Over the years I have come across references to Shepreth in historical papers, local history books, county guides and other publications and it is interesting to see how the village has been represented down the ages.
If one was writing a description of the village today I would mention the magnificent stand of mature trees along Fowlmere Road, the pleasant chalk stream running through the village, and one or two of the older houses, such as Docwras Manor, Tyrells Hall and Nuns Manor at Frog End, and also the attractive cluster of thatched cottages (and mill buildings) around the bridge in the centre of the village and at Frog End. The gardens at the Meldreth Road crossing house and at Docwras Manor have become well-known local features.
The development of Shepreth Wildlife Park would be worthy of note, with an interesting history, starting out as an animal rescue center. I would mention the modernised village pub, The Plough, newly reopened, which has proved such an asset to the village and restored a greater sense of community. The recent improvements at the railway station, carried out by the small band of local volunteers, with the arrangement of flower tubs, would speak to this improved community spirit.
But what did others make of it in earlier times? Writing in the 1630s the Shepreth antiquary, John Layer, described the parish thus:
‘The soil is very fruitful for corne and grasse, the towne standeth almost in the midst of the bounds, and is environed on all sides, the south-east excepted, with rivers and brooks, and hath a pleasant and sweet brook besides, running through the middle of the towne.’
The vicar of Barrington, Edward Conybeare, wrote a series of local guides and history books in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In his ‘Tourist’s Guide to the City of Cambridge’ (revised 1892) he set out a series of walks based on the railway stations on lines running from Cambridge. In Route ‘C’ from Cambridge to Royston by rail he writes:
‘A footpath from Barrington to Shepreth, the next station, whence the visitor will observe rising all around him the chimneys of cements works, the latest Cambs. industry,’ and goes on to mention Shepreth ‘which is chiefly attractive by the clean and copious stream winding through the village, which is worth tracing to its source (2 miles off) in the old mere, whence Fowlmere is named’.
Conybeare was, like many in the Late Victorian-Edwardian period, a cycling enthusiast, and published a popular book of routes, ‘Rides Round Cambridge. A Cyclist’s Guide to the District,’ 1902. Route VII (Barrington, Orwell, Shepreth, Foxton) contains the following description:
‘Crossing the Cam we reach the Great Northern Railway at Shepreth Station and immediately enter the pretty village…with its shady lane watered by the clearest of brooks (rising in what was till lately the veritable mere of Fowlmere). Turning right after passing the station and immediately left, leads us past the church (barely worth a mention though the chancel arch has curious features).’ The route then turned back towards Foxton.
Conybeare was clearly delighted by the brook for again in ‘Highways and Byways of Cambridgeshire and Ely,’ (1910) he writes of Shepreth, ‘This is a little gem of a village, with a clear and copious brook, running across its maze of thick-shaded lanes’. Members of ‘The Friends of the River Shep’ will take note of this long-standing appreciation of the attractive qualities of our little brook, as a distinguishing feature of the village, going back to John Layer in the mid 17th century and noted repeatedly by Edward Conybeare in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.
Shepreth (and its brook) was not always treated so well by writers. Charles G. Harper, (1863-1943), author and illustrator, made an industry of topographical works, with titles such as ‘The Brighton Road’ (1892), ‘The Portsmouth Road’ (1899) etc. In 1902 he published ‘The Cambridge, Ely and Kings Lynn Road. The Great Fenland Highway.’ Harper must have visited on a wet and dreary day for his description of Shepreth is unremittingly damning and snooty. He begins pleasantly enough:
‘Shepreth hides itself from the road. Let us take the winding by-way that leads to it [from the present day junction of Frog End and the A10] and see what a purely agricultural Cambridgeshire village set down in this level plain and utterly out of touch with the road may be like.’
But he was clearly unimpressed, for he continues….’It needs no great exercise of the deductive faculty to discover, on the way to Cambridge, that this is not a place of great or polite resort, [gasp!] for the lane is a narrow and winding way, half muddy ruts and loose stones. Besides it crawls imperceptibly in its deep ditch like bed, overhung with pollarded willows, a stream which takes its rise from the bogs of Fowlmere. By what lazy snakish windings it ultimately finds its way to the Cam does not concern us.’ Evidently, Harper did not appreciate Conybeare’s ‘shady lane’ watered by a ‘clear and copious brook’, rising ‘from the veritable mere of Fowlmere.’
He continues: ‘Here and there mud-walled cottages, brilliantly white-washed and heavily thatched dot the way, the sum total of the village, saving indeed the church standing adjoining the farmyard churned in a sea of mud.’
About the church Harper and Conybeare are more in agreement but Harper is unreserved in his criticism, laced with a touch of ironic understatement: ‘The church is not altogether prepossessing. The south isle has been rebuilt in white brick, in the style rivaling the worst efforts of the old time chapel-builder, and the old tower, whose upper stages have long fallen in ruin, shows in the contorted courses of its stone work how the building has sunk and settled in the water-logged soil’. Harper concludes his description of Shepreth with evident relief: ‘beyond this soddened village, coming to the High Road again, the station and level crossing at Foxton are reached.’
The most detailed description we have of the village (and its history) comes from the report of the ‘Autumn Excursion of the Cambs. and Hunts. Archaeological Society’, which visited Melbourn, Fowlmere and Shepreth on the 22 September,1922. This coach party was led by William Mortlock Palmer, the local antiquarian and Linton GP, whose family was from Meldreth. He gave a series of talks on various architectural features in the village as the group made they way round.
The first stop was the mill, where the mill house, mill and barns were described as ‘a pleasant group’ before moving on to Manor Farm, adjacent to the church, where Palmer read a paper on the history of the Manor of the Nunnery of Chatteris, down to the time of John Layer, about whom Dr Palmer was an authority.
Dr Palmer’s detailed description of the history of the village church rather bears out the comments made by Conybeare and Harper. Although first recorded in 1254, the short heyday of its history was the 14th century when it was largely rebuilt and well furbished. Thereafter it is a continuous story of disrepair, delapidation and periods of non-residence. In 1774 the spire was taken down because it had cracked the tower, causing two bells to fall and be broken. In 1852 the tower remained in a dangerous state and the church’s condition was described as disgraceful. Palmer, like Conybeare noted the chancel arch, possibly Norman, as the best, most important feature. Despite the history of neglect the church still stands, its original clunch masonry patched up with modern brickwork and cement, (not the best means of renovation!) but the churchyard is rather attractive in a quiet modest way.
The party then moved on to Wimbish Manor, some of the group walking through the ‘well-wooded and well watered park of Tyrells Manor, with Mr Woodham, the owner. On the way to Tyrells, the “pleasant sweet brook” of old John Layer was crossed by a footbridge’.
The report continued… ‘At Wimbish Manor the jaded antiquaries were welcomed by Mr and Mrs Webber. Tea tables had been set on one of the lawns, and the guests enjoyed the good things thereon in ease and comfort.’ To conclude the outing Dr Palmer then gave a paper on the complicated descent of the other manor in the village, Delahaye’s Manor which was eventually divided into Wimbish and Docwras Manors.
John Layer, Edward Conybeare and Dr Palmer, would be gladdened to know that the brook, which we know as the River Shep, is enjoyed and looked after by local residents, long after their time, and recognised as a vital and important feature of the village. Even Charles Harper, one would hope, would have appreciated the efforts of the ‘Friends of the River Shep’ to clear the banks and maintain the flow of the river!