The slow train

IF YOUR TRAIN FROM CAMBRIDGE to London stops at Shepreth and Meldreth, you can be sure that you are in for a longish journey because only the slower trains halt at these stations. Over the course of many years, we have been travelling to and from Cambridge by train and as I enjoy looking out of the window, I have always noticed this pair of oddly named stations. Only recently, we visited both places by car and took a look around these lovely villages between Cambridge and Royston and close to the A10 road, which runs from London Bridge to Kings Lynn via Cambridge.

The ‘reth’ suffix in the two villages names means ‘stream’. Shepreth means ‘sheep stream’ and Meldreth means ‘mill stream’. There is archaeological evidence of settlements in both places long before the Romans invaded England. The Romans may have occupied part of the parish of Shepreth and their successors, the Saxons, developed the village of Meldreth. Both villages are listed in the Domesday Book (1086). Little appears to have been recorded in the history books about events in tiny Shepreth. The larger village of Meldreth also played no great role in the history of England but, in the 16th century, Christ College of Cambridge moved to its estate near the village to escape from the plague. Members of the Meldreth Local History Group might disagree with my assessment of Meldreth’s place in British history. Their superb website (meldrethhistory.org.uk/) details many aspects of the place’s past, but most of them are about the village rather than the wider world.  

I imagine that the building and opening of railway stations in the two villages in 1851 were major events in their history and development. Currently, the stations are served by Thameslink trains. The villages are popular places for commuters to both London and Cambridge.

Both villages are rich in historic buildings of great beauty. Many features of vernacular architecture can be found including many fine thatched roofs. A particularly charming old, thatched edifice In Shepreth is Corner Cottage, which is close to a more aristocratic looking building, Docwra House. This former manor house was built in the 17th century and then provided with later additions (www.docwrasmanorgarden.co.uk/history.htm). The village sign at Shepreth is suitably adorned with sheep, bales of fleece, a stream, a bridge, a water mill, and a leaping fish. The bridge, which we did not see, was built in the 17th century. It crossed the River Rhee, a tributary of the River Cam, in which sheep were washed, and was used by farmers taking sheep to the market in Cambridge.

At Meldreth, through which flows the tiny River Mel, a tributary of the Cam, we entered the parish church of Holy Trinity, whose construction began in the mid-12th century on the site of an 8th century church. Its square tower, nave, and chancel were all constructed in the 12th century. The church contains some fine brass chandeliers; an elaborately carved pulpit and choir stalls with wooden carvings; fragments of pre-Reformation frescoes; a lovely timber beam ceiling; some heavily whitewashed carvings supporting some of the ceiling timbers; and a mediaeval parish chest. The latter is one of about 150 surviving examples. It was made in Baltic pine with iron bands between about 1400 and 1420 and was used for securely storing valuable liturgical items (e.g., silverware, books, and vestments).  In addition to visiting the church, we drove through long village to its station, which up until our visit by car, we had only ever seen whilst speeding through it by train. However, we did not see any mills as suggested by the meaning of the name Meldreth.

We did not spend nearly enough time in the two villages as we fitted them into an already busy day of sightseeing. However, having sampled them, we feel that they merit a longer visit in the future. Once again, these places provide good examples of the wealth of historical features to be discovered in England’s rural areas.

A small village near Cambridge

SINCE THE FOURTH OF JULY 2020, the anniversary of the day Britain lost a large American colony and when our worldly wise Prime Minister deemed it safe for all of us to be liberated from the constraints of ‘lockdown’ and encouraged us to ‘eat out to help out’, a policy that appears to have helped to spread the covid19 virus as well as restaurant owners, we have been roaming around the countryside, discovering what a beautiful country we inhabit. What has struck me when driving from A to B is the number of exceptionally attractive, yet not well-known, villages we have passed through. The village of Comberton in Cambridgeshire was one of these, which we nearly drove past without examining it. However, as time was on our side and it looked so lovely, we stopped there for a few minutes and took a stroll around.

We parked next to an oddly shaped small village pond in which clumps of reeds were growing. A small family of ducks wound its way between the vegetation, occasionally disappearing from view. At the far end of the pond, there is an old low brick wall. Behind it, there is a long two-storey house with a brick roof and decorative chimney stacks. Before describing some of the other lovely buildings in the village, let me give you a flavour of its history.

Sometime between 4000 BC and 2500 BC, someone dropped a polished Neolithic stone axe near where the village stands today. Somewhat later, the Romans built a villa near Comberton. Even later, the village’s name began to evolve, as is described on the village’s website (http://www.comberton.org/home/about-comberton/history-of-comberton/):

“A lot is said about the name of the village and its origins. It is believed that the name is of Celtic origin, possibly named after a landowner by the name of Cumbra. The Domesday Book (1086) has it recorded as Cumbertone. According to William Kip’s map of the area in 1607 Comberton is spelt as it is today and interestingly Barton is spelt Berton”

The village has several churches, which we will visit in the future. One of these is St Mary’s, is in the Early English style with later modifications. Another still extant place of worship is used by non-Conformists. There have been associations between non-Conformism and Comberton since as early as the 17th century. The Puritan William Dowsing (1596-1668), an iconoclast, visited the village in March 1643, and recorded:

“‘We brake downe a crucifix and 69 superstitious pictures we brake downe, and gave order to take downe 36 cherubims, and the steps to be taken down by March 25.’”

Prior to 1772, when a new road, a turnpike (now the A228), was built, Comberton was on the road connecting Oxford with Cambridge. Apart from the usual activities found in villages, such as butchery, bakery, saddlery, harness-making, inn keeping, blacksmithing, and so on, the place had one industry for a while. That was in the 19th century when Comberton became a small centre for mining coprolite, fossilised dung. This material used to be ground in a mill to produce a powder that made a good crop fertiliser. Judging by the good state of the houses and the high-quality cars parked near them, the inhabitants of Comberton appear make their living in reasonably well-paid jobs. Were I to have had a profitable career in or near Cambridge, this village might have been a good place to live.

Every village is unique, but many share the same features. In Comberton, we saw several houses with well-maintained thatched roofs. However, we also saw something I had never noticed before. Some of the houses had what you might describe as ‘hybrid’ roofs: partly thatched and partly tiled. One house near the village pond had something we have seen on thatched roofs in many other villages. That is, the ridge of the thatch is decorated with animals made of thatch. Here in Comberton, this one roof was adorned with thatch sculptures of four birds with long necks, that made me think they are supposed to be depicting geese rather than ducks or swans.

The village pond, which is across the road from a dental surgery and ‘Millionhairz’, a hairdresser’s salon, is encircled by an attractive low, neatly built stone wall that curves around the water in a visually pleasant way. On the green next to the pond, there is a timber post that supports a sign (erected 1977) with the name of the village and a two-sided picture above it. On one side, a priest is depicted handing fishes to three people with outstretched arms. This refers to years long past when herrings were handed out to the poor in the village soon before Easter. The other side of the picture above the village name depicts a farmer ploughing his field with a plough drawn by a horse. Behind the farmer high on a hill, there is a white coloured wooden windmill. This reminds us that once Comberton had two working mills.

Our visit to Comberton lasted no more than ten minutes partly because we had to reach somewhere to meet my cousin and because the weather was miserable: grey, cold, and wet. However, what little we saw of this delightful place made us realise that it was well worth stopping en-route to our destination. We have already driven through so many intriguing villages on our excursions through the English countryside. I would have liked to spend time in all of these, and hope to return to some of them in the future. I would rather spend time wandering around picturesque villages than sitting for hours in traffic jams, as happens so often these days.

Pig on the roof

THE FRENCH COMPOSER Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) composed the music for a surrealist ballet, “Le Boeuf sur la Toit” (i.e. ‘The Ox on the Roof’) which had its premiere in February 1920 in Paris. Today, the 4th of September 2020, I saw a pig on a roof and on other roofs I saw birds and dogs. None of them moved a muscle. They just sat or stood where they were without moving. No, I have not been taking hallucinatory drugs or daydreaming. These creatures are made of straw and sit on the ridges of thatched roofs in country villages north of London including Abbington Piggot in Cambridgeshire. On previous occasions I spotted these straw animals on the ridges of roofs in Suffolk villages including Stoke by Clare.

In many parts of England, thatchers, proud of their skills, sometimes add decorative straw creatures as finishing touches to their fine handiwork. These ornaments are variously known as ‘dollies’ (not to be confused with ‘straw dollies’) and ‘straw finials’. Many contemporary thatchers are still willing to add a straw finial to a thatched roof.

There are records of sightings of straw ornaments such as I have described dating back to 1689. The use of thatching probably goes back many thousands of years. However, because of its organic composition, thatch does not usually survive long enough to be detected by archaeologists. The remains of some buildings found on archaeological sites have structural features that are strongly suggestive of their suitability to support thatched roofing. Thatching is not confined to the British Isles. It can be found almost all over the globe.

Thatch, being made of straw and other related material does not last forever. It has to be replaced periodically. The same is true of the straw finials. They look great when they are relatively new, but like the thatch, they decay gradually and become deformed. In one village that we visited today, we saw what looked like a squirrel perching on the ridge of a thatched roof. On closer examination, what we were looking at turned out to be the tattered remnants of what might once have been a fine straw animal.

We saw the straw pig on a roof in Abbington Piggott. Having seen this and having had a drink in the village’s pub, the Pig and Abbott, I wondered if the place’s name had anything to do with pigs. The Domesday Book of 1086 list the village as ‘Abintone’, which means ‘estate associated with a man called Abba’. The village became known by its present name by the 17th century, the name being taken from the Pykot or Pigott family who owned the manor between the 15th and 19th centuries. And, just in case you are wondering whether the surname Pigott has anything to do with swine, it does not. It is derived from the Old English word ‘pic’ meaning a hill topped with a sharp point.

We would never have discovered the village of Abbington Piggott had we not been advised by our cousins in Baldock (Hertfordshire) to visit nearby Ashwell, a very attractive village. It was in Ashwell, where there was only one pub open (and it did not serve food), that we were advised that we should continue to Abbington Piggott where we found the welcoming Pig and Abbott as well as the pig on the roof.

You can listen to “Le Boeuf sur la toit”  by Darius Milhaud on: https://youtu.be/Bv9ii_uc2Rc

Just coffee

WE HAD JUST CROSSED the River Stour, leaving the county Essex and entering neighbouring Suffolk when we felt the need for coffee. We pulled up next to what seemed to be the only pub in the tiny village of Stoke by Clare and entered.

The village’s name includes the word ‘stoke’, which when used as a geographical term means hamlet or small settlement dependent on a larger place nearby. Stoke by Clare, which was in existence by the 12th century AD if not before, is only about two miles from the far larger and once important town of Clare. In 1124, Richard de Clare, the first Earl of Hertford, moved the Benedictine priory that had been established in his castle at Clare (now in ruins) to Stoke by Clare, thus giving some importance to the place. Today, Stoke is a picturesque, sleepy little village (population less than 500) with a few old houses, some with thatched roofs and some decorated with pargetting. Some of the thatched roofs are adorned with straw animals’ One has three dogs and another a pair of boxing hares. There is also a fine old church that was established at the time the Benedictine Priory moved to Stoke.

Entering the pub was like stepping back more than seventy years except that the diligent publican had equipped the interior with transparent plastic sheets, hanging like shower curtains, to prevent the covid-19 virus from being spread from one table to another. There was one elderly gentleman nursing a pint of beer and no other customers.

We asked the publican if coffee could be obtained. To our surprise and relief, he said that it was available although from the quaint old appearance of the place, which seems to have remained unchanged despite the passage of the centuries, we feared it might not be. My wife asked him:

“What kind of coffee do you make here? Espresso? Cappuccino? Cortado?”

The publican looked bewildered. Then, he replied:

“Coffee … just coffee.”

The coffee he produced was unexceptional, but it was just what we needed, and we enjoyed it in the lovely garden behind the pub. Before we left, we asked him if business had picked up since the easing of the pandemic ‘lockdown’ rules. He told us that it had not. I felt sorry for him as he has done everything to make his delightful old establishment safe for customers including providing hand sanitisers and instituting a one-way system through his tiny pub.