The Landscape of the Upper Cam Valley, the view from Toot Hill, Orwell,

Introduction – observing the landscape

Our countryside does not have to be bold or dramatic to be interesting, it’s a question of developing one’s powers of observation. The landscape of the upper Cam valley in South Cambridgeshire, where I live, is a case in point. The river valley is wide and shallow and the surrounding hills, eastern spurs of the Chilterns, are low chalk outcrops. This is a subtle landscape, which nevertheless holds many charms and points of interest, especially when allied to a little knowledge of local history and topography.

The short steep walk from the village hall car park in Orwell up behind the clunch pit (dug into the side of Toot Hill, a mere 65 metres at its highest!) is rewarded with a panoramic view (see photo) that shows the distinctive geographic character of the southern reaches of Cambridgeshire. Cast your eyes across the broad river valley to the Heydon Ridge rising to 100 metres or so, away to the south- east. That is our watershed. On the far side, beyond view, water flows down to the Thames and out to the Essex/Kent coast. On this side, rising from springs at Ashwell, flows the Rhee, merging with the Granta to form the Cam a few miles upstream of Cambridge, then flowing northward to join the river Ouse and on to The Wash at King’s Lynn. Turning around you will see the ridge of high ground bordering the Wimpole estate. This northerly chalk ridge makes the Rhee valley almost a land-locked basin, a geographically distinct area between the Midlands and East Anglia.

Migratory routes

In prehistoric times both ridges provided important east-west trading and migratory routes: behind you the lesser known Mare Way runs on to Chapel Hill above Haslingfield then down to the Rhee at Harston; ahead of you lies the better known and well researched Icknield Way; in fact a series of parallel tracks running just below the Heydon Ridge; a long distance route through the Chilterns and the East Anglian Heights, connecting Southern England with the Norfolk Coast.

Earlier settlers understood the strategic importance of the passage afforded by this east-west route along the southern boundary of the Fens. They built a series of defensive earthworks cutting across the Icknield Way, from the higher ground down to the lower, marshier ground and, further north, the Fen edge. The first of these ran from Fowlmere up to Heydon, known as the Bran Ditch, although it is hardly noticeable now. Further afield, running to the south east of Cambridge, are Brent Ditch, Fleam Dyke and Devil’s Dyke. The latter two remain of considerable height, with footpaths running along the top and are well worth a visit. They were initially dated to the seventh century AD, a period well after the Roman occupation. The ditches of these earthworks are on the western side, suggesting a series of barriers against the powerful Mercian Kingdom of central England, in its attempts to subjugate the tribes of Anglia. In 1926 a group of burials was found at the nearby Bran Ditch, including decapitated and mutilated remains – thought to be the result of a massacre. Recent research has suggested several phases of construction, beginning in the period 350-510 AD with a last phase running to 620 AD. However it is possible the Anglo-Saxon Dykes may have been constructed along the lines of prehistoric ditched boundaries; the evidence destroyed by later earthworks.

Communications – railways and roads

From our vantage point you can just make out the modern lines of communication. The railway line runs through the middle of the valley. From the bend at Shepreth it runs straight and true upon a gradually rising embankment until it curves into Royston. It is partially hidden by trees but with binoculars you can see the crossing at Shepreth station and an open stretch of track. In 1846 a line was built from Hitchen to Royston. This was taken over by the Great Northern Railway (GNR), the first step in a plan to rival the Eastern Counties Railway’s (ECR) existing Cambridge-Liverpool St. route. It was extended to a terminus at Shepreth in 1851, going no further towards Cambridge because the ECR had prior approval for a line from Cambridge to Bedford, passing through Shepreth. So here passengers traveling to Cambridge alighted to board a four horse omnibus service to Trinity Street. Under an agreement with the GNR, The ECR abandoned plans for a line to Bedford and built a single line from Cambridge to Shepreth in 1852, thereafter operating a local service between Cambridge, Royston and Hitchin. A direct through service to London was eventually established by the GNR in the 1860s. The chaotic nature of this development, testimony to the rival schemes of the two private railway companies, typified the character of the early railway boom. So, one hundred and fifty years ago gangs of navies would have been busy constructing the line and building the small village stations at Foxton, Shepreth and Meldreth. The latter two had sidings for collecting local freight, now used by small businesses.

In the latter part of the century the central belt of the valley saw another influx of migrant labour as the seam of coprolite (phosphatic nodules found in the sub-soils), running through South Cambs. was dug out for use as a fertilizer. The L Moor at Shepreth, now a nature reserve, was one such site.

There too, partially hidden from view, passes the A10, the old trunk road from London to King’s Lynn, taking cars north to the Fen Edge and on past the Isle of Ely. Across the valley beyond the A10 lies the A505, hidden behind rising ground, following one of the lines of the Icknield Way and, unknown to modern day travellers, cutting through the series of defensive earthworks thrown up well over a millennium ago. The original Cambridge/London coach route (now the B1368) diverges from the A10 at Harston, running through Newton and Fowlmere before crossing the A505 at Flint Cross then climbing to Barley and points south. It is reputed to have the earliest milestones in England (erected 1725-32), provided by money previously left by Dr W. Mowse, master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and are decorated with the arms of Mowse and the college. Fowlmere was a popular stopping point, with several coaching inns. The large mere in existence then offered the opportunity to hunt wildfowl.

Settlements and farming

Using binoculars it’s possible to make out the towers and spires of several churches, including Fowlmere and Meldreth, but the belt of deciduous trees running along the roads and gardens in the centre of the valley obscures the village settlements. The surrounding fields spread out from the more settled middle of the valley up its gradually rising sides. As I write it is mid-summer, 2008 and they show a patchwork of wheat, rape and beans. This year global food shortages and rising wheat prices have resulted in much set aside land being brought back under the plough. Not so long ago there were sizeable orchards, the remnants of which can be seen along the A10 bypass at Melbourn.

The network of field ditches and streams, such as the Meld and the Shep, flowing down to the Rhee, keep the land drained and usable. The upper Cam basin is low-lying, in its central parts less than 20 metres above seal level. The higher more permeable land flanking the basin makes it prone to flooding.

What is missing from this landscape? Until the end of the nineteenth century the majority of people still worked on the land or in associated trades. Before parliamentary enclosure was completed in this part of the county in the mid-1830s the view afforded from this point would have shown open fields worked in strips. The fields would have been a hive of human activity and there would have been more livestock, some of it tethered to graze the grass baulks and verges delimiting the open fields. The fields adjacent to the river Rhee were permanent meadows, providing summer pasture. In the mid-nineteenth century the grassy chalk downland rising up either side of the valley, particularly along the Icknield Way, was noted for its sheep walks. At Rowley’s Hill near Newton and towards Heydon at the 85-meter contour line, there are Strip Lynchetts, rare remnants of terraced ridge and furrow farming practice from the pre-enclosure period. These fields are a depopulated place now, something to be viewed passively from roads or at best from footpaths skirting their borders.

The archaeological record of this land is very rich, showing evidence of human settlement from Neolithic times; a landscape shaped and worked by man several thousand years before the Romans arrived and established their network of roads and farming villas. Cast your eyes once again across the valley. Below the far ridge along the spring line, where the chalk outcrop meets the heavier clay, is found the early evidence of settlement along the Icknield Way: the long barrow on Therfield Heath, (clearly seen with binoculars), and evidence of nearby early field systems and droving routes. Until the nineteenth century barrows or tumuli were visible all along the Icknield Way, but were gradually ploughed out. An indication of this spiritual landscape still remains. The OS map shows tumuli at points along both sides of the A505 between Royston and Duxford. The evidence of aerial photography, showing crop marks of iron age farm enclosures and ring ditches, indicates a densely populated landscape in the centuries before the Roman conquest. A cluster of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of national archaeological interest has been excavated in the Upper Cam valley, notably at Haslingfield, Barrington and Foxton. The Barrington site at Edix hill lies not far away to the left on the parish border with Orwell.

Geography and geology

The chalk ridge upon which I am standing shows of course the importance of geology to the formation of the upper Cam valley, the result of sedimentary layering, glacial action, river erosion and alluvial deposit. The small quarry below me is one of a series of pits dug out of this ridge, including Orwell, Harlton and Haslingfield, where the hard clunch chalk was quarried by hand for use as a building material in local churches, both as masonry (ashlar) and for carved ornamental work. These pits go back to the thirteenth century and have long been reclaimed by nature, smoothing their edges with trees and hedges of blackthorn and elder. Further along the ridge, on its southern side, the more visible scarring of the landscape by modern industrial quarrying is shown at the Barrington works, (now closed) where for the past 70 years a fine chalk has been worked to make lime for cement. Along the edge of the pit you can see the sole remaining chimney of the Barrington works.

Modern aerial warfare and the Upper Cam Valley

If you are here on a Summer’s day, particularly at the weekend in mid-July, you will see historic aircraft flying out from the Imperial War Museum at Duxford to circle the surrounding countryside, a reminder of the importance of South Cambridgeshire as a location for wartime airfields. Construction of Duxford aerodrome began in 1917, as a station to train Royal Flying Corps crew and it remained a training school for the RAF until the defence review of 1922 recognised (once again) the strategic importance of the location. Duxford became a fighter station responsible for defending the sky above East Anglia and the approaches to the East Midlands. Its resident squadron, No 19, received the first Spitfires in 1938. Duxford rose to prominence in the Battle of Britain as the headquarters of 12 Group Wing in which Douglas Bader played a leading role. On 15 September , 1940 (now commemorated as Battle of Britain Day) the sixty spitfires and hurricanes dispersed around Duxford and nearby Fowlmere played an important role in repulsing German bomber raids aimed at London. In the summer of 1940 it must have been an awesome sight standing here, watching Bader’s ‘Big Wing’assemble in the skies overhead. On reflection, a more chilling view would have been the arrival of Luftwaffe bomber formations, which targeted RAF airfields in the early phase of the battle. A force of Dornier bombers attacked Duxford on August 31. Upon being intercepted by fighters from RAF Debden, the force became disorganised and dropped its bombs on the Shelfords and finally between Harston and Shepreth.

Duxford is just out of view but with binoculars you can clearly see the present day private airfield at Fowlmere, where RAF and later US Air Force fighters were once based. It is situated upon higher ground, gently sloping away at the sides, affording a natural, well-drained landing strip. The end of the strip abuts the line of Bran ditch, mentioned earlier, running from Black Peak across the A505 to Heydon. A larger First World War airfield, similar in construction to Duxford, existed on a different site but was demolished in 1922.

To the far right lies Bassingbourn barracks, where an airfield was constructed in 1938. During the war Wellington bombers from 11 Operational Training Unit flew from here. Just below the clunch pit, the tower of Orwell church was a well-known local obstruction for bombers taking off from the main runway. To warn aircrew of the danger the wall of the tower was painted white and fitted with a red light. Between April and July 1941 Bassingbourn was subjected to night-time intruder attacks by the Luftwaffe, operating from the Dutch coast. Several Wellingtons were destroyed shortly after take off.

All is peaceful now and the top of the clunch pit at Orwell is a good place to come and view the weather. The valley is a natural basin where autumnal and winter mists hang heavy all day. Likewise low cloud tends to roll along the valley. On hot summer days, cumulus cloud, drawing moisture from the low lying land and its high water table, can billow up to deposit heavy showers of torrential rain.


All in all, when I come here to take in the view I get a very clear sense of the scope of the upper Cam valley, the place where I have lived for the past twenty years, and of its geographical and historical position at the cross roads between two distinct regions, East Anglia and the Midlands, an intermediate zone of transit but also long established human settlement and activity. People have always passed through on the way somewhere else but others have stopped and settled here to make a living for Millenia. By comparison my own time here will be short and so I come here not only to enjoy the view but also to bear witness.

With a little effort we can all become historians of our local landscape be it rural or urban. Through our powers of observation and enquiry we can understand and interpret for ourselves the unfolding story of human settlement and activity. Through this sense of place, of connectedness with our locality, we identify more closely with our environment, we become its custodians.

About me:

Jonathan Spain is a freelance writer and historian with an interest in the local history of South Cambs. For more information see


About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
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2 Responses to The Landscape of the Upper Cam Valley, the view from Toot Hill, Orwell,

  1. Rob M says:

    Hallo again,

    Several years back I saw a display of maps in one of the colleges that showed a planned canal system where the Kings Cross line now is. I feel that we’re lucky that the railway took over from the canals overwise our river systems would have been grossly changed and we’d have no fast link to London (which is now having some drawbacks)



  2. Hi Rob,

    I have seen a copy of this map showing a proposed canal running through the valley too! I’m scratching my head– so i’ll need to check back and do some more research!


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