This week’s Royston Crow carries a very good article on Cracked Voices and all the related events.
This week’s Royston Crow carries a very good article on Cracked Voices and all the related events.
The megastar had arrived. With his distinctively high forehead, curling hair and aggressively jutting beard, no-one could mistake the great Charles Dickens as he stepped down into the quiet country lane at Redcoats Green near Hitchin. But, alas, apart from a watchman, there was no-one there to witness his arrival.
That year, gossip of his extraordinary extra-marital arrangements was still helping news-vendors’ earn their crust. Having separated from his wife, Dickens was rumoured to be sleeping with his sister-in-law and housekeeper, Georgiana Hogarth. Along with his eldest daughter, Georgiana had accompanied him to Knebworth House where Dickens was weekending with Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
The final draft of Great Expectations was complete and he was eager to share it with Lytton, a highly-respected writer in his own right. In this version, the reclusive Miss Havisham would die horrifically in a fire – killed by her own wedding dress – and Estelle would marry, leaving poor Pip destitute of hope. The great writer was uneasy. Did the ending work? At Knebworth, Bulwer-Lytton read over his friend’s work and suggested it was a little too down-beat. Dickens later wrote, ‘I have resumed the wheel, and taken another turn at it…I think it is for the better.’ The finished piece did not placate Dickens’ critics though. When Great Expectations was finally published in book form a few weeks later it received mixed reviews. The Morning Post claimed he had ‘betrayed his public’ and called its plot an offence against all laws of probability.
Redcoats Green was to be a diverting day excursion from Knebworth. But as Dickens’ carriage halted in the quiet country lane, the only person who stirred was an Irishman, watching from an old shepherd’s hut whose wheels showed signs of not having moved for years. The house he was guarding had once been the modest country dwelling of a gentleman. Now it was collapsing in on itself. Its gardens were tangled in weeds and the grounds were secured by a barricade of sheep-hurdles, its broken windows barred with roughly-cut timbers. In the coach-house, the painted family crest was fading on a once-grand carriage, now worm-eaten and covered with thick cobwebs. Given the popularity of everything Gothic, other curious tourists and roving down-and-outs would soon likely-as-not come traipsing down the lane either on foot or horseback.The decaying house was a disturbing sight for Dickens who remained deeply troubled by memories of the degradation of the debtors’ prison. Forced to abandon school at 12, he had managed to feed the family by working ten hours a day, pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. It was this savage experience – the life and death struggle to make ends meet – that fuelled his social conscience and found expression through his novels. Later, he was to write ‘my whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams…that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.’ What greeted him at Redcoats Green challenged every lesson he had learned from his own miserable childhood. Staring through a barred basement window into a filthy kitchen, he was truly disgusted.
On a pile of soot, surrounded by scraps of stale bread and wearing nothing but a filthy blanket sat a rich man – a man who had chosen to throw his wealth away and waste every hour of his blessed life. A celebrity – famous for doing nothing – a ‘slothful, unsavoury, nasty reversal of the laws of human nature’ living a ‘highly absurd and highly indecent life’ (Dickens’ words, not mine).
The object of Dickens’ derision was James Lucas – an articulate, intelligent and contrary man who quizzed his visitors unmercifully and had a wide knowledge of what was happening in the world. A man who did not suffer others’ puffed-up egos lightly.
The James Lucas whom Dickens could not see was ill – a paranoid schizophrenic, convinced that his brother George had murdered his mother and was plotting to kill him. A man who shut himself away for his own safety.
That December Dickens published a damning account of his visit to Redcoats Green in the Christmas edition of All Year Round. ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground’ (named after a children’s game of ‘dare’ where children had to run into forbidden territory and gather up pretend coins before scary Tom could catch them), portrayed Lucas as nothing more than an arrogant waster. That piece had reporters flocking to interview ‘the hermit’ and one, Edward Copping from London Society, was left aghast at his intellect. ‘He overturns my opinions with ruthless energy, he kicks them when they are down, he pummels them with his two fists; and in a short time they are so bruised and disfigured as to be scarcely recognisable’. Perhaps this ability to demolish preconceptions is what had so offended Dickens. Whatever the great writer’s intentions, ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground‘ cemented Redcoats Green as a go-to destination for the daring Victorian day-tripper and the Great Northern Railway was soon advertising weekend excursions ‘to see the Hermit of Hertfordshire’.
For over a decade the ‘hermit’ continued to hold court until, on a spring morning in 1874, his watchman found him groaning and gasping for breath, having suffered a stroke in the night. A doctor had James placed in a horse drawn cart (so very different from the elegant family carriage) and taken to a nearby farmhouse. He died there two days later. The Dundee Courier ran the news under the headline ‘The death of one of Dickens’ characters’ and other papers followed The Times lead and echoed popular sentiment, calling it ‘A doubtful loss’.
 The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (Oxford, 2012) p.360; The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 2 (London, 1880) p.142-143; Morning Post, Wednesday 31 July 1861; Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal, and General Advertiser – Saturday 10 August 1861, Tuesday 13 August 1861
 The life and times of Charles Dickens, Peter Ackroyd (Califiornia, 2003), p.11
 ‘Mr Mopes, the Hermit’, London Society, Volume 1 (March 1862) p.303-313 ( )
 Hertfordshire Express and General Advertiser – Saturday 26 January 1867; Â Herts Advertiser – Saturday 02 May 1874 (quoting the Telegraph); Dundee Courier – Monday 27 April 1874; Western Mail – Tuesday 21 April 1874 (echoing the Times), Western Times – Tuesday 28 April 1874
Published over thirty years ago, Richard Whitmore’s Mad Lucas remains the best biography of the Hertfordshire hermit.
The conversation between James Lucas and Dickens forms the basis for one of the songs of Cracked Voices, ‘A doubtful loss’.
[Click here if you’ve landed here looking for our Primary School Resource Pack].
Bilbo Baggins bets his life on a riddle in The Hobbit. Fortunately, for the story he doesn’t lose (or else the dwarves would never have kept their appointment with Smaug!). That riddling competition takes place in a dank deserted cave under the Misty Mountains…all very lonely and sinister…but riddles are mostly rooted in a far more homely place.
In the drinking halls of Anglo-Saxon Britain riddling competitions were as common as pub quizzes today and the word-puzzles were often packed with as many double-meanings and smut as the Sun. It’s a tradition that still continues in Christmas Crackers where the jokes are made up of sound-alike words and make you groan out loud:
Marathon runners with bad footwear suffer the agony of defeat.
A bicycle can’t stand on its own because it is two-tired.
One for Graham…
Santa’s helpers are subordinate clauses.
And finally, one for Jenni…
Show me a piano falling down a mineshaft and I’ll show you A-flat minor.
In Anglo-Saxon times very few people could read, so the riddles relied on sound-alike words. The riddles would be learned by heart and performed in public, sometimes with musical accompaniment (a bit like Cracked Voices). Luckily for the author of The Hobbit, around 975 AD some of the riddles were eventually written down, probably by a monk. The Exeter Book is the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon riddles in the world and provides the first recorded use of the term ‘Middle Earth’.
Most of The Exeter Book riddles pretend something that can’t talk is alive. They give inanimate objects a voice, just like Gollum and Bilbo, and ask ‘What am I?’
Voiceless it cries,
This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.
The answer to these two of Tolkien’s puzzles are or course wind and time.
When writing about the Anglo-Saxon origins of Therfield Heath (a puzzle in itself) for Cracked Voices, it seemed right to base the song on a riddle, so I set about writing my own.
Riddle the first
Beaten for the silence I steal –
I am the cup that spills sorrow and joy.
With prayerful mouth and enduring noise,
mine is the fateful summoning voice.
Tethered yet ethereal –
no fruit in the Garden so readily peels.
[Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the answer].
It was a fun challenge. Why don’t you have a go? (Don’t worry…it doesn’t have to rhyme!)
Here’s some tips to help you write your own riddle…
[Answer to Riddle the first: a bell]
For slightly more in depth advice from the Poetry Society on writing riddles click here.
The Doing History In Public website is currently carrying a post on Cracked Voices.
Doing History in Public is a collaborative blog written and edited by graduate historians (mainly at the University of Cambridge). Graham was delighted to be invited to share information about the challenges behind researching and writing Cracked Voices.
The fossilers of South Cambridgeshire
In July 1876, Edward Connybeare, the vicar of Barrington scribbled in his diary, ‘Grand specimen of a hippo was dug up in Roads’ field’. At nearby Harlton, Revd. Osmond Fisher, was equally thrilled to hear that more ‘large bones were being met with in a “coprolite-pit” at Barrington’. Fisher and the naturalist, collector and antiquarian Arthur Foster Griffith could not contain their excitement and rushed off to take a look. The pit was about 22 feet deep (the height of a two storey house) and the remains had already been removed, meaning the diggers – who were paid a piece-rate – could continue their work and their wage-packets would not suffer. It was not just hippos. There were also remnants of elephants, bison and hyena. As the pits were extended over the next 40 years, more and more bones from many different hippos kept being found. Eventually the Sedgwick Museum had enough bones from the various individuals to construct a complete skeleton. By fixing them all to a specially-made metal armature they created their own Frankenstein’s monster: a composite hippopotamus.
It was not just animal bones, either. Much to Griffith’s dismay the coprolite-diggings in Barrington destroyed much of a large Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Hooper’s Field. Although he managed to save some of the artefacts for the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology, many others were smuggled away and sold off by the dealers in antiquities at Cambridge. The past would clearly not get in the way of profit. It was a story that was repeated again and again from Coldham’s Common to Litlington, from Wendy to Burwell.
But old bones and grave goods were not what the diggers were looking for, so exactly what was the coprolite they were so eager to find?
A burgeoning UK population needed increasing amounts of food and food production, in turn, required increasing amounts of fertiliser. Money was to be made from muck but not enough muck could be had. However, the strange greeny-black lumps of rock being slung out of the brick pits at Cambridge as waste provided a neat solution. Coprolite is now known to be made up of all sorts of fossilised remains (including those of marine life such as ammonites) but at the time was thought solely to be fossilised dinosaur poo. Over millions of years these remains had transformed into phosphate-rich nodules which could be found most abundantly in a geological formation known as the Cambridge Greensand. It did not take long for an enterprising farmer to realise that if he ground down coprolites and treated them with sulphuric acid, they transformed into a highly effective, and highly profitable, fertiliser.
This seam of fossils sloped upwards, coming closest to the surface in a line north of Kneesworth. Soon open-cast diggings started springing up all along the narrow band of land in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and South Cambridgeshire where the Greensand was closest to the surface. On average the seam was about 30 cm thick and at its widest only 11 km wide. In villages such as Odsey, Bassingbourn and Shepreth, which had easy access to a railway, companies began processing the raw material and selling the fertiliser further afield. In Royston the Farmers Manure Company thrived (using Coprolites brought in by land-train) and at Duxford there was the Cambridge Manure Company.
Agricultural labourers who changed trades and started to work for the coprolite contractors found their wages first doubling and then trebling. As a local folk-song from the time shows, previously struggling farm-workers now felt free to thumb their noses at their ex-employers.
Come listen you farmers to what I do say,
We Coprolite diggers now can have fair play…
With our spade and our pickaxe we’ve no work to seek.
We won’t work for farmers for ten bob a week.
As people flooded into the area to work in the diggings, for the next thirty years the industry reversed a decline in village populations. At Shillington alone, 170 men and boys were soon working coprolites and, at the height of production in 1876, the wider-diggings produced 258,150 tons of artificial fertiliser in a single year. The local economy of Royston and the villages to the north benefitted hugely from this economic boom: land-owners made money selling licences to extract the coprolites and rising wages meant that workers now had money in their pockets to spend. In Barrington, the vicar’s ‘Coprolite Fund’ helped pay for repairs to All Saints and, in his History of Cambridgeshire, Reverend Connybeare reports, ‘This golden period has left an abiding mark upon the district in the restoration of almost every one of the ancient parish churches.’ 
At the diggings, the money was hard-earned. The men first had to hand-dig a trench between 2 and 3 metres wide. The topsoil was wheel-barrowed away and carefully piled up, ready to be put back later. Then large quantities of subsoil had to be barrowed up to the top of the trench and ridged up there. Once they had reached the seam (which was sometimes more than 6 m below the surface), the diggers would dig into the side of the trench and undermine a slice of ground to the depth of 30 to 45 cm. In the best managed quarries watchmen were stationed above to give warning in case the ground should begin to crack and split away. If all went according to plan, the diggers would climb out of the trench before the ground was levered into the pit from above with crow bars. This left more of the coprolite seam exposed, ready to be shovelled into wheelbarrows and taken to the wash mills. It also conveniently back-filled the trench and revealed a new earth face ready to be undermined. In this way a whole field could be worked over. As the men were paid according to the amount they dug out, there was always pressure to work fast and the temptation to cut corners meant watchmen were often absent from their posts.Fatalities were common, the men drank hard and, when drunk, were given to riotous behaviour. It was claimed that more than half of them carried guns – and occasionally used them – and the local prostitutes were eager to service their hastily thrown up lodgings. Many God-fearing villagers were alarmed at this turn of events and one (Samuel Hopkins, a Bassingbourn grocer and Deacon of the Congregational Church) went as far as describing the diggers as ‘the refuse of society…extravagant, intemperate, licentious, depraved and atheistival.'
If these men lived fast, they died fast too. Mishaps were commonplace. Most of the casualties were buried alive by unexpected falls of earth or accidentally toppled from precariously balanced planks while pushing full barrows, others drowned in flooded pits and at least one man fell into a washing mill. Nobody knows how many people died in the coprolite pits but, after a search of the local newspapers, here are just some of their names:
1858: Arthur Wellington Reach (aged 6)
1863: John Rayner (age unknown), William Lander (age unknown)
1864: James Dawson (age unknown)
1865: James Mann (age unknown), William Wilson (age unknown), James Rayner (aged 23)
1866: James Barton (aged 21)
1867: Richard Barlow (aged 11), John Swann (aged 60), James Day (aged 25)
1868: William Starbuck (aged 9)
1869: Robert Napsey (aged 19), Thomas Lovell (aged 36), James Fortune (age unknown), Moses Waller (age unknown)
1870: William Crane (‘a young man’), George Aspen (aged 26)
1871: George Hills (aged 61), William Clarke (age unknown), John Dockrey (aged 18)
1874: William Hines (aged 25)
1875: Edward Wilkin (aged 23)
1876: George Wright (age unknown)
1877: Henry Ginn (aged 37), a boy named Parker (age unknown)
1878: Wheeler Ambrose (aged 46)
1879: George Fuller (aged 27)
1883: William Wright (age unknown)
1887: Harradine Sell (aged 47)
If the dead man was married, the fellow-labourers would have a whip-round for his widow. Inquests invariably recorded verdicts of ‘accidental death’ and no contractor was obliged by law to pay any compensation. The Cambridge Chronicle reported that some (like Mr Cooper at Barrington), however, did display ‘kindness’ and at least paid for the man’s funeral. 
Non-fatal accidents and ‘lucky escapes’ were rarely reported in the papers. At the time, the Cambridge Chronicle noted that ‘nearly every week accidents happen and bones are broken, which few of the public are aware of.’ Four years later, in 1875, the Governors of Addenbrooke’s Hospital took the highly unusual step of writing to the Home Secretary to draw his attention to ‘the great number of accidents that occur in the working of the coprolite pits’. In his reply, the government minister displayed a complete lack of understanding: digging the trenches was no more dangerous than digging a railway cutting and ‘the accidents occurred from the extreme carelessness of the men’.
Ironically, twenty years later when regulation did eventually come (in the form of the 1894 Quarries Act), it rang the death knell for an industry that was already on its last legs. The industry had collapsed in the early 1880s when poor harvests and the opening up of the home market to cheap imports of meat and grain from the Americas had crippled farmers. By 1897 Connybeare was lamenting, ‘The coprolites have become exhausted, agriculture has failed, wages have sunk to ten shillings a week…Many labourers are unemployed, and many more have left the County, the population of which (in the rural districts is rapidly sinking)…Cambridgeshire has become for the first time one of the poorest counties in England.'
Although there were a couple of later minor surges in coprolite diggings (most notably during the First World War when the coprolites were used to produce explosives), they were never anything like the boom of the 1870s and, although it diversified and changed its name, the Farmers Fertiliser Company of Royston ceased trading around the 1970s.
From the air, the ghosts of the many workings can still be spotted in the fields but there is no memorial to those who lost their lives.
(The history of the coprolite workers forms the basis of one of the Cracked Voices).
If you would like to discover more about the Coprolite Rush, I highly recommend the series of booklets based on the various individual diggings written by Bernard O’Connor. See: http://bernardoconnor.org.uk/coprolites.html .
 Revd. Edward Conybeare’s Diary, quoted in Barrington Fossil Diggings, Bernard O’Connor (2011), p.29; The Quarterly journal of the Geological Society of London, vol. 35 (1879) p.670(diagram: page 671)
 Sussex, Archaeological Collections Relating to the History and Antiquities of the County, Vol.55 (Sussex Archaeological Society, 1912), p.63-67
 The Horningsea Fossil Digging, Bernard O’Connor (2011), p.37-38 (original in the possession of the Sclaters, Abington Piggotts)
 http://www.cafg.net/docs/articles/Wimpole%20coprolites.pdf; History of Cambridgeshire, Revd. Edward Connybeare (1897), p.259
 Original manuscript in the possession of Bassingbourn Congregational Church, pp.210ff. Quoted in Coton Fossil Diggings, Bernard O’Connor (2011) p.65
 Cambridge Chronicle and Journal , Saturday 15 October 1864
 Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 13 May 1871; Cambridge Independent Press, 4 September 1875
’The Origins and Development of the British Coprolite Industry’, Bernard O’Connor in Mining History: The Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society, Volume 14, No. 5, Summer 2001, p.46-57. Available online at: http://archive.pdmhs.com/PDFs/ScannedBulletinArticles/Bulletin%2014-5%20-%20The%20Origins%20and%20Development%20of%20the%20British%20.pdf ; History of Cambridgeshire, Revd. Edward Connybeare (1897), p.268-269
On Monday 9 October, Graham held a workshop at Royston Museum with ten students from Meridian School. We explored the stories behind objects and students chose objects they would like to write about in their own song cycle.
We can’t wait to help them develop their ideas further…
Many thanks to Royston Museum for welcoming us in (even into their storeroom!).
Rabbits (and tools for up-cycling the past…)
This is about rabbits. Not your fluffy Easter Bunnies, but General Woundwort’s thugs from Watership Down, red-in-tooth-and-claw. The bullies who think they have all the answers. As they manically excavate their bunkers and scratch out secret passages, they blindly discard treasures and truth. Things of no value. Flints and buttons and fragments. Priceless incidental things.
Part of my job when writing poems for Cracked Voices has been to sift this detritus, to try to find meaning and restore its worth. To glue things back together. Refitting other people’s lost stories. It’s turned me into a sort of historical up-cycler.
I recently ran a workshop at Royston Arts Festival where we briefly examined one such scrap of overlooked ephemera. It was a postcard produced in a time when new technology and reduced costs meant that local cards like this had become the instant messaging medium of the day (a sort of Edwardian Instagram). It shows a large scale military funeral in Royston in 1914.
The street running up into town from the railway station is lined with people: some in flat caps (railway workers and men from the flour-mill that is just out of the picture), a group of women (maybe from the nearby alms houses, reserved for widows) and, on the opposite side of the street, one or two middle-class men, distinct in their straw boaters – all watching the soldiers with their reversed rifles, followed closely by the military band, the coffin (wheeled on a bier which can still be seen in Royston Museum) and the two carriages of official mourners. This was no silent affair. The march – a piece of music by Handel – lifted the onlookers hearts. It was the same patriotic piece as had been played at Admiral Nelson’s funeral.
My immediate question was, ‘Who was this man?’ Lots of people died in World War 1, why was he so special?
A search through the local paper turned up this unexpected headline:
Albert Reeve was a 25 year old Sergeant in the Territorial Force (the volunteer reserves of the British Army) but he had died doing his day job, maintaining track on the railway just outside Letchworth. He had been highly respected by his comrades in the TF and fellow railway workers and there may have been some disquiet at the way that Reeve’s body had been handled – the inquest into his death commented that a mortuary should be built in Letchworth as Reeve’s corpse had had to be kept in a stable. But that wasn’t solely it.
It was the date. Friday 17 July 1914.
Britain was not yet at war but in the grip of the ‘July Crisis’. Arch-Duke Ferdinand had been assassinated on 28 June but it would be another seventeen days before war was declared on Germany. That July, people knew war was coming and were scared.
In Royston a show of pomp would prepare the way for the great sacrifice. As Rev. J. Harrison declared at the graveside, ‘They had come there to pay a last tribute to one who was good comrade, a good son, and a good fellow. To them it seemed that his end had been untimely, but when men were on active service, they carried their lives in their hands, and must be prepared for that great change. He wanted them to remember that they were all enlisted in one great army, which was captained by Christ Himself. What was the secret by which they might live and be ready? Their secret was faith in the Captain Himself, the blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’
So Reeve’s funeral was used as a rallying cry to all the good sons. Soon Britain would need them all. The railway-worker had been mythologised. He wasn’t special at all, but his death had been invested with meaning. It was to serve a function. This was less Instagram and more Fox News.
Have a go…
The context is the story…and, thanks to the rapid advance in cataloguing and searchable databases, context is easier to establish than ever before.
Why don’t you find yourself a story by downloading the image of an old postcard from e-bay and then looking into its context? Remember, if it interests you, it’ll probably interest someone else.
There’s all sorts of useful research tools out there:
Newspapers: British Newspaper Archive (free at Hertfordshire Libraries) [includes Herts & Cambs Reporter (Royston Crow) 1878-1910] or National Library of Wales (Welsh papers often reprinted articles from England): http://newspapers.library.wales/ This is free to access anywhere.
Maps: OldMapsOnline.org Free
Trade directories: University of Leicester, Special Collections Online Free
Local history section in your local Library
Research sessions run fairly regularly in local museums and archives
Second-hand books: Bookfinder.com
Go on, save a fragment from General Woundwort’s thugs and up-cycle the past…
Booking is now open for Graham’s Royston Arts Festival creative writing workshop: Everything Changes: a writing workshop exploring place and time. It will take place at Royston & District Museum & Art Gallery on Saturday 23 September 2017, 2- 4.30pm (£5, Book your place now. )
About the workshop: Whether you’re a beginner in creative writing or a more advanced writer looking for ideas, this half-day workshop will help you shape a setting for your story, blog or poem. Using historic photos from the Museum’s storeroom, it will provide an opportunity to discover how a sense of change and place can inspire your own writing.*
About the workshop leader: Graham Palmer is a member of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) who has published three books with CUP. He is currently working on a historical biography and a sequence of poems which will form the basis of a new song-cycle, Cracked Voices, with local composer Jenni Pinnock.
*This workshop may also prove useful to those preparing for the Creative Writing element in the GCSE English exam.
The riddle of the heath
Royston Heath is a riddle.
This strangely-shaped piece of wasteland stretches east to west over the OS Map like a sleek cat stalking a stray town-rat. On the ground it seems huge but, from its eager head to the tip of its tail, it measures just 21/2 miles. If you’re lucky enough to view it from the front seat of one of the biplanes that regularly buzz Royston from nearby Duxford, the heath looks tiny.
Perspective is everything.
Though the cat nuzzles up close to the town, a parish boundary means this is Therfield – not Royston – Heath. A century ago the Victoria County History (1912) proclaimed it the ‘recreation ground of the town’.
Look a little closer and you will discover something far more intriguing.
Not that that matters to most people who (like my friend Peggy) come out every day to walk their dogs, support the footballers or rugby team, fly kites with their kids, go jogging or toboggan down the hills, slicing through winter snow.
English Heritage says the Heath is ‘one of the best surviving prehistoric landscapes in the region’ and Natural England that this small plot of land nurtures ‘some of the richest chalk grassland in England’. It is the last tattered remnant of an open heath that bordered the ancient Icknield Way and was littered with hundreds of prehistoric burial mounds (now ploughed out), a borderland where the chalk hills rose up and, at Royston, confronted the low marsh of Bassingbourn Fen.
On his Great Map (1815), the geologist William Smith marked the Royston Downs as stretching from Newmarket to Dunstable, edged by the clays, gravels and sand of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.*
When so much historic and ecologically important heathland has vanished, how on earth has Therfield Heath survived?
To answer that riddle you must go back to the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. These incomers held everything they seized (including the former inhabitants) as common property and soon established vills across the country. Land was not ‘owned’ as we understand the word, but the householders were granted rights to use it. In return, they were expected to fulfil communal duties (house-building, service in the militia etc) and support the king’s court with food rent. Disputes were settled by custom or consensus at a moot (village meeting) and the village granted each householder a house, kitchen garden and strips to cultivate in the shared open fields.
At ðereuelde the open field was portioned into named ‘shots’ (from the Old English sciat, meaning a nook or corner) and these were divided further into strips. A huge and beautifully drawn map of the Therfield Common Field (1725) shows that many of these Anglo-Saxon shots survived for centuries and lists their intriguing names: Cats Holes, Claw Buck Shot, Chalky Dane Hill, Tumbelow Shot and over a hundred more. The map’s most noticeable feature is a very large splat of bright green paint, indicating the open grazing land that is now the Heath.
The idea of land ownership only developed over the next five hundred years as Anglo-Saxon kings passed their right of local food-rent to the new monasteries and abbeys which grew up with the conversion of the country by Christian missionaries. This accumulation of wealth did not go unnoticed by the Vikings and led to many bloody clashes, culminating in the eleventh century with an invasion from Scandinavia that put the Danish Cnut on the English throne.
One legend from those days centres on the humble Pasque flower, a purple gem that still flourishes on the Heath. The tale goes, it only thrives where Viking blood was spilt. True or not, in Therfield it was a Dane who first staked a claim to own the heath. The local reaction was predictable…
Much further north, on a island in the marshes at Ramsey, an abbey had been established. In the same year that the abbey church was completed (974) a terrible earthquake shook England, bringing down houses. The quake – or simple subsidence – weakened the building and within ten years major cracks appeared. After much soul-searching, the monks were forced to tear down the church’s central tower and rebuild it. Fortunately, the problem did not affect the church’s west tower which housed a light that guided people in across the marsh and the bells that signalled the changing Holy Hours and were believed to echo God’s voice.
The abbey’s monks lived their lives according to St Benedict’s strict rule which emphasised stability, conversion of manners, and obedience. Boys from respected families were taken in and educated there but it was difficult for some to adjust to the ways of the cloister. The Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis (The Ramsey Abbey Chronicle) records how one boy proved a particular challenge.
Etheric was still young when sent to Ramsey and he and three playmates – Athelstan, Eadnoth and Oswald – soon fell foul of the abbey’s rules. One day they got it into their heads to sneak up the west tower. Who touched a bell rope first? When the bell rang out there was no way back. Egging each other on, the boys became more and more exuberant.
Now bell ringing is an art. Done wrongly it can cause all sorts of trouble and, at the height of ensuing cacophony, Etheric’s bell cracked. The boys were shocked, the monks furious. They wanted the culprit flogged but the Abbot held his hand, realising that Etheric and his friends were truly sorry and more good might come out of their penitence. He was proved right as all four went on to become pillars of the Church: Oswald became a monk and poet, Athelstan succeeded as abbot, and Eadnoth and Etheric became some of the most powerful clerics in England. As Bishop of Dorchester, Etheric commanded King Cnut’s ear and was to reward the abbey with untold riches, including the vill and lands of Therfield which were currently held by a Dane…
The Danish settler was not very comfortable in his possession. In fact, he was in fear of his life. There were bandits in the area and villagers had taken so badly to his ways that the Dane could not sleep unless four men were standing guard nearby. The Ramsey Abbey Chronicle tells how, one night, he overheard his guards plotting to kill him. If they could not hand him over to the bandits, they swore they would relieve the village of his abominable existence by sticking a knife in his bowels.
That night the terrified settler crept away to the safety of his a friend’s nearby vill. Punishing the guards was not an option as the villagers would retaliate and it would be impossible for one man to evict a whole village. The Dane had no choice but to make his way to London to consult the king.
In the meantime, Etheric’s local agent (apparently based at Ashwell) got word to him about the trouble and Etheric, who was in London, persuaded both Cnut and the settler that the land was worthless while the villagers were in rebellion. The obvious face-saving solution would be for Etheric to buy the land (at a knock-down price) as a gift for the Abbey at Ramsey in recompense for a broken bell.
Therfield (and its heath) remained with the monks at Ramsey right up until the mid-sixteenth century when Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey and seized all its lands. The manor passed briefly to Katherine Howard as part of her marriage settlement but within thirteen months she had been beheaded and it reverted to the king. Two years later he exchanged it for lands held in Essex and Middlesex by the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s and for the next four hundred years the Church of England held Therfield in its possession.
Enclosure came to the open fields in the mid-nineteenth century but the green splurge on the 1725 map was retained as common grazing, the site of Royston town gatherings, celebrations, fairs and the occasional prize fight.
The management of the heath – with its various petty disputes – proved increasingly troublesome to the Church Commissioners who felt ownership should pass to a body more in tune with local needs. By the 1890s a body of trustees (or Conservators) made up of Royston rate-payers and wealthy local land-owners, who retained rights to graze their sheep, took control of the Greens of Therfield and its Heath. ‘The Award’ also enabled John Francis Fordham of Thrift Farm to exchange an isolated patch of land he owned in the centre of Therfield to create a playing field in return for which he got the part of the Heath between his farm and what is now the A505, lopping off part of the cat’s tail and substantially altering the boundaries of the ancient grazing land for the first and only time.
Students from Cambridge had briefly established a golf course on the Heath years earlier but it was not till 1892 that Royston Golf Club was formed. The Conservators now maintain the Heath using money earned from renting out large parts of it to the golf club and the horse-training gallops.
*Published in 1815, it was the first geological map of Britain and the subject of the bestseller The Map that Changed the World. An original hand-coloured map is on display at the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge and a replica can be seen at the Natural History Museum, London.
The migraine and the goddess
At Ashwell in Hertfordshire some not-so-ancient concreted steps lead down to the village’s liquid heart. Here the springs bubble up onto gravel or trickle through cracks, draining off the chalk escarpment to the south. Apart from the steps, the scene has not much changed since Nathaniel Salmon described it in the History of Hertfordshire back in 1728:
“… the River Rhee…breaks out of a Rock in this Vill from many Springs, with such Force as to form a Stream, remarkable for being clear, and so cold, that it gripes Horses not used to drink it. Around the Spring Head grow Ash Trees very kindly, which gave occasion to the Name.”
Officially, Ashwell Springs is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest but it has always been of interest to those of a more mystical nature. Coupled with the ash (a sacred tree that linked the waters of the lower world with our own world and the sky above), the springhead has fascinated us for millennia.
It was not so long ago that such springs and ponds were considered sacred and were even, on occasions, known to yield treasure (old votive offerings from long dead people to the water-giving spirit or god). Perhaps this is why the shallow dew pond (now vanished) which watered animals at the foot of nearby Therfield Heath was once known as the Golden Bog. No treasure survives there now, just a patch of dry nettles thriving on soil enriched with the manure and sediment from the pond’s bottom.
But mysteries are still unearthed. In 2002, some distance northwest of Ashwell’s wellhead near the bank of the Rhee, a metal-detectorist called Alan Meek was sweeping a field at Ashwell End when he came across an extraordinary cache of metal objects that had been hidden in the ground over sixteen hundred years ago. It proved a spectacular rebirth as nearly thirty offerings to a previously-forgotten Celtic goddess appeared from the soil. Many were marked with the name Senuna and there was also a shattered silver figurine of the goddess herself.
There are various mother goddesses known to be associated with springs but little survives of Celtic Senuna. Many of the offerings from Ashwell End show her accompanied by an owl and armed with a spear and shield, suggesting that when the Romans invaded Britain they may have assimilated her into the cult of Minerva. At that time, as Julius Caesar noted in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the worship of Minerva (or her native equivalents) was prevalent in the Celtic continental heartland of Gaul. Minerva was the Roman goddess of water, healing, warfare, crafts and wisdom and was usually depicted with a sacred owl, a symbol of wisdom but also a harbinger of death.
This Roman goddess had a penchant for creative destruction which stemmed back to her strange birth. She had been born from the union of Jupiter (the sky-father who carried a thunderbolt) and a female titan. When the titaness fell pregnant the prospective father was not overjoyed because it had been prophesied that his own child would eventually overthrow him. His solution was to swallow his lover whole before she could give birth. Trapped inside Jupiter, the titaness set about forging weapons and armour for her soon-to-be-born daughter. The stress and the racket of his ex-lover’s new hobby gave Jupiter such a migraine that he persuaded Vulcan to split his head open with a hammer and, lo-and-behold, out of the cleft jumped Minerva, fully-grown and armed to the teeth. But Minerva was destined to become a goddess of wisdom as well as war, so she made things up with her father…but that’s another story.
There are displays on Senuna at both at the British Museum (Room 49) and at Ashwell Village Museum. Given the similarities in names, it has been argued that the lost British river Senua mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmography (a geographical work written by an anonymous cleric in Ravenna in Italy around AD 700) may well be the Rhee. Certainly, Ashwell was known much further afield than it is now. One of the offerings of jewellery to Senuna found in 2002 bears the simple inscription,
“Servandus, son of the Spaniard, willingly fulfilled his vow to the goddess.”
So much is buried, hidden deep from us. Who was this Spaniard’s son whose name means to watch over, preserve or save? What was he doing in rural Hertfordshire? What was his vow and why had he made it? History is full of such uncertainty. Trying to break through to some sort of understanding can cause us all sorts of headaches. Just ask Senuna-Minerva.
‘Those who wait’, the first song in Cracked Voices, will revolve around the relationship between Sevandus and Senuna.