GUILDEN MORDEN PARISH BOUNDARY: An Armchair Tour

Jack Smith

The boundary of Guilden Morden parish, much of which is also the county boundary, has a number of interesting and some puzzling features. Measured from the 1:25000 map, the total distance is about 21½ kilometres; following all the meanders of the streams would increase this considerably. Only about one third of the course can be travelled on public roads or footpaths, although some of the rest may be accessible occasionally. Following a mathematical tradition, this account will begin at a point due East of the village, in fact at the bridge carrying a foot-path over the brook near Morden Hall, and proceed anticlockwise; that is to say Guilden Morden is always on the left, whilst on the right is somewhere else, initially Steeple Morden.

Starting from the bridge then (a good spot for yellowhammers), the boundary follows the brook downstream all the way to the river. The brook here is suspiciously straight, but more of that anon. After 200m it picks up a path on the "Steeple" side down to the motor road at Fleck’s Lane. This was the coprolite zone, and much of the local topography could have been obscured by turning the ground over to get at the coprolites. The former farming owner of the next field beyond the road once remarked to me that as a result "the white stuff is still on top over 100 years later". The next house on the right of Fleck’s Lane in Steeple Morden was a former pub serving the diggers, and is still known as "The Diggings". Fleck’s Lane itself was a Roman route, and the line of their road can be seen as a hollow way running across the field on the left, which presumably escaped the diggers.

Crossing the road, the boundary continues along the brook, now with an unmetalled public by-way or green lane, known as Cobb’s Lane, on the "Guilden" side. Geology is evident here; in wet weather an immense weight of chalk marl (the "white stuff" my farming friend referred to) adheres to your boots; in summer the tractor ruts and hoof marks harden to be almost as difficult to walk on. But after about 200 metres you reach the gault (the raw material for the local bricks) and walking becomes much easier. From about the same point, in fact just past the brick pits, there is a change in the character of the wide verge on the left from bramble thicket to woodland probably containing the remnant of an Anglo-Saxon boundary bank. Dog’s Mercury, usually a sign of ancient woodland and able to spread at only about 25 metres a century, grows here. Verge, lane, and brook continue thus to Little Green, 600 metres from Fleck’s Lane, where there is a very small patch of Dog’s Mercury on the right of the track.

At Little Green, the green Cobb’s Lane crosses the brook and continues on the Steeple side. The brook is now perfectly straight for over a kilometre, and has clearly been artificially straightened, while on the right of the lane there is equally clearly a man-made bank with the hall-marks of an Anglo-Saxon boundary bank. This has been conjectured as dating from c1016 when the Mordens were separated after the Atheling Athelstan, son of Ethelred the unready, died leaving his estate at (Steeple) Morden to Winchester Abbey, where he was to be buried. Approaching the River Cam or Rhee at Tadlow Bridge the track deviates to the left for the last 60 metres – three chains in the enclosure award – leaving a small triangular thicket inside the boundary. The bridge itself is just downstream of the alignment of the track, and has presumably been built to replace an earlier crossing, which could possibly have been a ford, though the banks are very steep. This corner must be the lowest point in the parish, with the normal water level probably less than 25 metres above Ordnance Survey datum level. Here the boundary turns left and follows the river upstream for about 3 kilometres almost to Whitegate Bridge. At first Tadlow is on the other side. There is no path; I have struggled along the bank for a short distance and risked crossing by an abandoned and rotting farm bridge, creaking ominously, to reach a track on the Tadlow side. A little further along there is a field not far away on the right which is the only place I know of locally where the ridge-and-furrow left by strip cultivation can be clearly seen.

The Potton Road bridge is the next landmark, with Hook’s Mill and its associated leat and tailrace on the left. Two hundred metres above the road bridge we pick up the county boundary, with Wrestlingworth in the county of Bedford on the right. The Cambridgeshire-Bedfordshire boundary between Tadlow and Wrestlingworth is quite unlike the Guilden Morden boundary, and zigzags away across the fields unmarked except where it crosses the road. But continuing up river, after another hundred metres Wrestlingworth gives way to Eyeworth¹.

Above the take-off point for the mill stream, the river has been straightened. This is shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1887, but it does not appear on the Enclosure Plan of 1804. Its location makes it look as though it was done for the purposes of the mill (though why is not obvious). The boundary, however, still follows the former meandering course of the river, observing the usual legal rule that a boundary is altered by a gradual change in a watercourse, but not by a sudden one. The meanders have been virtually obliterated by time and farm machinery, although I am told they can still be made out from the air. Two large trees shown on the Bedfordshire side in aerial photographs of some time ago, possibly willows, possibly hedgerow elms, have also gone.

Almost at the end of the straight channel we reach the Beds-Herts-Cambs triple point, where the river is joined by the stream from Ruddery Spring. It is the latter which forms our boundary with Ashwell in Hertfordshire. This stream is not named on the Ordnance Survey map, and does not seem to have an accepted name in current general use: "Ruddery Brook" perhaps. Whatever its name, the parish and county boundary follows it for the 5 kilometres or so to Ruddery Spring. It passes close to Mobb’s Hole on the right; it is crossed by a footpath there, and by another shortly afterwards. Until the 19th century enclosures this stretch was common grazing on both sides, and a late 18th century plan shows what appear to be springs on the left.

The next crossing is of interest. There is now a farm track, and the stream might perhaps be more accurately described as culverted than bridged. On the left there is a green lane, the extension of Silver Street, which is clearly signposted at the Guilden Morden end as a bridleway, and marked as such by the Ordnance Survey as far as the boundary. The Enclosure Award describes it as a public bridleway to a ford at Mobb’s Hole (which is over a kilometre downstream). On the Ashwell side there is no bridleway sign, nor is it so marked on the map, and indeed it is said that objection has been raised to people using the private farm track. Where then did the bridleway go to? The answer seems to be that it gave access to some strips in the North Field of Ashwell belonging to the Guilden Morden Townlands Charity – and also presumably for anyone else from either village holding strips on the other side. When Ashwell was enclosed in 1863 the Townlands strips were consolidated as the second field from the stream on the left of the track. This field is still demarcated if not strictly enclosed, and still belongs to the charity, which draws rent from it.

Silver Street is on the line of the former Roman road through the village. The present green lane curves to the right (North) as it descends to the brook. The Roman line went straight on. The Roman crossing point was therefore a little further along; to my untrained eye there is nothing to show for it.

The parish boundary continues along the stream before arriving at another curious relict green lane, known locally as "The Vineyard". When the parish was to be enclosed the commissioners made a tour of the boundary, and were met at the bridge on the Ashwell road by a deputation from Ashwell who claimed access to their cow common. The point was conceded and they were at first offered a route from near the "Little Penn" (which was at or near the present Cold Harbour road junction). They objected to that, and were eventually granted a driftway beside the stream, which they presumably used for the next 59 years until Ashwell too was enclosed. The driftway remains, and has recently been adopted by the parish council as a nature reserve. It makes pleasant walking for the next kilometre or so to the road at "Snakesbridge" (another name that has dropped out of use). Aerial photography of crop markings shows some unidentified feature on the top of the rise to the left here.

Crossing the road, the boundary passes close to the site of the Roman villa as it continues upstream for the last few hundred metres to Ruddery Spring, where it joins a green lane known as the Shire Balk. The green lane of forty feet is provided for by the enclosure award, which carefully specifies that from this point on half its width is to be provided by Ashwell. The Shire Balk itself is possibly a remnant of a much earlier feature. At all events, it curves into Station Road, Ashwell, for a hundred metres, before the boundary continues up Highley Hill following a hedge. There is a footpath, and it would appear from the map that this time both hedge and footpath are actually in Ashwell. On the shoulder of the hill there is a small patch of glacial sand and gravel, which has been worked at some time in the past. Here the footpath turns south-east, leaving the boundary. The latter follows a narrow belt of woodland (another relic of the Shire Balk?), and then for the first time it crosses a field. In fact it crosses the corners of two fields and is crossed obliquely by the railway. Aerial photographs show that it is following a multiple ditch system, probably of great antiquity. At the next hedge it turns left and runs down to the main road.

At the A505 the boundary turns left again and, following the road, divides us from the parish of Kelshall in Hertfordshire for almost a kilometre. The precise line is rather curious, and the historical reasons for this are obscure. So is the date of the road. It is known as the Icknield Way, but that was just a vague prehistoric route. The Romans probably straightened and metalled it, but whether the 18th century turnpike and the modern road have kept to the Roman line I do not know. The first anomaly is presumably just a consequence of the fact that the modern road engineer dualling a major road will take the most convenient line irrespective of county boundaries. Thus the south-west comer of the parish lies on the central reservation between the carriageways, and the boundary then crosses obliquely to the north side. But thereafter it leaves the road, and runs roughly parallel a few metres away, so that the Odsey gate lodge is not in Guilden Morden. And on reaching Steeple Morden the county boundary jumps back to the side of the road and follows it along the southem edge of Steeple Morden, Litlington and Bassingbourn.

From the main road the parish boundary with Steeple Morden runs northwards to the starting point, for the most part following field boundaries, but with some small gaps. There is little public access, and I have not attempted to walk most of the route. It passes over Penny Loaf Hill, at 95 metres the highest point of the parish, and then over a smaller hill, possibly formerly known as Gravel Pit Hill, where the geological map shows a small patch of sand and gravel. It then descends, passing the Romano-British cemetery, partly destroyed by the former chalk pit, and presently reaches the stream.

West of Steeple Morden village there is all area of recently planted amenity woodland named Whitepond Wood; the name must be related to the 15th century Whitepond Furlong in Guilden Morden. Here the boundary leaves the stream to skirt the wood on the Guilden Morden side; there is also a path for a kilometre to Trap Bridge. And on the last short stretch back to the starting point there is another such wood beside the stream, but woefully inconvenient of access from "our" side.

Notes:
1 It is given as "Edworth" on the 18th century plan of Mobb’s Hole Field. Edworth is further west, so I suppose this to be an error, but it is not impossible that it was a detached part of Edworth parish which has since been tidied up.

2 See e.g. CUCAP Air Photo BHR 26.

© J.M.Smith 2010.
From South-West Cambridgeshire Project: Third Interim Report 2000-2002. Revised 2010.