The Wandlebury Estate

Stapleford History Society 11 March 2014

Talk by Jon Gibbs

Almost 50 History Society members and guests heard a fascinating talk on 11 March about Stapleford’s grand house and estate at Wandlebury.

The estate is owned by Cambridge Past Present and Future, formerly Cambridge Preservation Society. Jon Gibbs, the Head Ranger, outlined the organisation’s origins in the 1920s, driven by concern about encroaching suburbanisation around Cambridge, which it pursues by campaigning and by managing a range of historic properties. Wandlebury was acquired in 1954, partly by gift from the Gray family and partly by purchase. The mansion, in poor condition, had to be demolished in 1956.

The Iron Age hill-fort was constructed around 400 BC. Archaeology shows that there had previously been a settlement there, but the hill-fort was not permanently inhabited: it seems to have been used more as a meeting-place. When rampart and ditch stood to full height it must have been an impressive monument, especially when a second rampart was added inside the original circuit around 40 BC. This was levelled in the eighteenth century to make way for gardens.

In 1685 a racing stable was established for James II. This was acquired by the Godolphin family, who added the mansion in the eighteenth century. Woodland was planted around the mansion; previously the hill-top had been heathland.

Among other myths connected with Wandlebury, it was the location of a midnight combat in 1219 between Sir Osbert and a ghostly Black Knight. Sir Osbert prevailed, captured the Black Knight’s horse and led it back to his own stables. Come the morning, the horse had gone, wrecking the stables; Sir Osbert’s only memento of his triumph was a wound which opened and bled on the anniversary of the encounter.

The next Stapleford History Society talk is by Helen Ritchie about Addenbrooke’s hospital, on 13 May at the pavilion at 7:30pm. This will be combined with the Annual General Meeting, marking completion of a successful first year for the Society.

[report by John Street]

What’s Under Your Village? Some answers

Stapleford History Society 14 January 2014

Talk by Carenza Lewis

Nearly 50 people heard a fascinating talk by Dr Carenza Lewis about the results from the archaeological test-pits dug in Stapleford in April 2013.

She entertained us with some stories about her appearances on the TV archaeology series Time Team. She also explained the research project she leads at Cambridge University to understand how English villages have developed over the centuries. The problem is that our houses and other modern buildings get in the way of looking at the archaeology. She has developed the technique of digging large numbers of test-pits just one metre square in people’s gardens to build up a composite picture of how each village started, grew, shrank and shifted until finally taking on today’s shape. The Stapleford results now contribute to a data-base covering over 50 villages across the region.

One result is a graphic demonstration of the impact of the Black Death. In many villages the test-pits show how the settlement expanded over an ever-wider area through the early Middle Ages. But after 1348 there is often no sign of human activity in areas that had previously been busy: large parts of the village were simply abandoned. Many villages did not again match their early Medieval size until the eighteenth century. Also demonstrated is that Roman settlement patterns have relatively little influence on today’s villages; continuity from the Anglo-Saxon period is generally stronger.

For Stapleford, the 9 test-pits dug so far are not yet enough to support robust conclusions. Our results can be viewed on the Access Cambridge Archaeology web-site: From that small sample there is very little evidence of Roman or earlier activity, and none for the Anglo-Saxon period; settlement on any scale only shows up in the eleventh century. To know whether that’s a representative picture, we shall to build up to at least 25 test-pits. Some villages have completed over 100: there’s a challenge!

The digging was undertaken by students from Sawston Village College and other local secondary schools, as part of a project to promote interest in going to university. Carenza presented some inspiring statistics and comments from the young people showing the impact of the project on their higher education intentions.

Disappointingly, Carenza announced that there is not a secondary school lined up to dig more test-pits in Stapleford in 2014, as a result of staff moves. She hopes to come back later to add to the initial sample of 9 pits. Meanwhile, we have the possibility of undertaking more test-pitting as a community dig. The History Society committee is considering how that might be organised.

[report by John Street]

The Railway Age

Stapleford History Society 8 October 2013


Talk by Helen Harwood

Stapleford History Society members and visitors heard a fascinating talk by Helen Harwood at their October meeting about the impact of the railway age on our villages. A historian in Great Shelford, Helen has published a book on the development of the railways and the changes they brought about in Shelford and surrounding villages.

Before the railways, London was already demanding huge quantities of grain from Cambridgeshire’s arable fields: wheat for baking, barley for brewing. Increasing quantities of coal were required too. One proposal was a canal to link river systems from the Wash to the Lea Valley. This would enable coal from the north to be shipped more directly to London, cutting out the voyage round the East Anglian coast, as well as conveying agricultural produce. The canal was never built, but the railway followed a similar route, taking advantage of the low gradients of the river valleys.

Shelford station opened in 1845. Extensive goods yards developed. The Headley family, who owned some of the farm-land traversed by the railway, were able to build up a substantial business – Shelford Corn and Coal – shipping grain and coal and malting barley. The Railway Tavern was also part of this enterprise. There was a connection to Haverhill, as well as London and Cambridge. The railway companies also attracted passengers, particularly by offering cheap excursions. For the first time, there were large numbers of non-agricultural jobs in the area. Shelford and Stapleford expanded rapidly, becoming commuter villages.

In the early days accidents were common. Helen recounted some tragic events, and described memorials erected to the victims that can still be visited.

The audience included several people with railway connections and reminiscences. There were lively interventions and discussions as information was shared and debated. Ron Gooch, who looks after Shelford station as a volunteer, provided a small exhibition of artefacts.

A big thank you to Helen and to everyone who made it such a stimulating and enjoyable evening.

[report by John Street]