The Lost Roman Town of Durobrivae – “the bridge fort”

At the northern end of Huntingdonshire, unharmed by the passing of Boudicca and the Iceni in 60AD the fortresses at Longthorpe and Water Newton still stood. By 65AD the Longthorpe fort – far from any major thoroughfares and obsolete as the border steadily moved north – was abandoned. The fort at Water Newton, however, began to develop a fledgling township outside its walls.

Magnetometer survey of the urban area inside the walls of Durobrivae taken in 2018 showing how built up the 20 acres inside the wall were.
© Archaeological Services Durham University

Similarly to Durovigutum (Godmanchester) to the south, Durobrivae (Water Newton) covered some 20 acres to start with, but by the time defensive walls were built in the 2nd century they contained over 40 acres. Durobrivae would appear to have developed organically as side-streets off Ermine Street, although there were municipal buildings, temples and a mansio as there were at Godmanchester.

Evidence of a large temple site and at least four shrines have been found within the city walls and immediate suburbs, while religious offerings have been found in the Nene – thrown in, as was the traditional Celtic fashion. On the far outskirts of the urban sprawl (near AIlsworth) shrines have been found either side of Ermine Street, supposed to have been used by travellers commencing or ending a journey.

Travellers would have been a very common occurrence within Durobrivae as the town was criss-crossed by several key roads, including Ermine Street, the Lincoln Road and the Leicester Road, and was located directly on the Nene. The site was therefore well situated for the imperial officials administering to the fens, an important Imperial estate, and in time a huge palace complex would be built overlooking the town (of which more anon). As well as these excellent transport links, Durobrivae had two things Durovigitum did not; ready supplies of clay and mineable iron.

Castorware Pot with charioteer and horses from the collection of the British Museum.

The first pottery from Durobrivae appears in 125 AD, the style is known as “castorware” or “nene valley ware”. In order to minimise fire risks and the disruption of tons of raw materials being delivered and finished pots being shipped, Roman law prohibited manufacturing pottery inside the town limits. As a result, the industry moved outside the town walls. These industrial zones would, at their zenith, cover some 250 acres stretching far to the north, south and west of the town boundaries, with the finished pottery discovered as far afield as Germany.

The iron deposits in surrounding countryside were likewise exploited. Metal-workers, with iron-foundries based near the Nene, surrounded the town to the east. One example at Orton Longueville is complete with furnaces and pits; another in the north-eastern suburbs features twenty furnaces in a wide aisled hall. Evidence of bronze casting has also been found in the archaeological record. Such extensive industry suggests that metal was also being shipped (literally along the Nene) to be cast into tools and weapons by the skilled smiths of Durobrivae.

As the town grew, other industries started to develop. As the Nene was still tidal past Peterborough, salt could be extracted to cure meat – an extraction site has been identified at Stanground. The building materials required for urban growth saw stone quarries flourishing at Sibson and the careful cultivation of local woodland. Such successful industries saw a influx of wealth, and with it the desire for decoration and ornamentation, resulting in a local school of mosaicists operating from Durobrivae by the fourth century.

Satellite image of the extended Durbrivae site by Peterborough Archaeology Group. The magnetometer survey above is solely the large field marked Durobrivae on this image.

Needless to say such a thriving population required feeding, and the fertile plains of the Nene valley were farmed extensively by a plethora of villas and farms. These were located in the area directly around the town and further afield in the territory of Durobrivae – which extended as far south-west as Thrapston. The fenland to the east would also have provided a good deal of food, with farms and fields on islands and along the very edges of the fens providing an excess for export.

The very size of Durobrivae has lead some historians to believe it was deliberately established as a regional administration centre, depot and capital. By the third century, just over the river and up the hill at the site of what is now the village of Castor could be found the second largest Roman building ever unearthed in Britain. Unfortunately there is little in the archaeological or written record pertaining to the site and much is therefore conjecture.

An artists impression of the view down over Durobrivae from the Praetorium at Castor. From Peterborough Museum

We do know that this was a 300m building, with hypocaust, fine mosaics and bath complex. It has been interpreted as a “working palace” – an elaborate dwelling-cum-workplace for an important imperial official to overlook the distribution and administrative centre he was responsible for.

Around the same time as the palace at Castor was inhabited, a remarkable treasure was hidden nearby on the outskirts of the town. It is one of the most important hoards ever found from Roman Britain and now housed at The British Museum; an elaborate collection of almost thirty silver items packed into a large pot, including a dish, cup, bowl, strainer and triangular plaques. The thing that makes these one of the most important Romano-British finds is the clear Christian iconography they all bear. Pieces have the greek Chi-Rho (a symbol that predates the cross), inscriptions with references to an altar and to individuals from the community. The silver plagues are borrowed from the existing religious rites of Rome; such plagues would be inscribed with thanks, vows or requests and nailed to the outside of temples.

It was not always safe to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, and it is tempting to imagine the small congregation’s priest sneaking from the city at midnight to bury their church-silver before the next crack-down on Christians. It is also possible that the silverware was hidden by thieves or even early Saxon raiders – which may well explain why it was never dug up again.

By the late fourth century, Saxon raids had led to a military command being created for the defence of the “Saxon Shore” (England’s east coast), and certainly around this time the pottery industry at Durobrivae was declining. The city walls were strengthened and extra bastions added, and whilst this kept the town safer it may well have resulted in the abandonment of the suburbs which were outside these defences.

After the withdrawal of Roman forces in the early years of the fifth century, the trade that had built and sustained Durobrivae slowly drained away. With money no longer being minted, roads and bridges no longer maintained, the collapse of the town was inevitable. Unlike Durovigitum, the town does not appear to have been violently sacked. There is some evidence of Saxons briefly settling in the remnants of the town but the settlement was never developed and instead the surviving stone was taken away and repurposed over decades.

A new Saxon settlement was founded nearby on the Nene; we know it as Water Newton, translated from the old English “niwetun waeter” meaning “new town on the river”. The site of the palace at Castor was also plundered for building material, in this case by the site’s new occupant St. Kyneburgha. She was a Mercian princess who established a nunnery and monastery, around which grew a settlement which they named “ceastre”. To this day the village of Castor has the only church in the UK dedicated to St. Kyneburgha.

The modern site of Durobrivae with the roman roadways clearly visible in the foreground, Ermine Street can be seen running arrow straight from bottom centre to top left of this image.

This is the end of our three-part Roman Blog, next month we’ll be looking at some Anglo-Saxon women with guest writer Victoria 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.

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Roman Godmanchester – Durovigitum – “the thriving fort”

Following the defeat of Boudicca in 61AD, the Roman legions returned to the remains of Godmanchester. The replacement fort was planned and built over some 20 acres, and the traders and civilians likewise came back to repair and rebuild the shattered township outside.

The military presence seems to have been been redeployed within a short time, implying a certain degree of peacefulness in the area. Despite the vacant fortifications, the civilian town mushroomed. At first, inhabitants lived in Celtic style round houses, but over time the town was largely rebuilt in stone and wood rectangular buildings. By the third century, there was a population of around three thousand (half the population today) and a prestigious basilica (town hall), meaning the town was officially self-governing.

This independence was due to its location straddling two important roadways, the Via Devena (running from Colchester to Chester) and Ermine Street (running from London to York). These roads were the motorways of the day, and excavations show that by the second century Ermine street was 43 feet (over 13m) wide and solidly built. Ermine Street was, in fact, so solidly built that in the mid-eighteenth century Montagu house at the end of Huntingdon High Street was built atop the Roman road as it provided such good foundations!

Plan of the Godmachester Mansio based on excavations. Image courtesy of the Porch Museum Godmanchester.

We know from the archaeological record that by 120AD Durovigitum had an inn specifically for those on Imperial or government business. These remains are the second largest “mansio” found in England. The 95 foot long building was built in the west of Durovigitum (now Pinfold Lane and Granary Close) and included stables, rooms and a colonnaded garden. A kitchen in the inn provided food including oysters, pike, beef and chicken – and it is believed that travellers would also take food with them for the next day. Nearby stood a bath complex and a temple dedicated to a local god called Abandinus; possibly the god of the Ouse, adopted into the Roman pantheon like Sulis was in Bath.

Plan of the Bath House at Godmanchester based on excavations. Courtesy of the Porch Museum Godmanchester.

Another reason for the settlement’s success was down to the excellent farmland surrounding Durovigitum. Despite having a market and large amounts of through traffic, the inhabitants were dependent on agriculture to survive. The modern parish of Godmanchester corresponds to the “infields” of Durovigitum which were intensively farmed to supply food for the populace, and any excess could be traded with passing merchants or military suppliers. The extended territory under the control of Durovigutum abutted the territory of Durobrivae to the north, the boundary being drawn in the vicinity of Sawtry.

The rest of Huntingdonshire seems to have likewise been primarily focussed on farming; we know the Ouse valley was densely populated with farms and villas. The remains of some of these have been unearthed at Buckden, Holywell, Little Paxton, St. Ives, Huntingdon, Houghton, Hemingford and Bluntisham. Artefacts and Roman ballast found in the Ouse near St. Ives links in with what we know about Roman waterways in the area, and implies goods were being sent down the Ouse to Earith and thence via Car Dyke (a Roman canal) to Lincoln.

Grave goods from the 2nd century AD buried with a seven year old girl in Godmanchester, now in the collection of the British Museum. Image courtesy of the Hunts Post.

By the late third century Durovigitum was going from strength to strength, despite periodic flooding. The town hall in the centre of the settlement created a large market place directly across Ermine Street, where light industrial activity was beginning with potters kilns, iron and bronze workshops. The good times were, however, coming to an end. The cessation of Caurasias (admiral of Brittania) from Rome, and then his murder and replacement by his finance office Allectus, resulted in a decade of uncertainty for Britain. Around this time, many towns and larger settlements started to build defences, and Durovigutum was among them. These walls tended to be built to a standard template, and were around 3m thick with a deep, possibly flooded, ditch to front them – a serious deterrent to raiders.

Saxon raiders were lightly armed and armoured, relying on hitting targets hard and fast. Roman commanders could not stop every raider and often relied on catching them on the way back when they were easier to catch!

Unfortunately for Durovigitum, the walls were not finished when the first Saxon raiders hit. The archaeological record gives an idea of the horror of the Saxon raid; a buried jewellery hoard, never recovered, bodies abandoned in ditches, bones gnawed by dogs and wolves and severe fire damage to municipal buildings.

After this first raid, the settlement continued to survive throughout the fourth century. A new temple was built and the first, possibly Christian, burials are performed. These have been found outside the town walls in the area which is now home to St. Marys’ church and it is possible the modern church was built atop the site of the earliest Christian worship in the town.

By the time Emperor Honorius sent his famous letter to Britain, “urging them to defend themselves”, Durovigitum was a ruin of its former self. Declining traffic caused a local recession, and municipal buildings were being torn down to patch and repair the town walls. Whether the town remained a bastion of Romano-British culture or whether it swiftly returned to the sustenance farming of pre-Roman times is not known, what we do know is that at some point a Saxon war-leader named Godmund laid claim to the ruined site, giving his name to the “ceastre”; a name we still use today.

The Walls of Godmanchester in red solid lines with conjectured or unfinished sections dotted, the purple line is the approximate route Ermine Street took through the town. The influence on the town layout of these initial Roman walls is apparent even today!

For the final instalment in our Roman history blog, be sure to check out our post next week on the lost Roman town of Durobrivae, “the bridge fort”; one of the most remarkable Roman sites ever found in England.

A complete Bibliography for all three Roman Huntingdonshire blogs will be published with our third and final blogpost later this month.

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.

Before Rome, Before Boudicca – Early Roman Huntingdonshire.

The Huntingdonshire of the early Roman period would be unrecognisable to our modern eyes. The vast majority would have been thickly wooded, with the trees thinning out only on the high ridges of clay and the edges of the fens. The fens were a vast flooded plain stretching a far as the eye could see dotted with small islands, utterly unsurpassable and rife with marsh ague, or as we would call it; malaria.

This map shows the extent of the fens during the Iron Age and Roman Period, its worth stating that the modern day A1, A14 and A1198 are based on the routes of Roman Roads.

The roads which criss-cross Huntingdonshire today did not exist. As in the Somerset Levels, there is some scant evidence of woven wood roadways to cross the fens, and a surviving prehistoric trackway skirting the edge of the flooded fens still in use after many generations. This still survives as the “Bullock Road”, a millennia old road and footpath traversing the high ground past Alconbury.

The major population centres of today would not have existed as much more than roundhouses in clearings or on river banks. Indeed, throughout the Roman period there were no major settlements at Huntingdon, St. Neots, St. Ives or Ramsey, all of these being founded or formed in the post-Roman period, the majority around religious houses.

Such was Iron-Age Huntingdonshire, part of the land of the Catuvellauni tribe, a wooded, contained, landscape of a people scattered between forest and fen.

Modern interpretation of a small Celtic village with roundhouses and a basic palisade or fence – as much to keep animals in as anyone out

After centuries of this unchanging existence, the Romans arrived in 43 AD. The reason for the invasion has been the cause of long debate – was it an inevitability with the Roman thirst for expansion, a necessary propaganda victory to secure the throne of Claudius (a most unwarlike man of middle years with a stammer), or as a direct result of the invitation of a Roman ally to resolve tribal conflict?

Whatever the reason, the Romans landed in Kent and rapidly pushed out into the British hinterland, winning victory after victory against their lightly armed and armoured opponents. Despite the popularisation of the idea, the Celtic warriors did not fight naked but rather without the all-encompassing armour of a Roman legionary which would have been far too expensive for all but tribal elites.

Equipment of a first century legionary, despite the popular image of lorica segmentata (segmented armour) the most common armour was a chainmail called lorica hamata

The first Roman legionaries arrived in Huntingdonshire in the late 40’s, building a military road running east of the Ouse until they reached the edge of the fens at what is now Godmanchester. Here a military outpost was constructed, the road then continued north to skirt around the fens where another fort was built at what is now Water Newton, and a third and larger fort was built at Longthorpe sometime between 50-60 AD.

These forts would have been basic outposts intended to provide a safe place for soldiers to rest, a supply depot for food and weapons and perhaps most importantly a psychological sign for locals that the Romans were here to stay. Roman permanence, however, seemed a rather moot point in 60AD when the Iceni who bordered Huntingdonshire in the fens to the north rose up in arms.

Boudicca hardly needs describing, and whilst her rebellion is famous for the burning of Colchester, London, St. Albans and countless other Roman forts and fledgling settlements, the initial targets of the Iceni would have been in Huntingdonshire. The fort at Water Newton was left unmolested (as it was not the line of march south), whilst the Godmanchester fort was not so lucky.

The small fort at Godmanchester had evidently flourished and now sported a small civilian settlement outside the walls. This would have been home to traders, soldier’s (unofficial) wives, and anyone else who could stand to profit from the military presence. Such settlements were very commonplace and often these settlements took on a life of their own, becoming some of the towns and cities we still know today (Caerleon, Chester, Gloucester, Lincoln and York to name but a few).

This interpretation of a roman town and fort on a roadway is a fairly accurate idea of how the fledgling towns of Godmanchester or Water Newton may have looked.

Evidently the garrison was either too small, absent on other duties, or (as was the case at Colchester) ‘tactically’ withdrawn by superior officers. The Iceni tore through the nascent town and, if accounts of their actions elsewhere are anything to go by, killed every inhabitant before burning it to the ground. Much like in London, this moment is fossilised in the archaeological record; there is still a layer of burnt building debris laying below Godmanchester today.

One meter thick burnt debris and ash from Boudiccas attack on Londinium can still be excavated under modern day London.

Further north in Huntingdonshire, it has been suggested that the unfortunate ninth legion (immortalised in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel “Eagle of the Ninth”) may have been based at the fortress at Longthorpe. If so, they would have marched past the obliterated still smoking settlement to the south, en route for their own fateful encounter with the Iceni. They were to be trounced by the rebels, with the survivors forced to retreat back to the safety of their fort, leaving huge numbers of the legion dead.

The defeat of Boudicca in 61AD at the Battle of Watling Street (somewhere in the west-midlands) marked the end of serious organised resistance to Roman rule in Britannia, and in a short time the Romans began to expand back into East Anglia and then further north all the way to Scotland. Hereafter, the history of the Romans in Huntingdonshire is the history of the two towns whose territory encompassed the entirety of the county: Durovigutum and Durobrivae.

Look out for our next blogpost next week on the first of these settlements; Durovigitum, or as we now know it, Godmanchester.

A complete Bibliography for all three Roman Huntingdonshire blogs will be published with our third and final blogpost later this month.

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 Abbots Ripton Railway Disaster – Friday 21st January 1876

The evening of Friday 21st January 1876 was not a pleasant one for Huntingdonshire, with blizzards raging across the county leading to poor visibility and overall poor conditions. It was these conditions that led to the Abbots Ripton rail disaster, the worst rail accident in the county and one which changed some of the fundamental practices of the railways for the better.

The Site of Abbots Ripton Railway Station today

Prior to 1959 the line between Peterborough and Huntingdon had three intermediate stations: Yaxley and Farcet; Holme; and Abbots Ripton. The latter lay just under 13 miles south of Peterborough and 4.5 miles north of Huntingdon with services at the time operated by the Great Northern Railway. Abbots Ripton was, at the time, a station with two lines, the ‘up’ towards London and the ‘down’ towards Peterborough, as well as a siding adjacent to the ‘up’ line. The 1015 ‘Special Scotch Express’, a forerunner to the ‘Flying Scotsman’ has left Edinburgh on time and had had an uneventful journey south as far as Peterborough, where it departed at its scheduled time of 1818. Ahead of it was a coal train, which although due to depart at 1735, was delayed until 1755 and was therefore being caught up by the Scotch-express by the time it approached Holme. 

The Stirling engine of the “Special Scotch Express” the forerunner of the flying Scotsman.

The Holme signalman (in 1876, it was definitely a signalman), had been instructed to put the coal train into the siding at that station to avoid it delaying the Scotch-express, however due to the poor visibility the coal train continued on past on its journey south. The inquiry later discovered that the weight of the snow on the arms of the signals and/or the wires connecting them to the signal boxes meant that they showed as clear (with the associated white lamp) despite the levers in the signal box being set to danger. The coal train continued to Abbots Ripton where it was stopped by the signalman with a red handlamp as normal and instructed to shunt into the up siding. This shunt move had almost been completed when the Scotch-express struck the coal train at full speed, having run through several signals the signalman thought to be at ‘danger’ but had been weighed down by the snow.

The line South towards Abbots Ripton the direction where the “Special Scotch Express” was coming from.

Although dazed by the accident, the railway staff for the most part reacted well with the guards of both the coal train and express gathering their ‘fog signals’ (detonators) and placing them to warn other trains of the wreckage. The fireman of the coal train also placed detonators on the down line before re-joining his driver and locomotive and heading south towards Huntingdon to gather assistance and warn approaching trains. The signalman at Wood Walton (the next signal box north) was able to stop the Manchester express (the train behind the Scotch Express) using a hand lamp, and this train eventually drew up behind the wreckage. Unfortunately, the most dazed member of staff was the Abbots Ripton signal man who set his signals in both directions to ‘danger’ but did not immediately send a 5-beat ‘obstruction danger’ bell signal to Stukeley (the next box south). The Stukeley box eventually received this message just seconds after the northbound ‘down’ Leeds express had passed the box.

This accident itself was disastrous enough, however the wreckage of the two trains blocked both the ‘up’ line and the adjacent ‘down’ line. Following the collision, a number of the coal wagons were smashed, however the coal train locomotive was undamaged. On the other hand, the Scotch locomotive had derailed and was lying on its side beyond the ‘down’ line with its tender and first two passenger carriages also obstructing the ‘down’. The Leeds express activated some detonators, saw the coal locomotive with a red lamp and whistling a warning and did everything it could to stop. Unfortunately, by the time it hit the tender and carriages of the Scotch express, it was still travelling at some speed. It was this second collision in which most of the 13 deaths were thought to have occurred.

Looking North towards Abbots Ripton the direction the Leeds train was heading on that fateful evening

Following the inquiry into the accident, and in some cases after further accidents, several changes occurred to the ways of working on Britain’s railways. At the time of the incident a default position for a signal was ‘clear’ with it having to be set to danger. After the accident the modern practice of signals defaulting to ‘danger’ was adopted, along with a change in signal design to ‘somersault’ signals. On this type of signal the pivot is in the middle of the arm, rather than at one end, therefore the weight of snow should not hinder the movement of the signal. Other signalling changes that were recommended and are now ‘obvious’ in the modern railway were the changing of white signal lamps to green (so if the red cover of a danger signal broke it didn’t provide a false ‘clear’) and the provision of indications to signallers in the event of equipment not working correctly.

The other changes that occurred over time were to the braking system of trains, which at the time of the Abbots Ripton accident were braked either solely by the locomotive’s brakes or by the locomotive and two or three of the carriages with handbrakes, each with a guard who would apply them when (and if) he heard the driver “whistle for brakes”. Both systems meant trains had limited braking, and it took a long distance to stop a train, potentially causing them to strike obstructions despite warnings (such as the Leeds express). Over time continuous braking has been fitted to passenger trains, with brakes on at least one axel of every carriage. An air pipe that runs throughout the train will apply all the brakes if split (the brakes are held off by the air), a method that has stopped trains in multiple accidents and incidents (including the 2002 Potters Bar crash). 

Memorial to the victims of the crash which has been subsequently removed. The famous dramatist Dion Boucicault funded the restoration of what is now the Cromwell museum in 1878 in memory of his son who died in the disaster.

If you look back across the history of railway technology and practices, a lot of developments have come from accidents, especially the principles of ‘fail safe’ and ‘absolute safety’. To quote Anthony Hidden in his report into the Clapham Rail Disaster, “The concept of absolute safety must be a gospel spread across the whole workforce and paramount in the minds of management.” Safety is the number one priority across the railways today and fortunately, serious accidents occur infrequently on the modern railway, although any frequency is too much. As with the accidents and disasters of the past, we have a responsibility to learn from the mistakes that lead to incidents and accidents as those before us on the railway did. If you are interested in finding out more about the development of railway safety, I’d recommend the book ‘Red for Danger’ by L.T.C Rolt.

Images courtesy of:

Stirling photo via Wikimedia Commons licence

AR Station site photo via Wikimedia Commons licence

Aidan Knight is an Operational Manager for a ‘leading London metro provider’ and a travel and transport enthusiast. In his spare time he runs his own travel and transport blog, Flights and Times, and can often be found exploring and adventuring on the country’s railways.

Any views in this blog represent his own opinions and not that of any other party.

Kites without strings: the extinction and reintroduction of Red Kites over Huntingdonshire

Red Kite in Fight showing off their beautiful markings

Red kites are a common sight soaring through the skies of Northern and Eastern Huntingdonshire. These huge birds with their almost 6 foot wingspan and their distinct forked tales have an immediately recognisable silhouette from afar and their unique red-brown plumage (from which their name derives) makes them easy to identify from up close – if you are so lucky!

These beautiful birds are both an ancient animal – one our medieval and Tudor ancestors would have been very familiar with – and one recently introduced in England – our great-grandparents would have never seen one. They are hailed as one of the most successful reintroductions of a species in British history.

Red kites are native to Northern and Western Europe, but have been spotted as far North as Finland and far South as Libya! They are monogamous, producing on average two fledglings annually. Breeding pairs will often return to the same nests which are added to each time and can become very large and unruly as a result. Though constructed mostly of twigs, kites are not opposed to taking paper, cloth or clothes to line their nests too. In his play, The Winters Tale, Shakespeare warned; “when the kite builds, look to lesser linen” – i.e. don’t put your best bloomers out on the line!

Kite nests tend to be sturdy broadleaf trees, as the birds have such a huge wingspan they tend to be near the top of the tree!

These hunter-scavenger birds live mainly on a diet of scavenged carrion (today, mostly roadkill), but will also hunt small birds, mammals and even earthworms. With their predilection for ‘ready meals’ and a range of over 12 miles it is no surprise that they quickly gravitated to human settlements, and perhaps Shakespeare was writing from experience. A symbiotic relationship seems to have sprung up where kites ate any dead animals in the street and hunted nuisance rodents, getting their fill and improving hygiene in towns and villages. Certainly they were deemed so valuable that they were one of the first wild birds to be given legal protections in a Royal Decree in the 1400’s which prevented them from being hunted or culled. Unfortunately, within just a few generations, kite-human relations drastically changed…

Kite in flight showing off their impressive nearly six foot wingspan

The harvests of 1527, 1528 and 1529 were abysmal. Over just three years, food prices doubled in England, and the kingdom of Scotland faired just as poorly. A further slim harvest in 1532 was the final straw. Kites were amongst a wide variety of animals thought to be detrimental to farming; a rather ironic belief as in reality they predated smaller animals which ate crops. In Scotland, James II ordered that kites “be killed wherever they are found” whilst in England, the “Preservation of Grain Act” passed by Henry VIII required subjects:

to kill and utterly destroye all manner of [list of animals] comyng, abyding, bedying or hauntying (their property) upon peyne of grevous amerciaments to be levied by distress of the goodes and catalles of the Offendours.’

In plain English, this meant that if you knowingly did not cull the listed animals, you would be subject to punishment by taking away your goods or possessions and the amount would vary depending on your personal wealth.

Henry’s ‘Vermin Laws’ introduced a bounty of a penny per Kite or Raven head, at a time when the daily income for a farm labourer was four pence a day! Other animals included were hedgehogs (thought to steal milk from cows), foxes and badgers (which worried farm animals) and even herons and kingfishers (who stole fish from ponds). Elizabeth I strengthened the laws in 1566 and they would remain on the statute book until the mid-eighteenth century.

Professional Rat-catcher from a Tudor print

As well as offering a bounty, there was an expectation of a certain amount of bounties claimed, and communities that failed to claim their quota of bounties were pressured to do so. Unsurprisingly, wildlife numbers numbers fell drastically – millions of bird and animal bounties were reported by Parish clerks throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century and many animals including pine martens, wild cats and red kites were driven to near extinction.

Even when the Vermin Laws were finally repealed there was no respite for red kites; farmers and gamekeepers were still convinced that they were harmful to game birds and young farm animals, so they were still actively culled using poison, trap and gun. By the 1870’s the red kite was officially extinct 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.

Close up showing off the “red” body markings

A hundred years later red kites are a common sight in the skies of Huntingdonshire and much of the UK – so what changed?

By the late 20th century, environmental groups and ecologists had observed enough about these birds to see the benefits of reintroducing them across England and Scotland. The Welsh kites were thriving but not spreading fast enough to repopulate the entire country, and so a bold decision was made.

In July 1990, thirteen red kites were flown in from Spain to be the first wave in a nationwide re-release. Other kites were brought from Scandinavia and taken from Wales and, in all, ninety were released. Five years later, seventy kite chicks reared in Rockingham forest were also released, and these kites and their descendants are the birds we see today. As kites have been recorded to live as long as 26 years in wild, it’s possible that one or two of these original kites still live just across the border in Northamptonshire!

In 2016, red kites, once a ‘red listed’ species on the list of ‘Birds Of Conservation Concern’, gained green rating across England, Scotland and Wales. There are now an estimated 2,000 breeding pairs (approximately 7% of the world population) in the UK.

Spread of Red Kites and dates they were reintroduced

We will have no blog post coming out in December but please join us on Facebook for our local history advent calendar – with a post everyday at 11am!

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.

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.


Barham, P “Red kites thriving in England 30 years after reintroduction”, July 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Upstill-Goddard, E. “The Tale of the Red Kite”, 2016 , Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Hill, A “Tudors drove wildlife to the brink”, 2007, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Royal Society For the Protection of Birds, “Red Kite Facts”, 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Royal Society For the Protection of Birds, “Return of the Red Kite”, English Nature 2002, Via:

The Wildlife Trust, “Red Kites”, 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Yorkshire Red Kites, “History/ Red Kite Reintroduction Programme”, 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via: