Walk: Saturday 6 May 2017 at Comberton
How often do we walk around villages with our eyes open to the clues to their past? Seeing these clues and using them to piece together the history of one village was the theme of a walk around the village of Comberton on 6th May, led by FEAG’s Honorary President, Dr Sue Oosthuizen, Reader in Medieval Archaeology at the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge.
It explored the answers to two questions: why is the parish church at a distance from the modern settlement, and to what extent can the medieval layout and development of the village be discerned in the modern landscape?
We began our visit at the church, which is sited in a landscape rich in history: a series of parallel boundaries, almost certainly prehistoric in date, now preserved in footpaths and hedgerows, a nearby Roman villa and an Anglo-Saxon field system set out at right angles to the prehistoric alignment. The Anglo-Saxon field system, which stretched along the side of the Bourn valley from Toft to Grantchester incorporated broad uncultivated blocks of land, 100–150 yards wide which were probably used as part of a system of manuring whereby sheep fed on the strips during the daytime were folded on the arable land at night, thus adding nutrients to the land.
Comberton sits on an island of gravel above the floodline together with the medieval vicarage and Rectory Farm, the whole island belonging to the church in the medieval period. This is where we began to unravel why the church lies so far away from the village. Documentary sources record that Picot, the Sherriff of Cambridgeshire in the late 11th century vowed to build a foundation to St. Giles (which become Barnwell Priory) following his wife’s recovery from illness. Picot appropriated this area of land to endow the foundation. The inhabitants, who had been freemen at Domesday, were reduced to villein status and relocated. So although the current church is largely 13th century, it is probable that this was the site of an earlier church sitting within the late Anglo-Saxon area of settlement.
Before setting off to find out where the inhabitants had moved to, we paused to look at the old vicarage (a late medieval house still identifiable as a hall and cross-wing building, despite later alterations) and to discover how much you can find out by staring at the wall of a church! Built largely of field stone and rubble, clues were there to both the construction of the church (putlog holes for scaffolding) and of the existence of an earlier church (a reused piece of early twelfth century column built into the wall).
Passing the 18th century Rectory Farm, we followed the prehistoric alignment, now surfaced with 18th or 19th century cobbles, to the modern village. The focus was now on whether the layout of the existing village provides evidence that it was a planned settlement, and thus likely to be the location where Picot relocated the inhabitants in the 11th century. The evidence on the ground points to this being the case. A planned settlement would characteristically have properties with uniform widths, and a common front and back boundary (marked by a ‘back lane’). The building line on Swayne’s Lane aligns with the footpath which marks its continuation and suggests the lane was once wider and formed a continuous common back boundary line to the properties. Our route then took us past 17th and 18th century cottages to reach the High Street. Here there is more evidence that this was a planned settlement: the frontages of the old houses are all the same width, and the curves in the property boundaries and road show that the village was carved out of a ploughed field.
The landscape across the road has a different, distinctly communal character and is the remnant of the medieval green. Our quest now was to see what traces remain of the green’s original extent. We picked up clues to its original limit in breaks in the property boundaries and faint linear bumps in gardens which aligned along what was the original boundary on one side. On the other side of the road, we followed a substantial ditch which separated the green from the arable land, still clearly identifiable from the visible ridge and furrow in the recreation ground. Our final stop was at a pigeon house which had been converted to a small cottage in the 19th century, evidence of the rapid population increase which put pressure on housing at that time.
This brought to an end our journey through the history of Comberton preserved in the modern landscape, from the prehistoric boundaries, the Saxon settlement and church, the Norman shift to the site of the current village with its substantial green, though to the post-medieval houses and 19th century enclosure of the green.
As well as expressing our thanks to Dr Oosthuizen for an excellent morning, participants donated generously to a collection for the Arthur Rank Hospice at the end of our tour through the village.
Photos by Jez Reeve & Vicki Harley