Royston Heath – the historic landscape of South Cambridgeshire

There are several good places to view South Cambridgeshire and the valley of the river Rhee or Cam: Chapel hill at Haslingfield and Toot Hill at Orwell are  good examples about which I have written in other blogs. However the view from the obelisk on the chalk path rising from the main car park at the heath is the most all-encompasing. It is an elevated site positioned roughly mid-way in the valley and at its widest point.

It is interesting to erase from one’s view all modern development and look back to the medieval landscape. What do we see? Churches. From this point you can see with the naked eye the towers of parish churches at nearby Melbourn, Litlington, Guilden Morden, and also Orwell on the far side of the valley. With binoculars you can probably see more. The layout of fields is probably in many cases roughly the same, especially either side of ancient routes such as Ermine St and the Icknield way, with formed pre-existing ancient boundary lines.  One must presume there were more trees in the valley, and more pastoral farming, sheep in particular, on the higher grassy slopes on either side of the valley. The fields would have been cultivated as open strips and it would have been a ‘peopled’ landscape, a busy human landscape with much manual labour being undertaken.

Take away the railway line and the A505. What is left but the parallel lines of the prehistoric Icknield Way running along the base and on the ridge of the more southerly slopes of the valley. Intersecting with this at Royston, then a small market place adjacent to the Priory and its religious and secular buildings, was the north/south running Ermine St, crossing the river Rhee at Arrington, where the river could be forded. Bridges came later. Smaller tracks connected the villages. There would have been more smoke to be seen rising from the chimneys of village dwellings. On high points windmills would have been stationed. Although the fields would see more human activity, accompanied by plough teams of horses and bullocks, the valley was less densely populated – the settlements smaller, the gaps between them larger. It would have been a quieter place, and so on Sundays the bells of the parish churches would be heard more easily, calling their parishioners to pray.

It is interesting to contemplate this and then add in successive developements in road and rail and housing, the growth of Royston, the cement works at Barrington and Morden. From this comes an awareness of the historic development of the valley over the ages; a sense of continuity between the past and the present as seen through the evolving landscape.

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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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