Shepreth – the watery parish (2nd edition)

For those of us living in this low-lying parish, prone to flooding, it is interesting to note that we are surrounded by water courses, both natural and man-made, on three sides! In fact they delimit almost all of the parish boundary. On the western side lies the Melbourn/Meldreth brook, flowing down to the river Rhee, which forms the northern boundary as far as the bridge to Barrington. The boundary then cuts slightly to the south, following Twin Ditch and Back Drain, running parallel with the river. Foxton brook, originating in Fowlmere, forms the eastern boundary, joining the Rhee further downstream. A section of the river Shep forms a short part of the boundary in the southern most part of the parish.

The land lying along the western and northern boundaries has always been prone to flooding, due to the underlying clay and proximity to the river Rhee, which still today bursts its banks after prolonged spells of wet weather. Over the past millenium an artificial system of drainage has gradually eased the problem in the rest of the parish. The village itself is sited on slightly higher ground about a mile from the river.

According to the Victoria County History (VCH) Bernadyke ditch existed in 1286 and by 1626 How Ditch, Graves Ditch and Hell’s Ditch were also in existence. By the time of enclosure in 1823 other drains had been constructed. Notably Broad Marsh Drain, lying close to the course of the Meldreth Brook and Twin Ditch and Back Drain, running close by the river Rhee. This parallel system of artificial and natural drainage was an obvious attempt to drain, (and hold back the flooding from), Fillcup and Barrington fields, lying adjacent to the river Rhee. Mill river (now the Shep), which runs through the village and originally across Barrington field into Foxton brook, was straightened. New Drain was built to run north from the river across Barrington field into Public Drain, another drain running parallel to the river. However, in the Tithe map of 1840 although the junction with New Drain is shown, the course of the river is still shown running along its old route diagonally across the field, next to the footpath, which still exists today but not of course the river.

After the heavy snows of December and January 2009/10 the fields around the village have become saturated. The road side ditches leading towards Meldreth are full of water, the river crossings at Malton and Barrington have been flooded. Fragments of Stone-Age weapons and tools found in the parish led the VCH to surmise that this may have been the site of a lake dwelling. Not much has changed.

Numerous fords, crossings and bridges were built to allow passage around and about this watery parish. In 1626 (VCH) King’s, Gilton and Huckles bridges existed, not forgetting the ‘Sheep’ bridge in the village centre. In addition there were three fords: Orlocke, Potter’s and Archer’s fords. The latter was the crossing of the river between Shepreth and Barrington. The road was known as Archerford Way in 1626. The ford was probably replaced by a bridge in the 18th cent. and was named Archer bridge on the Shepreth enclosure map of 1823. This crossing is still liable to flooding despite engineering works in recent years. Huckles bridge, mentioned above, may have provided a stream/ditch crossing at the bend of the road leading to Frog End. The 1887 OS large scale map of Shepreth calls the footpath leading to Moor End from the apex of the bend ‘Huckles Lane.’ According to VCH a family called Huckyls lived in Shepreth in the 13th cent. (Huttles Green, a small 1960s estate is named after Huckles close, which lay east of the Shepreth-Melbourn road).

In medieval times the drainage problems of Shepreth and its neighbouring parishes were exacerbated by the actions of local millers, who often ‘stopped up’ the water to create a stronger flow at the mill, causing flooding problems in meadows upstream. There were disputes in 1318 and 1324 when the Shepreth mill sluices were opened illegally to let water through. The mill-dam at Archerford/bridge, Barrington was broken down by men from Malton in 1318 and by Meldreth men in 1320. (‘Cam or Rhee,’ by members of the Barrington Local Conservation Society, 1973,  p. 41).

Unlike the other parishes in the valley bordering the River Rhee, the Shepreth boundary is not completely co-terminus with the river. As described above, the section from the road bridge to the two footbridges runs along drainage ditches. The land in between these ditches and the actual river, now a nature reserve, forms part of Barrington. This land was traditionally used as water meadows for summer grazing. A document in the County Record Office, dating 1695, records the division of these meadows amongst the farmers of the parish. Their names were Long Meatleham, the Hook, Short Meatleham and Langham Meadow. (Source: ‘Cam or Rhee’, p.34.).

In his book ‘The Common Stream’, Rowland Parker, describes the long running feud between Foxton and Barrington, which was partly caused by the practice of Barrington farmers grazing their cattle on the Foxton meadows lying adjacent to the river.  No such dispute appears to have arisen with Shepreth (?),  probably because the boundary between the two parishes accommodated the needs of Barrington for access to water meadow.



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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6 Responses to Shepreth – the watery parish (2nd edition)

  1. Debra says:

    Hi, your article on Shepreth is really interesting (I’m a villager too) but I wonder if there is a map showing the locations of the various drainage ditches anywhere?

  2. Rob M says:


    The article is very interesting for me as I have also wondered about the various old names for the ditches and meadows that are now becoming forgotten. For example, Barrington and Foxton people call the lower part of the Shep, from where the Twin Ditch enters (which I call the Guilden Brook), “Little Rivers”. And older residents of the village refer to the Shep along the footpath from the Green Man as the “Nave”. The Cam or Rhee book is an excellent local read, much easier than the Common Stream.

    When considering the Twin Ditch and Back Drain I find it puzzling as to why 2 drainage ditches were cut to run parallel with only a few metres between them. Either they were draining different level systems or they represent landowners who could not agree how to manage things so they both had their own drain ??

    Also, if the Rhee was dammed up to form a head of water to mills at Archer’s Bridge and Bulbeck then the real course of the Rhee would have been in the lowest point. So possibly the Back Drain (or the now largely dry defunct brick arch between the Guilden Brook and the Rhee as one goes from Shepreth to Barrington) may have been the original course of the Rhee.

    The village church has a very good copy of the inclosure map in case you haven’t seen it. I have collected various maps over the years and would be willing to share with you what I know. I have some info somewhere relating to the name Rhee – I think it originates somehow from fast flowing (kind of like diaorrhoea – I’m not joking).



  3. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for your informative and thought raising comments. Regarding Twin Ditch and back drain: looking at the parish tithe map of 1840, which is very detailed, it seems that Twin Ditch flows from Archer’s bridge in a winding course until it joins Back Drain. The parallel ditch is shown as ‘public drain.’ Twin Ditch and not the Rhee forms the parish boundary with Barrington, allowing that village access to meadow between the two water courses – which may be the answer to why there are so many parallel water courses, both natural and man made. But as you suggest the siting of the mills could also provide the answer, in order to provide sufficient head water.

    Regarding the name Rhee, my researches indicate an early English origin – ‘ea’ meaning water, used as a common noun, becoming the middle English Rhee or Rea or Re, again used as a common noun as in Barrington Re or Rhee. This later gets transformed into a proper noun – River Rhee. But I will have more to say about this in a later blog!



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