Overview By Dr J Smith
As with anywhere else, Guilden Morden’s present form is the product of the accidents of climate, geology, and history. A major factor, and one which probably influenced many of the present villagers in choosing to live here, is that the village has not been overlaid by industrial orurban development; hence it remains possible to see something of the ancient structure. Although the Romans built a minor east-west road, it has not remained as a through route. The turnpikes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries passed some miles away, and the canals of the eighteenth and nineteenth did not come anywhere near. After the opening of the railway in the 1850s with a station four miles away, it gradually became feasible for a wealthy gentleman to maintain a household in the area and earn his income in London, but it was not until the electrification of the line in the 1970s that commuting to London became a serious proposition for many.
What remains visible, therefore, is a scattered polyfocal village, over 2 km long from Town’s End to Little Green, in a parish 9 km long and averaging little more than 1 km wide. Accounting for this structure is something of a puzzle, and this is a risky moment to be writing about it, since a major landscape study of South-west Cambridgeshire is in progress; this has thrown up some surprises already, and could result in a radical rethinking of ideas.
It is probable that the post-glacial wildwood was cleared by early man. Polished stone axes have been found in the fields near the county boundary. Bronze age and Iron age burial sites exist at the southern end of the parish, near to the major east-west route afforded by the watershed of the Chilterns. The Romans came and went, leaving us our route to Cambridge, and building a road which defines our southern boundary. Their villa near the spring at Ruddery shows only as cropmarks to be seen from the air in due season, but a large Romano-British cemetery has been found nearby.
Pre-conquest settlement was probably scattered but near the available springs; much of the present High Street is near the outcrop of the Tottemhoe stone, which is a water-bearing stratum. The parish boundaries of Bassingbourn, Litlington and the Mordens show signs of planning, with each being allotted a strip extending from the drier downland to the south down to the marshy river meadows. When this was done is obscure, but it is a feature of much larger areas of Cambridgeshire, and was possibly during or soon after the period of Danish rule which came to an end in 917-920 when Edward the Elder decisively defeated the Danes. The two Mordens were separated in 1015 when the Atheling Athelstan left an estate to the abbey at Winchester. This was actually Steeple Morden, and the northern part of the boundary between the Mordens is marked along Cobb’s Lane by an Anglo-Saxon boundary bank probably of that date. Thus the parish then took the shape which, with some very minor adjustments, it still has today nearly a thousand years later.
In some nearby parishes there are faint clues suggesting a field system of late Iron Age or Romano-British date: small square fields adapted to cultivation with the scratch plough of the period. It is reasonable to suppose that this pattern extended over the Mordens also. What is certain is that it was succeeded by the strip cultivation system of Danish and Anglo-Saxon England. For this there is abundant documentary evidence, although precious little is to be seen on the ground.
After the Norman conquest the bulk of the manorial rights were acquired by Baron Picot, the Sheriff of Cambridge, one of a rapacious band who probably went round his shire mopping up anything not indisputably held by somebody else. In the course of this he seized some land from the Abbey of Ely, where the monks recorded their opinion of him for posterity – a famished lion, a roving wolf, a crafty fox, a filthy swine, a shameless dog – but he used the rectoral rights of Guilden Morden to endow Barnwell Abbey, where he was more kindly remembered.
There is some evidence of village planning, probably in the years following the conquest. It takes the form of a series of long narrow plots, originally about 20 in number, along the east side of High Street, and a smaller number of shorter ones on the north of Silver Street, with perhaps both groups facing a tapering green. Only one of the High Street holdings now remains at its original length, and probably double its original width.
But the scattered settlements have apparently never been organised into a single nuclear village. This could reflect the lack of a single resident feudal overlord. Picot’s manor became split into three, Bondesbury’s, Pychard’s, and Avenell’s, and with property belonging to the religious houses of Bamwell, and the Knights Hospitaller at Shingay, there were five manors in the village. By the time of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 the first two named were held by Thomas Haselden, who was in the service of the highly unpopular John of Gaunt, and a party came out from Cambridge to seize him. He was not at home. He had property elsewhere, but was actually on his master’s business in the north and able to call on 70 men-at-arms and 60 lances; things might have got much nastier had they been here! His barns were looted and his house pulled down; it is not certain which house that was but opinion favours Bondesbury’s. The present Hall, with its large moat, was built or rebuilt shortly afterwards.
Progress in the next 400 years was almost uneventful. Two dovecotes, six barns, and about 40 houses or cottages survive from the 15th to 18th centuries. There was probably some encroachment on the greens, and some of the strips in the open fields were fenced off, legally or otherwise. The settlement at Ruddery, possibly never more than a hermit’s cell, was abandoned, and the notorious iconoclast William Dowsing paid a destructive visit to the church.
By the 1790s, however, a big change was on the way. The strip cultivation system was not merely inefficient, but hampering improvements like the introduction of new crops. After years of negotiation an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1800, and commissioners were appointed to re-plan the parish. Their award was sealed in 1805. They straightened the roads, and except for a short length of New Road, the through roads have not altered since. They also planned ditches to improve the drainage, and parcelled out the open fields. The commons disappeared along with the open fields because the commoners all elected to take individual holdings. Development sincethen is more obvious.
The population rose from 428 at the 1801 census to 1059 in 1871, about the height of the coprolite boom, and the houses of that time are mostly in the greyish yellow bricks "Cambridge whites") made by firing the local gault clay to the north of the village. Schools were opened, and the Congregational Chapel was founded, vying with the Church forattendance figures, each claiming several hundred members.
Great Green and Little Green each had 15- 20 houses. Against this there was emigration, with a disaster in 1845 when 23 villagers were drowned on the way to Australia, and in 1881 a fire near the Chapel made 50 people homeless. After 1871 there was decline and the population fell to 533 in 1931, since when it has increased again.
But the internal combustion engine has not only made it possible to live in the village and work in Cambridge, Stevenage or London, it has altered the fields again. The climate is so dry, apparently drier even than Ashwell or Wendy, in one of the driest regions north of the Pyrenees that dairying and posturing cattle around the village has been totally abandoned, the fields given over to prairie cultivation, and the hedges are disappearing.
Odsey has long been different. By the 12th century Picot’s holdings had passed to his grandson William Peverel, who granted his land between Ashwell Street and the Icknield Way to Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire. Odsey thus became a monastic grange and without residents other than those required to staff it. For a time left to decay, it has remained to the present a private estate with a single landowner. The grade 1 listed Odsey House was built in the 18th century as a sporting lodge when it was owned by the Dukes of Devonshire. [JS]
[ In 1793 the properties passed into the Fordham family, then bankers in Royston. In 1865 Herbert Fordham added a "substantial" mansion to the original layout of house, sporting lodge and jockey house. CP]
Guilden Morden Local History
The village parish of some 2,600 acres (1 052 hectares) has a history which is a reflection of both the geology and the communications. The village (like the adjoining parishes) lies northwards in the mainly gault clay and southwards in the chalk — see topography. This land gives the area its drainage features, its agriculture and also its passing industries like straw-plaiting through the 19 c. and from its Greensand measure, the coprolite industry towards the end of the same century. Field finds by the late Mr Norman Murfitt have yielded polished stone axes of the neolithic. Mesolithic and neolithic flints and remains have also been unearthed.
The earliest monuments are Bronze Age burial mounds surviving as ring-ditches near the A505. Moving on in time, Shire Baulk might just be an Iron Age boundary, now a distinctive green lane. The Roman villa and nearby cemetery (Iron Age and Romano-British) near the ancient Ashwell Street. The scattered hamlets which were to make up the village lay near the Icknield Way and Ashwell St – a green lane now. Ermine St (the Roman way named after the local ancient British tribe) lies to the east and a minor Roman road passes along from the A603 (from Roman Cambridge) at Arrington, along Fleck’s Lane (between Shingay cum Wendy and the village) along the line of Silver St (in the village) and through to the present A1 south of Biggleswade. The coming of the railway in 1850 ; the Royston to Hitchin line, brought some new activity to the village. Between 1977 and 1988 the line was only partially electrified up to Royston; there being a diesel locomotive service from Royston to Cambridge. When the line was fully electrified in 1988, the village lay on the increasing important Cambridge route to London – to King’s Cross rather than Liverpool St. In this period too, many Stevenage & Hatfield aerospace employees saw opportunites in the village as a pleasant home base.
Although the railway line, Cambridge to King’s Cross, London was opened in 1866 it was only with full electrification that Guilden Morden became a genuine commuter possibility. The Bell’s Meadow estate was built in this period. It also put an end to the self-contained, self supporting nature of the village and opened it up to rather wealthier incomers. This inflated to the value of cottage property and started a continuing process of "infilling". By the middle 1990s some of these residents began working from home or retired as consultants, keeping their business and commercial contacts.
The original village shop/Post Office, situated in Church Street, closed in 1998 and has now been replaced by Guilden Groceries, adjacent to the Edward VII public house.
The population figures show some predictable ups and downs from the time of the Conquest – see National Census.
Probably the Black Death accounted for the drop in population in the 14th c. The Peasants’ Revolt had its effect on a local Manor, possibly Morden Hall, before the mob moved on to Shingay and Bassingbourn -see Peasants’ Revolt. ( The lowest population figures were in the 16th c. when there were only an estimated 243 in the village.) Morden Hall is an interesting case study in itself. In the 1960s it was a farm held by tenants from the Cambridgeshire County Council. Sold for what now seems a trifling sum, this splendid moated property was renovated at great expense and now offers superior holiday accommodation – Morden Hall
The enclosure of the land (when common land was enclosed from the 1790s and by Act of Parliament, 1800-5) was a major change to village life. The Act was given Royal Assent in 1800 and the Award sealed in 1805. Enclosure led to the present-day agricultural system of fields and farms. With it came a steady increase in population aided by the new Coprolite industry already mentioned, peaking in the 1880s. At this time church and chapel attained their maximum congregations almost equally dividing the village, with Chapel slightly ahead at 500 attendees per Sunday.
© The Copyright for the articles on this page belongs to the author, Dr Jack Smith.
See also Then and Now gallery.