** Please note that this is an archive of the CANTAB publication and contains out-of-date information **
Only one topic! The whole of this month’s issue is occupied with a parish on Cambridge’s frontier. With the onset of short daylight, I invite you to ramble nearer to home, and notice some new points of interest in a familiar village.
Parish of the Month:Fen Ditton
Lying just outside the urban eastern reaches of Cambridge, alongside the Cam, Fen Ditton is strategically placed for a rapid & easy escape into the countryside.
The land and its early occupation The parish lies mainly on chalk, with strips of gravel and alluvium along the river, and an area of gravel to the extreme south of the parish. Much of the present village makes use of its ridge ca 15m above sea level, but almost all of the rest of the parish is at ca 10m, apart from lower areas adjacent to the river, along the attractive water-meadows. Boundaries of the parish include the Cam, Quy Water and a drainage ditch known as Black Ditch.
Evidence of prehistoric occupation of the land is concentrated in fields near these watercourses, where Mesoliths and Neolithic flints occur at the junction of fen and slightly higher land, and several bronze age implements have been found near the fen edge to the north of the parish. However. there have been finds elsewhere including Neolithic polished stone hand-axes in both the Rectory garden and from Biggin Abbey, and a Bronze Age urn cremation at Ditton Meadows.
Fen Ditton and Horningsea parishes form a peninsula of high ground between the river and the fens which was cut off from dry land to the south by the construction of a bank and ditch, called Fleam Dyke. It is not certain when it was built, but early Anglo-Saxons were entombed in the ditch when it was almost filled, suggesting a date earlier than C6th. Elsewhere in East Anglia, dykes date from the Iron Age, and so too may this one. Another suggestion is that it could perhaps have been Roman, although unlike adjacent parishes, there are few remains from the Roman period. Immediately south of the Dyke, a large Middle Iron Age settlement was excavated in 1996. There were ca 300 pits here, containing animal bones and much pottery, hearths, and enclosures.
Fen Ditton is “Dittone”, meaning the village by the (Fleam) Ditch, first so named in a will made ca 950. By the late C13th, “Fen” had been added to differentiate it from Woodditton.
The irregular and peculiar boundary with Horningsea is due to division of the two parishes by the Bishop of Ely in 1412. Previously, although Fen Ditton was a settlement from at least the C10th, it does not seem to have been considered a separate parish, and is not mentioned in the Domesday Book or in the C13th Hundred Rolls. Some of the southern boundary with Cambridge has been adjusted in the C20th . Much of the parish was enclosed in a piecemeal fashion linked to fenland drainage in the C17th and C18th, and the remaining fields were enclosed by the official Award made in 1807.
Recorded Settlement & Development
In the C10th, Ditton was the property of Aelfgar, who left it to his daughter Aethelflaed on condition that it became church property on her death. She left it in her will to the church at Ely, in the late C10th. In the C12th, the land passed to the bishop, rather than to the abbey, and remained in this ownership until 1600, when taken over by the Crown. The Bishops’ C14th house is now known as Biggin Abbey
The original village settlement was mainly a strip running parallel to the river, with the church at the south end. Wharves were built between the Cam and the village, and from these several Fen Ditton merchants were involved in national and international trade. The north end was known as Green End, containing the village green, and was the likely site of the market granted to the Bishop in the late C13th. In the late Middle Ages occupation spread from the riverside to an E – W orientation along the line of the filled-in Fleam Dyke, to make use of higher ground and some of the substantial C17th houses along what is now High Street and High Ditch Road still stand on the flattened bank. No6 High Street “The Walled Cottage” provides a model for local materials using alternate courses of squared clunch and pink gault brick. Musgrave Farmhouse in the High Street is a jettied house of the late C16th, and Honeysuckle Cottage is a fine C17th property on High Ditch Road.
Among the buildings still lining the river, the Hall, south of the church, is a fine example of old red brickwork with shaped gables of ca 1635 – it was constructed on a grand scale round a late medieval timbered house.
The church, with walls of jumbled rubble and clunch has early C14th tracery of the tall chancel, a lofty C15th porch, and tower of 1881 by Pearson. Some authorities consider the chancel’s fine conception (originally 1316-37) has been ruthlessly restored by the Victorians. The rowing-eight weather-vane on the tower celebrates the village’s rowing associations. The Rectory presents a lovely red-brick front to the churchyard, 1711-32. There are two large Black Poplar trees in a paddock below the church, rare examples of Populus nigra v. betulifolia, of which only about 100 are known in the County.
Opposite the church is the short row of Almshouses, built in 1665-6 by a member of the Willys family; rebuilt by Thomas Bailey in 1877, and remodelled in 1968-9 with funds from the Chase Charity.
In isolation outside the village is The Biggin (or Biggin Abbey) which was built originally by Hugh de Northwold, Bishop of Ely in the mid C13th, in a palatial style, and used as a residence & a hunting lodge. It was a place for official business, and for entertaining royalty including Henry III, Edward I, and Edward II. By the mid C14th, the extensive property was in poor condition, and the building that survives was built mainly at that time, when its use had declined to a manor house. It was remodelled in the C17th, with walls of clunch & stone, now covered with concrete! In C17th, it was sold to the Willys family of Eye Hall in Horningsea, and in the mid C18th, it came into ownership of Thomas Panton.
Other important buildings include The Barn, a massive C16th structure now used for public events, but once used for trading and as the village Guildhall. One of the medieval wharves can still be seen between this building and the river, and there was another near The Plough off Green End Road, which was used by coal barges into the C20th.
On the outskirts of the parish is not only the abandoned and partly flattened section of the Fleam Dyke, but also the dismantled railway line, the former LNER (London and North Eastern Railway) that linked Cambridge to a terminus at Mildenhall, with a halt at Fen Ditton. This part of the line was laid in 1884 by the Great Eastern Railway Company, when Mildenhall was still a successful port on the River Lark. The line closed in 1964.
The population in the early C14th comprised 330 adults. In the C16th and C17th there were fewer than 60 families, probably due to loss of trading activities. In 1801 there were still only 337 people recorded in the census. Numbers grew in the C19th, reaching 680 in 1881, possibly augmented by the coprolite diggers active at Green End. The old village street was infilled with new housing in the 1950s, some replacing gaps of houses destroyed in WWII bombing. The population by 1996 had reached 730.
Walking around Fen Ditton
Map – OS Explorer209
The following walks take in many of the features described in the above paragraphs, which are marked by an asterisk. Numbered paths refer to paths in Fen Ditton parish, unless otherwise stated.
Around Fen Ditton’s Historic Sites The walk starts at the Newmarket Road Park-and-Ride carpark, which may be reached from The Grafton Centre in Cambridge using a frequent service. Within the P & R site, follow cycleway arrows to the rear hedge, where an attractive “Bicycle” arch leads out into fields. Turn left and follow the cycleway 50m to the corner. (This point can also be reached from Newmarket Rd, by a signed path starting beside the garage). Fp9 goes across the arable field to a gap in the opposite hedge. Descend steps to the former railway*, and take more steps up the other side. Go through a kissing gate into pasture, and follow waymarks through 3 more kissing gates, emerging into a residential road, and turn right onto High Ditch Road*.
Here, at the junction with High Street and Horningsea Road is the village sign, illustrating the church, an old plough, and a rowing eight. (The sign was being repaired when I visited – look for the new endpiece to the village name, showing a rose, carved in oak by Neil Horne). Down High Street, pass the Ancient Shepherds pub, and note The Walled Cottage, house no.6*, opposite. The Kings Head pub is on the corner of High Street & Church Street, and centrally placed is the village war memorial. Visitors to the church* seem likely to find it locked, but one can readily view The Alms Houses*, The Old Rectory* and the black poplars* from the road. Continue down Church St and Green End, and enter the recreation ground. Fp3 leaves the back of the rec, and runs as a field edge path behind gardens. Fp4 turns off left part-way along between fences. However, continue to the end of fp 3, where it joins Byway 5, then turn left, to Green End termination. (The other end of Byway 5 meets Horningsea Road).
Take Fp6 signed starting in a fenced defile across the field near a restored cottage, then across a meadow, to go under the A14 beside the Cam. Immediately, turn right below the A14, on Fp8 initially between hedges, later, signed across two arable fields The path passes quite close to Biggin Abbey*, which is, however, better seen from Fp6. The path joins Horningsea Fp 1 which leads via Fp7 to Baits Bite Lock. Do not cross the lock (unless seeking to rest on seats in front of the building on the far side), but turn left in front of a tall wooden fence, on Fp6, with a ditch to left. After a section through bushes, one walks beside the Cam. Continue under the A14 viaduct, retracing to Green End*.
Continue ahead to the church, then turn down Fp2, towards the river, passing the Old Manor House*, which unfortunately is not clearly seen from the path. Fp2 enters a kissing gate, and goes through riverside meadows, crossing a bridge over a ditch, and joining a tarmac cycleway. Continue on the cycleway under the railway bridge over the river (beware cyclists!) and thence into Cambridge, along the riverside as far as Saxon Street. Turn left here, and right into Beche Road. Pass the medieval Cellerer’s Chequer, and the old (haunted?) Abbey House opposite. Use the subway to cross Newmarket Road, and return to the Grafton Centre. (7 miles)
In wet weather, (and for much of the Winter) Fp2 through the meadows can be flooded. In this case, start down Fp1, signed down a cycleway opposite the church. Either continue on the (dry) cycleway, which goes under the railway bridge, or branch off to cross the railway on high steps at TL 473 599 , to join the route along Cambridge riverside.
The walk can be extended to about 11 miles, by crossing the Cam at Baits Bite, using the towpath to Clayhythe, where cross the river, and return using the Fen Rivers Way route through Horningsea.
If, in addition, one continues further round the Cambridge riverfront past Jesus Green, The Backs and Coe Fen, a distance of 14 miles might be attained, if not overtaken by the darkness of a winter’s afternoon!
Fen Ditton’s other paths
Fen Ditton has 14 numbered paths on the Definitive Map, but several of these are short sections of longer paths between Teversham and Horningsea or Stow cum Quy, and have been described elsewhere. However, one other circuit is possible using Byway 14 in Fen Ditton.
Low Fen Drove Circuit
Start from Fen Ditton Church*, where there is limited parking. Follow the route described towards Baits Bite Lock, but turn East on the path towards Horningsea. On reaching the road, turn right (South, away from Horningsea) as far as a bus shelter, where cross the road, and follow Low Fen Drove Way (Byway 14) to Snout Corner, passing the site of an old windmill. Veer right to cross the line of the old railway*, continue to Honey Hill, and pass over the A14 to reach High Ditch Road. Turn right to return to Fen Ditton. (Note: Low Fen Droveway can be wet and muddy in Winter). (6 miles)
The Fen Rivers Way This long distance path between Cambridge and the Wash, has a dual route (i.e. on both sides of the river) between Cambridge and Ely. The route on the east bank uses Fps 2, 3, 6 and 7 as it passes through Fen Ditton, and is waymarked accordingly.
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