in the court rolls which dealt with everything from selling short measure, illegal trading and not paying debts to theft, drunkenness and sheltering lepers (who were banned from the fair) “to the great danger of the neighbours”.

A combination of more efficient Flemish weaving techniques and the affect of the Black Death saw the importance of the market start to decline. By 1474, the official opening by monks from Ramsey Abbey, which had long been a mere formality, was abandoned. In 1511 the fair opened for the last time.

A Final Hurrah
Despite the death of the annual fair, weekly markets continued in St. Ives throughout the centuries, with the trade in cloth and clothes continuing on a much smaller scale. The market was also known for its eels and fresh fish, however it was the livestock market that would go on to become the most successful, indeed by the mid 1800s the market in this sleepy fenland town was second only to the “Great Market” at Smithfield, with over 12,000 cattle being sold daily during the St. Ives cattle fairs!

St. Ives Market during the mid-late 19th Century (Picture courtesy of St. Ives Town Info)

This market became preeminent as St. Ives is located at the end of the Scottish drovers road, not far from the Great North Road and on the lush meadows of Cambridgeshire, and it became a natural place for cattle and sheep to be brought “on the hoof” down from the verdant highlands of Scotland, fattened up once more and then sold. On average, a drove was anything from 100-400 animal attended by four to eight drovers and their dogs, and as late as 1861 St. Ives had a bullock shoer to reshoe cattle before they were driven on by their new owners.

The advances in railway and steamships saw an end to the Scottish trade, with the realisation that the cattle could be slaughtered in Scotland and shipped to London to arrive fresh, however these same advances opened up the Irish livestock market, which saw St. Ives inundated with cattle to the point where the market spilled out to cover the entire town centre, which must have been an unpleasant and unsanitary experience!

St. Ives Market c. 1900 (Picture courtesy of St. Ives Corn Exchange)

The Final Decline
The unsanitary conditions were not only in St. Ives town centre; the cramped conditions in which animals were shipped led to breakouts of disease, made worse by the transitory nature of so many animals passing through the town. Between summer 1865 and spring 1866, over 1800 cattle died of diseases, with another 467 put down, more would have been infected but slaughtered before the disease could kill them. Likewise, in the 1870s a nationwide outbreak of Sheep-Pox reduced national sheep levels by 10%.

Empty Cattle Pens in the 1880’s down St. Ives High Street (Picture Courtesy of St. Ives Corn Exchange)

Critical as this would have been for St. Ives, a refusal to update the market facilities caused more damage. By the late 19th century, it was described as “ an eyesore … and a stain on the civic reputation of the town”, and even the opening of a cutting edge market could not draw back traders who had moved to Cambridge (just a few stops on by train). Despite sporadic growth the market was in terminal decline and by WW1 the number of animals sold in the course of a year was less than in a single Monday when the market was at its height. In 1976 the cattle market closed for the last time.

St. Ives still has a weekly market on a Monday, as agreed between Ramsey Abbey and Henry III in 1258, and the market traders selling clothes and food continue a tradition that stretches back over 900 years. Little did that unknown Saxon farmer know what he was going to start or the consequences of his days work when he went out that morning with his plough.

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.


Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdonshire Through Time”, Amberely Publishing, Stroud, 2010, 1st Edition

Anon, “Huntingdonshire District, Official Guide” Home Publishing Company, Wallington, c. 1985, 1st Edition

Burn-Murdoch, B “What’s so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, The Friends of the Norris Museum, Hunstanton, 1996, 1st Edition

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “Parishes: St. Ives“, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 2, Victoria County History, London, 1932

Wickes, M “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1985, 1st Edition

Huntingdon Castle: Saxon Burh to A14

Castle Hill Huntingdon has a had a long and varied history, and this summer it will be home to a series of large reenactment events as part of the 2019 festival; with that in mind here is a look at the history of the Huntingdon Castle site.

Hunts Castle
Huntingdon Castle under siege, note the curvature of the moat on the far right which is the path taken by the modern ring road, after the Bridge Hotel.

Establishing a Castle

Castle Hill was originally part of the Anglo-Saxon burh, the fortification around a Saxon town (this is where the word borough originates). Huntingdon was both a strategic and commercial location, situated on the River Ouse which brought both trade and the ever present possibility of ruination and violence. The site of what we know as Castle Hill would quite likely have featured docks and the wooden stockade and moats traditionally used to fortify burhs.

In 1068 this all changed, William I “the Conqueror” returning from York stopped in Huntingdon and gave orders for the construction of a Motte and Bailey castle, which he gave to the Earl of Huntingdon whom his niece Judith had married. Twenty houses and parts of the town’s defences were demolished to build the castle.

The castle was a traditional motte and bailey design with a keep on a hill which was itself surrounded by a walled enclosure. This bailey would have been built with stables, brewery, bakery, storerooms and chapel and the whole site covered 2.5 acres. Despite the investment in time and materials the castle only stood for just over a century, and was besieged twice during a period known as the “Anarchy”.

The Turbulent Twelfth Century

Contemporary image of the sinking of the White Ship done for the Corporation of London (original in the British Library)

In 1120 a ship floundered and sunk off the coast of France. This sinking of the “White Ship” would have terrible consequences for the fledgling Anglo-Norman kingdom, as aboard the ship was William, the only son of Henry I and grandson of William I. Following his death the kingdom was to be left to his sister Matilda, however when her father died the crown was given to Stephen de Bois, a nephew of Henry I, at which point the “Anarchy” ensued; a period of countrywide civil war.

For Huntingdon it was a particularly bad time — the lord of Huntingdon was David I King of Scotland (husband of Maud from our Historic Huntingdonshire Women blog), who in an effort to expand his control over Northern England supported Matilda. The Treaty of Wallingford, signed in 1144, recognised Stephen as king and David was forced to pay homage to keep control of Huntingdon. During the eleven year period from 1135 until the treaty in 1144 Huntingdon lost over half its taxable value, and worse was to come barely thirty years later…

It is 1174 and Henry II is at war with his own son, who is supported in his rebellion by William I of Scotland. Huntingdon castle declares itself for the rebels and for a long month over the summer finds itself under siege by the king’s army. On the 20th of July, Henry II himself, fresh from his public penance and whipping at Canterbury for the murder of Thomas à Becket, arrives at the castle which wisely surrenders.

Henry II is unimpressed by the lack of loyalty displayed by the area and orders the castle slighted (rendered indefensible), the walls are pulled down and parts of the site razed. During the 1980’s, when constructing Castle Moat Road, three foot of ash was discovered in the archaeological record where the wooden gatehouse was burnt.

The Remains

Despite Henry’s fit of pique the castle site was not fully destroyed. The chapel still stood and was signed over to Huntingdon Priory in the charter of 1327, the gaol was repaired in 1379 and wardens of the castle were appointed until 16th century, when it seems to have finally fallen into disuse with all civic duties passing on to Cambridge Castle. The rest of the site was given over to agriculture; Henry of Huntingdon commented on a substantial vineyard growing here by the late 12th century.

During the 17th century, civil war once more reared its ugly head, and following the demolition of an arch in the bridge to render it more defensible, the castle site was levelled and made into a gun battery overlooking the river crossing to the east, the rectangular position can still be seen on the river edge of the bailey. The defences were negated when Huntingdon was actually attacked by Charles I in 1645 as he came from the west of the town.

After the civil war the artillery was removed, and the site sunk back into being agricultural land. A windmill was built on the motte site sometime in the late 18th century and was used until 1875, giving its name to the field behind, which is still known as “Mill Common”.

Hunts Castle 2
Diagram of Huntingdon Castle showing how the Huntingdon-Godmanchester line cut through the site.

The Coming of the Railway
The mid 19th century was a period of massive railway development across the entire country. This was, however, in no way planned or orchestrated and so individual companies sprung up to link their town to the next with no regulation or oversight. The first railway to Godmanchester was built in 1847 by the Lynn & Ely Railway Company, who linked it onto their St. Ives line. The station was behind the mill on the river. Meanwhile, the first Huntingdon Station was built by the Great Northern Railway Company on the Peterborough to London line in 1850.

As the crow flies between the two stations (via Castle Hill and over the Ouse) is less than a quarter of a mile, yet for 33 years passengers heading east from Huntingdon had to complete their journey by getting a horse drawn coach from the Huntingdon Station to Godmanchester Station. It was only in 1883 the necessary quarter mile of track was laid through the castle site, and even then the line was notoriously unreliable, with trains often having to be pulled by horses, delays of days at a time due to flooding and frequently in the summer the wooden rail trestles catching alight from sparks chucked up by the train engine.

As train lines became increasingly uniform and regularised the obvious flaws in this line came to the fore; the number of weak bridges meant that only light locomotives could be used, and the nature of the landscape with gradients onto flood proof earth banks meant that speed was limited to 40mph — with some sections to only 10mph!

It can be no surprise that the line was closed in the late 1950s with the final train running on the 4th June 1962. 

At this time the route of the line through Castle Hill was already being earmarked for bigger and better things…

Constipation Street

Traffic jam on the junction by the Three Tuns, Huntingdon High Street

Huntingdon High Street had long had a reputation for being a bottleneck in the smooth running of traffic east to west. By 1959 (the year of the last passenger train on the Huntingdon-Godmanchester rail line) there were 11,443 vehicles surveyed passing along the High Street in a twelve hour period. As well as the delays to traffic, the vehicles posed a serious risk to the safety of pedestrians shopping on the high street or trying to cross the road!

After 77 accidents along the High Street in a year, January 1964 saw a petition started asking for a bypass. It had 6,000 names within the space of a few months and the plans were officially started to bypass Huntingdon town centre. The work started with constructing the ring road, and then the bridging road between the A1 and the St. Ives roundabout, however these had only limited success in reducing the number of vehicles passing through the town, so in June 1972 permission was given to build the bypass which would become the A14.

Original plans to tunnel beneath Port Holme Meadow were dropped after it proved too expensive and so instead plans were drawn up to bridge the Ouse where the railway had originally done so. The designs were subject to serious scrutiny and concerns over maintenance and the ability to expand the road in future were raised and ultimately ignored.

The opening of the A14 bypass as reported in the Hunts Post, Courtsy of CCAN

The bypass opened 30th September 1975, however within 13 years it needed repair work costing £4m. In 2016, work was begun on a new A14 bypass to allow the current viaduct to be removed; ironically the route taken is one considered in the 1970s but considered unfeasible!

The history of Castle Hill is the history of Huntingdonshire, the history of East Anglia and even the history of Britain. From Saxon and Viking river skirmishes, through the dynastic wars of England and Scotland, the brutal civil strife of the 12th and the 17th centuries, agricultural developments and those of transport links as part of the industrialisation of the 19th and 20th centuries, Huntingdon Castle has seen it all.

Anon, “Why Huntingdon Castle Was Torn Down”, The Hunts Post, 2011, via:

Anon, “Huntingdon Castle”, Castle, First Battles, 2016, via:

Anon, “Huntingdon Castle (Castle Hills): a motte and bailey castle and Civil War fieldwork”, Historic England, 2019, via:

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, 2004, 1st Edition

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdonshire Through Time”, Amberely Publishing, 2010, 1st Edition

Catford, N. “Godmanchester”, Disused Stations, 2017, via:

Hufford, D “History of Castle Hill’, CCAN, 2007, via:

Hufford, D et al “Huntingdon Town Trail”, BID Huntingdon, 2011

History Hit, “How a Shipwreck Plunged England Into Anarchy”, History Hit, 2018, via:

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. ’The borough of Huntingdon: Introduction, castle and borough‘, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 2, Victoria County History, London, 1932

Matthew Callen 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.

Historic Huntingdonshire Women

If I asked you to name an important man in the history of Huntingdonshire, I’m sure that in no time at all, you would be able to think of one or two – Oliver Cromwell, perhaps? Revered by some, hated by others, he certainly made an impact on our country’s politics! Perhaps Samuel Peyps, with his journalistic legacy? You might find it harder to name important women, however. History has a habit of forgetting to tell the stories of those women who did have achievements and influence, so here are a few greater-or-lesser known women from history with a Huntingdonshire connection.

Maud, Countess of Huntingdon (1074 – 1130/31) “Queen of Scotland”
Maud of Huntingdon (Queen Consort of Scotland)

Also known as Matilda, this great-niece of William the Conqueror was the wife of King David I of Scotland; queen consort and grandmother to King Malcom IV – so in terms of both local and national importance, pretty high!

She was the daughter of Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon (one of the last major Anglo-Saxon earls to remain powerful after the Norman conquest in 1066), and Judith of Lens, who is the namesake for the parish of Sawtry Judith. The domesday book states that Judith had land-holdings in no less than 10 counties in the Midlands and East Anglia, so Maud had a powerful parentage.

The young Maud married Simon de Senlis, a Norman nobleman, who received the honour of Huntingdon, probably ‘in right of his wife’. When de Senile died two decades later, Maud married David, brother-in-law of Henry I of England – she was almost forty and her new husband was nearly ten years her junior.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes the lands acquired by David on his marriage to Maud, known as the ‘honour of Huntingdon’, as stretching from south Yorkshire to Middlesex but chiefly concentrated in the shires of Northampton, Huntingdon, Cambridge, and Bedford.

Maud had seven known children – three by her first husband, four by King David. Unfortunately, of her later four children, only Henry survived into adulthood, and he did not outlive his father, and the Kingship passed straight on to Maud’s grandson, Malcolm.

Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707 – 1791) “the St. Theresa of the Methodists”

You may expect to see a “Countess of Huntingdon chapel” in Godmanchester or St Ives, but would you expect to see one in such far flung places as Manchester, or St Ives Cornwall? The story behind the, at one point 200 strong, network of churches, seminaries and missions which still survive in part today is really the life story of Selina Hastings.
Selina Hastings in later life (c.1770)

Born into the English aristocracy in 1707 (her father was 2nd Earl Ferrars), she married Theophilius Hastings, ninth Earl of Huntingdon with whom she had seven children, and was known as “Lady Bountiful” for the good works she did in and around her husbands estate.

So far her life reads like that of many an 18th century noblewoman, however aged around thirty, following a period of illness, she was introduced via her sister-in-law to Methodism and had a religious awakening.

By all accounts she took to Methodism, at this point an increasingly popular religious movement, with great passion, astonishing her social circle with her deep religious beliefs. At her husbands insistence she debated her newfound faith with the Bishop of Gloucester (his old tutor from Oxford) and ran rings around the cleric.

Her need to evangelise the people led her to open her first chapel in Brighton in 1761 where for £1200 she established a “a small but neat chapel”; she would later finance and supervise the opening of 64 chapels in England and Wales as well as missions and chapels in Europe, Africa and America.

COuntess of Hunts Bath.jpg
The only Countess of Huntingdon original chapel to survive in Bath, built in 1765.

Such was the demand for Methodist preachers to fill pulpits in her churches, as well as to be lay preachers and go abroad to missions elsewhere, that the decision was made to establish a Methodist seminary, a site was found at Trevecca and in 1768 (on her sixtieth birthday) the college was founded, over 20 years 250 young men were trained here, with many going on to be fully ordained.

Selina died at the age of 84, having ensured her lifework would live on via an association founded a few years before her death.

Frances “Fanny” Duberly (1829–1903) “one of the first war correspondents”

Born Frances Isabella Locke (but known throughout her life as Fanny), she was the youngest of nine children. Aged 11, following the death of her mother, she was sent to Wycombe for an education and would have been trained in all the skills a lady needed to marry well. She did this, marrying Lieutenant Henry Duberly whom she met at her sisters wedding to his elder brother (Major George Duberly). The family home of the Duberly’s was Gaines Hall, situated just outside Perry, where Fanny and her husband would inevitably have visited, if not lived.

Once again a life that so far reads like a Jane Austen novel, however, following her husbands deployment to first the Crimea, and then India, Fanny was about to come into her own.

The chief source we have of this period are the letters she wrote to her sister Selina. Fanny had a good eye for detail and a willingness to strike up a rapport with people; in the words of Lieutenant-Colonel Forrest, of the 4th Dragoons “she behaves in the most extraordinary way, riding and walking about with anybody”.

Fanny Duberly
Fanny and her husband, photographed in the Crimea by Roger Fenton 1855

Furthermore her contacts within the military allowed her to be in position to witness military actions as they happened, she was an eyewitness at the battle of Inkerman, the Charge of the Light Brigade (her description of which inspired Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, her account reads: “Fire seemed to be pouring from all sides… Faster and faster they rode…”) the storm of Sevastopol and later on the Indian mutiny.

Following the publication of her war memoirs; “Journal Kept During the Russian War: From the Departure of the Army from England in April 1854, to the Fall of Sebastopol” she was snubbed by society for her supposed improprietious behaviour (Queen Victoria refused to allow the book to be dedicated to her). However alongside William Russell of the Times she is one the most important firsthand sources we have of the Crimean war, and is responsible for bringing the horrors of modern warfare to the public attention, showing the terror and mud instead of the glory.

Following her return to England in 1864 she never wrote again, dying in 1903 at Cheltenham.

Isabella Bird (1831 – 1904) “explorer, writer, doctor, missionary”

Image of Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird

This nineteenth century explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist lived quite an incredible life…

Born in Yorkshire and the daughter of a Reverend (Revd Edward Bird) and a Reverend’s daughter (Dora Lawson), she inherited strong evangelical views and in her early years she moved from place to place when her father’s curacy changed. As a young child she suffered from a spinal complaint and nervous headaches and was advised by doctors to spend her time outdoors for the sake of her health – she learned to ride and spent much of her time on horseback, leading her to be an expert horsewoman in later life.

Though suffering from illness she was a strong character – according to a biography, even at the age of six, she confronted the campaigning MP for South Cheshire (whose fantastically fancy name was Sir Malpas de Grey Tatton Egerton) asking him “did you tell my father my sister was so pretty because you wanted his vote?”

In 1848, the family moved to Wyton in Huntingdonshire, where she learnt rowing on the Ouse. When she was twenty two, she was recommended a sea voyage for her health & spent seven months on a trip to Canada and the United States. This was the start of a lifetime of travel for Isabella, who recorded her experience in ‘The English-woman in America’, published by John Murray, who became a friend for life.

Her family moved to Edinburgh, where she spent her time between travels, but she was soon off to New Zealand, Australia, and the Sandwich Islands. She went to Hawaii where women rode astride, and abandoned the side saddle enabling her to ride more comfortably for longer distances. She wrote affectional letters to her sister Henrietta, which formed material for her many books.

Shortly after her sister Henrietta’s death, she married Henrietta’s medical advisor, John Bishop, however their happiness only lasted 5 years before he too passed away. Despite her loss, she was not one to sit around, retraining in medicine and going travelling again on medical missions, establishing several hospitals, which were dedicated to her husband and sister .

Over the course of her life, countries she visited included America, Hawaii, Australia, India, Kurdistan, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and China. She saw a great many things, rode thousands of miles on horseback, and even a few miles on an elephant.

In her sixties she was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1892. She left for another trip to the orient, covering 8,000 miles across China, over 15 months, this would be her final expedition. She was planning another trip to China (now in her 70’s!) but fell ill and died at her home in Edinburgh in 1904.
Illustration from “My Home in the Rocky Mountains”

Of the four women, we most enjoyed learning about Isabella Bird’s rich and full life of travel which we could only touch up on here – if you would be interested in a blog post with more detail on the places she visited and the things she did, get in touch via Facebook, Twitter, or email. Likewise if there any Huntingdonshire women who you think we should have covered, let us know!

#IWM #Herstory #feminist #women

Co-written by Victoria Spurway and Matthew Callen

Victoria Spurway 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.

Matthew Callen 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.


Burn-Murdoch, B, (1996), “Whats so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, Friends of the Norris Museum, 1st Edition

Anon, (1926), “Sawtry Judith”, via:

Anon, (1999-2017),“The Domesday Book Online”, via:

G. W. S. Barrow (2004), “David I”, via:

Cook, F (2001), “Selina Countess of Huntingdon”, via:

Kirby, G.W., (2002), “The Elect Lady: A Biography of Selina Hastings”, Trustees of the Countess of Huntingdons Connexion, 3rd Edition,

Overton, J. H., “Hastings, Selina”, The Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, Pages 133-135)

Anon, “Captain Henry Duberly Esq, Paymaster of the 8th (The King’s Royal Irish) Light Dragoons (Hussars) and Mrs Fanny Duberly, 1855”, National Army Museum, via:

Anon, (2007), “Fanny Duberly”, Via:

Jardine, C, (2007), “She wanted to cause a stir… and she did”, The Telegraph, via:…-and-she-did.html

Anon, 2014, “Isabella Bird (1831–1904)“. The John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland

Lucas, C.P, (1912). “Bishop, Isabella Lucy”, Dictionary of National Biography.

Middleton, D, (2004), “Bishop [Bird], Isabella Lucy (1831–1904)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Stoddart, A.M, (1906) “The Life of Isabella Bird, Mrs Bishop”, J. Murray, 1st Edition

A Potted History of Valentines Day

St Valentines Day is inexplicably enmeshed with modern day expectations of romantic gestures, red roses, chocolates and cards, this however has not always been the case. Here is a quick guide to what our Huntingdonshire forebears would have been doing on St. Valentines day.


We begin way before St. Valentine was even born, with the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. This obscure festival (involving the ritual sacrifice of goats and a dog) quite likely predates Rome and could well have been a sacrifice to ensure safety for flocks throughout the year. 

By the time the citizens of Godmanchester (known to the Romans as Durovigitum) were celebrating it, it had become linked to fertility, with the priests who had conducted the sacrifices running around with leather thongs hitting women; any woman hit by the priest was considered to have been made fertile. Pope Gelasius I called an end to these pagan goings on in 494 AD, and the festival was re-appropriated into the Feast of the Purification, or Candlemass.

St. Valentine(s)

So onto the Saint himself, well possibly themselves, Valentine is an apparently historic figure but is referenced as a Roman priest and the Bishop of Terni, these could both be the same person or alternatively stories of the two men have been conflated into one person. Either way, what we know is that St. Valentine was beheaded in 270 AD at the order of Claudius II Gothicus. This was most likely for either conducting illicit weddings, or simply being a well known Christian during one of the periodic persecutions of Christians which occurred up until the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire in 323 AD. As well as being the patron saint of lovers, Valentine also intercedes for beekeepers and epileptics.

Romantic Beginnings

Its worth stating now that the first reference to any sort of love or romance based celebration on St. Valentines day is not until Chaucer made a reference to St. Valentines day in his Parlement of Fowles (1382)

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”.

(For this was on Saint Valentines Day
When every bird comes there to choose his mate) verse was written in reference to the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. The treaty which agreed it was signed on the 3rd May, a day in the medieval calendar which celebrated the life of a St. Valentine of Genoa, a bishop who died in 307 AD. This raises some awkward questions as to whether we should actually be celebrating with chocolate and roses on this third St. Valentine’s day instead.

Generally speaking, if authors reference a topic then it can be assumed that there is widespread public knowledge of it (like a poor public transport reference would be today), so Chaucer’s Valentines day was most likely a known day of celebrating love/romance. Some accounts speak of young people drawing names of the opposite sex from a box or bag to be their “valentine”, and its possible that many Huntingdonshire village marriages were started this way; whether these were prearranged is of course another matter.

If we fast forward a few centuries we find another reference to St. Valentines day from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Ophelia (somewhat jadedly) says:

“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,

And dupp’d the chamber-door;

Let in the maid, that out a maid

Never departed more.”

The birth of the Valentine Card

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Valentine lottery has become somewhat less random, with love poems, sonnets and small gifts being exchanged — although it is hard to imagine the good puritan folk of Huntingdon taking part in such a “Papist” celebration!

A darker side to Valentines day was the sending of malicious or scandalous poems to those who were unmarried or those who were unhappily married. It was around this time that the anonymous valentine became a known occurrence to protect both sender and receiver from any unwanted comeuppance.

With the introduction of the postal system in the early 19th century, mass produced Valentines cards entered the scene, with cards being made from paper and lace by their thousands. In 1835, over 60,000 cards were sent in the post and with the reduction of postage costs (through the introduction of the Penny Black stamp in 1840) this number skyrocketed with over 400,000 cards being sent in 1841; today, around 25,000,000 cards are sent annually in the UK alone.

My love is like a red, red rose

Valentines day.jpgThe first Valentine specific chocolate box was made by Cadburys in 1868, and swiftly became a valentine staple, as did the sending of flowers. The Victorians had an elaborate secret language in what flowers were sent and by who. This “floriography” inevitably became attached to valentines day. Many flowers had specific meanings (Daffodils for unrequited love, Violets for faithfulness, etc) and the colour also carried meaning; red roses symbolised passionate love, yellow roses meant friendship and white roses implied purity. Although floriography is now an all but dead language the residual meaning of red roses has remained as an integral part of Valentines day.

The Victorian expectations and traditions of Valentines day still influence how we celebrate today (and will continue to do so for some time), so despite being named for a 3rd century priest (or priests) and falling around the day of a pre-Roman ancient festival, Valentines day really is a mostly 19th century creation. Personally, I’d rather have chocolates than goat sacrifice anyway.


Lupercalia“, Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2019, via:

St Valentine”, Anon, 2019, via:

St. Valentine”, Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2019,

St. Valentines Day”, Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2019, via:

Parlement of Fowles”, Geoffrey Chaucher, 1382,

A History of Valentine’s Day”, Michelle Prima, 2005, via:

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, tragedy in five acts”, William Shakespeare, 1603

Valentine cards reveal Britain’s relationship history”, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2010, via:

Colours of Roses: What do they mean?”, Jacob Olesen, 2019, via:

How Flowers Were Once Used to Deliver Messages”, Shannon O’Connor, 2016, via:

Matthew Callen 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.

Off the Beaten Track Around Grafham Water

29983380_10215715220694145_8128658488843829248_nThe fog wreathed, dull iron grey waters of the lake sat sullenly under an overcast sky full of the threat of rain; the weather could be no more different to the bright summers day which had graced Huntingdon yesterday. Swigging down the last of my coffee I got up from the bench, breathed the fresh air in deeply and began to walk.

The lake in question is Grafham Water, an Anglian Water reservoir and area of Significant Scientific Interest five miles from Huntingdon, which contains 578,000,000 m3 of water, ranking it the eighth largest reservoir nationally by volume and third nationally by size. The lake itself is entirely synthetic, installed in 1965 to supply water to Milton Keynes and the rapidly expanding East Midland and Cambridgeshire towns. It was established by damming and flooding a valley which had previously contained 1,500 acres of farmland and four unfortunate farms. The reservoir was colonised almost immediately by assorted wildlife and is now home to rare species such as warty newts, great crested grebes, tufted ducks and a large colony of mute swans.

It was one of these mute swans, a brown speckled youth still growing his pure white feathers, who serenely slid past me as I slithered and slipped along a churned footpath lined with the vicious husks of dried teasels and populated by flying insects who had been, as I had, fooled by the previous days glorious weather. 

I was starting my walk from the furthest point that Vicky and I had walked around the lake on a previous trip, about half a mile around its ten mile circumference where we had been waylaid by picnic benches and an attractive vista. Most of the lake is shored with gradual sloping beaches or solid defensive rock groynes, but this section was lined with sturdy brick wall embankments. The embankments were just visible in the April gloom; though the increased water levels (following the damp segway from winter to spring) had left them submerged. They were laid out below the turgid waters, ghostly green outlines of ruined buildings like some ancient ruin lost beneath the waves.

Despite the grey hue of the terrain, spring was present and flourishing everywhere as I squelched along the saturated path; the fresh green shoots growing liberally on bramble, ash, beech, hawthorn and oak as spring breathed new life into old beings. I came around a bend and upon a clump of daffodils; late bloomers and the last survivors from the first flourish of better weather, surviving just a little longer on that near abandoned lakeside track.

A better path did exist, a nice path laid out with tarmac, properly edged and installed at great expense, however the road less travelled beckoned and so my route initially adhered to the desire ways, dogpaths, footpaths, tracks, byways, lostways and foundways which twisted their own passage through the topography. This explains why I was picking my way through the treacherous no-mans land of mud, hawthorn, briar and bramble to finally stumble out onto a perfect little beach, laid not with pebbles or shingle but with swan mussel shells, miniature driftwood and worn brick and tile. The beach ran for twenty foot or so along the end of a cove, bisected halfway by a woodland brook running from the tangled saplings and willows which grew to within a few foot of the lapping waters edge. All that was missing was the salt tang on the breeze and I could have been back in my childhood purlieu of Chichester Harbour. That landscape was one of the first I explored alone, travelling the muddy footpaths along coast and through marsh and ancient woodland, environments which evoked a golden nostalgia of summers gone before. There a similar bizarre meshing of landscapes occurs, with trees growing with their very roots in the muddy waters of the sea, and the highest tides lapping against wildflower groves.

The splashing of the lapping water, hissing sibilance of a field of dried wheat husks and droning of the first few busy worker bees of the year lulled me into a sense of peace and the track disappeared beneath my somnambulant feet with rapidity and ease. The fog prevented me looking out over the lake, so I took in my immediate surroundings; the spire of Grafham church disappearing behind a slight incline, a blue tit perched on a teasel wobbling in the breeze, stones washing around the flood defence boulders, a lone fisherman in a little white fishing boat which would look more at home pulled up on Hastings seafront than a Cambridgeshire lake. My reverie was broken only by the turning of the path as it cut around a cove, where a small sliver of woodland all moss and green shoots stark against the black and grey trunks and interlocking branches interspersed itself between the farmland and the water. The ongoing wheat husks, thus protected, thickened up into a veritable army or fortification; a six foot high unbroken yellow wall, stark against the horizon, hemming the footpath in still closer, hushing and whispering into the silence.

It was then a frog croaked – I jumped bodily, nearly slipped, saved myself with my stick and swore loudly at the concealed amphibian who had ambushed me thus. My sudden shout launched a flurry of pigeons flapping, cooing and cracking from the treetops. I waited a short while to see if any further wildlife would be antagonised by this amphibious menace before cautiously proceeding. The route took a downwards turn (in a literal and metaphorical sense) a slipping, sliding quagmire on a slight incline presided over by a weather beaten elm tree, and eventually deposited me on the shore once more.

The cove here was graced by another miniature beach, albeit one where the land, being more eroded, had trees growing down to the very waterline; questing tree roots growing straight out into the lake with clusters of yellow flowering weeds living in the protection of their knotted roots. Having skimmed a few more stones, (and discovered that the weathered red brick shards made especially good skimmers) the path led me crunching over outlying wheat husks to a boulder-lined foreshore defence, bolstered by the addition of a tangled lake-weaved mesh of flotsam and jetsam; willow branch, rope, feather, plastic and vegetation strewn over the tree roots of the first of a whole grove of willows.

This willow grove is one of a multitude in Cambridgeshire. The trees naturally favour damp conditions near waterways and the oft flooded fens are ideal. All these weeping willows, and indeed every one in England, according to legend, came from a twig received by Alexander Pope binding up a parcel. He planted this primogenitor twig outside his riverside home in the early eighteenth century and the tree flourished and spread. Whatever the truth in that, willows really do grow up at the least provocation from fallen branches and even from cuttings or twigs stuck in the earth. The branches, being incredibly malleable and supple, have traditional uses of fence and coracle building as well, of course, as baskets. Furthermore the bark of willow has pain killing properties; the first aspirin were procured from salicylic acid distilled from willow bark. These majestic trees are often found growing at the edge of water as the willow roots form a tight interlocked net which helps to bond together eroding banks and prevent further damage. Despite their many uses they have an ill reputation, as according to English folklore willow trees could unroot themselves to stalk travellers.

These willows, however, seemed disinclined to pursue me and passing under the canopy of an especially gnarled tree into its green roofed and walled domain I found nothing but a peaceful atmosphere; the splashing of the waters seemed to drop away and the wind was turned from a noisome breeze whipping over the lake into a gentle whisper of stirring branches. A previous walker had evidently likewise enjoyed the peace under the willow for they had created a small stone circle using rocks picked from the flood defences in a ring around a central boulder. Dropping a small piece of driftwood I had picked up from the cove as an offering I passed out of the other side of the willow.

A small fir copse enhanced what would have otherwise been a stark headland, the evergreens sheltering from the wind whisked waves behind a piled granite flood defence, fresh greys against the thousand browns of the needle-lined shore. Stopping to perch on a tree stump by an old fire pit I poured a coffee from my thermos and surveyed the lake. The mist was thinning and through what remained the lake could be seen coming alive, dinghies, canoes, kayaks, windsurfers and fishing vessels stirring the waters; a spectral armada of sails and hulls against the monochrome lake and sky.

Turning away from the views, the path carried me down one edge of an inlet and onto a more sheltered shore. Here, lake and land were so intermingled that the trees themselves stood out in the clear water. The effect of this was tiny sandy beaches which lay protected between tree roots, idyllic strips of muted golden sands like West Country bays between cliff promontories, scoured by the increasingly choppy waters of the lake. Emerging from the lilliputian coastline I clambered an earthen bank under a bird cherry tree in full blossom to regain the path.

My choice of route was beginning to be dictated by the official footpath, now that its meanderous diversion via Grafham village was complete. Thus I followed for a cheerful mile along a windswept stretch, with rolling freshly planted fields to my right and the agitated lake waters blustering in the wind to my left. The fields filled in with shrubs, saplings and then full trees so gradually that the greenwood appeared to materialise before me, growing up from the gentle hills in an instant. The thoroughfare beneath my feet turned away from the turbulent reservoir and up into the trees of Savage’s Spinney.

In the cover of the oak, ash and bramble, the wind, which as a background noise I had hardly noticed, died away and even the murmur of the billions of litres of water invisible through the trees had fallen silent. The only things to be heard were the desultory chattering and singing of the birds and the whirr and natter of cyclists; in the near silence the words of John Muir jumped unbidden to mind “Allows nature’s peace to flow into you as sunshine flows into trees”. After a long repeating winter with several false starts for spring, the spinney was vividly verdant, greens of dozens of hues erupting from tree, shrub and leaf strewn ground, brightening and enlivening the grey brown branches and fallen boughs of the austere winter wood.

The track eventually wound out to a clear hillside, describing a circuitous way lined with layered hawthorn around the quiet waters of Savage’s Creek. 

The sun had finally burnt a passage through the fog bank which still lay as a pall over the countryside, and I took a moment to enjoy the sunshine and more coffee, resting by pylons crackling with raw energy. Sitting in the grass by the deserted path I was startled by the sudden swoop of a Red Kite flying a few meters above the hawthorn hedge in a hunting dive, before aborting its strike at the sight of me and climbing gracefully back up into the air.

Red Kites are both an ancient animal and one recently introduced in England. The hunter-scavenger birds are native to Northern and Western Europe and were valued in pre-medieval and medieval England for eating refuse and rodents, especially from towns and cities. This symbiotic relationship changed after several poor harvests resulted in Henry VIII’s administration introducing the “vermin laws”. Under this legislation a bounty was paid for each kite head, to prevent them despoiling the harvest or attacking valuable livestock. So followed two hundred years of excessive culling in which the Red Kite was pushed to the brink of extinction in the UK, a precipice the species tipped over in the late 19th century in England and Scotland. In Wales a few breeding pairs were maintained thanks to the forethought of a collection of landowners who prevented the complete extinction of the bird from the British Isles. These few survivors were bolstered by reintroducing Red Kites from continental Europe in the early 1990’s and now around two thousand breeding pairs are active in the UK. One of the centres for Red Kites is Northamptonshire, where kites were released into Rockingham forest (less than twenty miles from Savage’s Creek as the Kite flies).

I picked myself up and carried on along, crossing an overgrown brook shrouded by trees and shrubs, which trickled down into the creek — were it not for the bridge which reverberated under my tread it would have passed entirely unnoticed. The path climbed a gentle slope, a sheltered copse filling the gap between it and the creek, which was home to juvenile oak trees so protected that they still wore autumn’s leaves. The hedgerow to my right soon wore out and the walker is left open to the green sprouting fields as they rise and fall beneath the shade of full oak trees. They were age old behemoths, flourishing in their four-hundredth spring, solid roots home to the first intrepid bluebells of the year. This was a popular stretch of the circumnavigation of the lake and was busy with cyclists for almost my entire time along it, save for one brief interval where the whizzing of bikes and prattle of cyclists abruptly stopped, dropping me into the sudden silence of the trees and fields, disturbed only by the hissing of pylons growing out of the sylvan sliver of woodland to tower over the trees, a carpet of dandelions, nettles, cowslips and bluebells around their stout metal legs.

The spinneys around this area of the reservoir predate the reservoir, in some parts by hundreds of years, as much of the forestry is ancient woodland (defined as being over four hundred years old). The word spinney itself is an indicator of this, being the sixteenth century shortening of the Old French espinei, derived from the Latin spinetum or spina meaning “thorny”. It is entirely possible that some of the larger oak specimens are even older, the natural life span of an oak tree being around nine hundred years unless felled. The ancient species of trees began to be joined by fresh smelling fir trees; a plantation merging the gap between the oaks I had just passed and Littless Creek, an area continuously wooded since the early seventeenth century. The path plunged into Little Spinney, climbing from a muddy nadir through a hollowayed stream, past a little lumber yard home to several hive shaped charcoal burners, and out of the trees.

Leaving the spinney with mixed feelings (I love spending time in woodland but the dark overhead linking branches on such a gloomy day had begun to feel oppressive), I emerged into open fields. The path twisted up what a passing cyclist referred to as a “veritable Cambridgeshire mountain” and ascended the very modest summit. Enjoying the glorious and now much clearer view out over the water, I set off down the other side of the hill, passing under a living archway of hawthorn and bird-cherry in full blossom into a field of grazing geese. A half trod desire-way across the semi-saturated field led into another wooded area along a boggy miresome path.

This young forest was one which would be perpetually young, standing as it did on a headland with little cover, and the forest floor was liberally lined with the rotting trunks of larger trees; a shrewd reminder of the importance of not growing too big for your roots in so damp and unsheltered a spot. I carried on through the forest over a little wooden bridge and out onto the official track where a half-mile stroll in the wan sunlight brought me down to the harbour office outside Perry.

Stopping for lunch of bread, cheese and apples washed down with coffee from the thermos, perched on a flood defence earthen bank, which felt as though it were an iron age fortification. The harbour cafe was full of people; unsurprising at lunchtime on a weekend in the Easter holidays. In contrast the little manmade harbour, projecting moles protecting the moored dinghies, was almost empty, the lake now populated with the vessels instead, an armada of light craft holding an ad hoc regatta.

Having lunched, I turned away from the lake and followed the path inland as it left the confines of Grafham Water and became a suburban road lined with standard 1960’s detached bungalows. 

This was Perry, a relatively new construct of two hamlets, East & West Perry. The etymology of the village’s name is unknown, however a document from 1208 giving monks at nearby Warden Abbey (whose coat of arms featured golden pears) the right to make clearings in the woods here suggests that the village could have been involved in the manufacture of “Perry” or pear-cider. The parish is less salubriously home to Her Majesties Prison Littlehey. Before it was a prison the site was Gaynes Hall, a small stately home that was home to Lord Howard of Effingham, Lord Admiral of the fleet for Elizabeth I and James I. The hall was later leased to Richard Cromwell, who had a young Oliver Cromwell visit, before eventually passing into the hands of the Duberly family. The wife of Captain Henry Duberly of the 8th Hussars published one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

Once you have turned left past the Wheatsheaf, Perry peters out very quickly, with none of the drawn out suburbia you so often encounter, and the path turns into a slightly muddy, sandy track which leads back down to the lake. The route merrily meanders through a green and pleasant band of land between the lake and the road, past small pockets of trees and shrubs laced with the ramshackle homes of nesting birds, and interspersed with boggy areas where gently bubbling springs can be witnessed, flowing from the earth after their long sojourn in the depths. The sun, always semi-absent in April, was disappearing and reappearing with increasing regularity behind clouds which promised rain and in the dim cloud-wreathed afternoon light it was bitterly cold.

Through gaps in the undergrowth I could now see the dam, a slab of concrete, impersonal, precise and foreign in the landscape, gargantuan, rearing over the medieval oaks. It seemed to create its own landscape, bending the terrain and topography to fit it, this bleak lichen encrusted border between the deep mysteries of the lake and the flat fens of Cambridgeshire.

At the final approach to the dam, the intermittent tree cover cleared away, revealing in a rare sun-dappled moment the undulating pastel green hills and awakening spring spinneys I had walked earlier in the day, framed by the grey forbidding waters of the lake. A cacophony of geese on the shoreline distracted my attention from the view, as the louring sky finally broke to silently dimple and mark the quiet waters, bringing the water alive with the sudden movements. I looked back out over the vista as it was fading beneath the soft grey rain, the storm blowing down over the lake, to engulf me.

Matthew Callen 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.