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CANTAB13 June 2002

CANTAB13 June 2002 published on

 ** Please note that this is an archive of the CANTAB publication and contains out-of-date information **


The County of Cambridgeshire as a whole is known for its flat fenlands.  Indeed, those of us living in South Cambridgeshire sometimes have difficulty in persuading strangers that most of the countryside in our District is not fen, and indeed, is not flat, but mostly gently undulating, with a modest amount of tree cover, and not very much different in aspect from our neighbouring counties of Essex and Hertfordshire, consisting geologically of chalk overlaid with boulderclay.  South Cambs does certainly have some real fenland, consisting of tongues of low land in The Wilbrahams and Stow cum Quy, and on the farmlands associated with the fen-edge villages of Cottenham, Rampton, Swavesey, Over, Waterbeach,  Landbeach, and Willingham.

However, the Districts of East Cambs, and especially Fenland have vast acres of fen soil, “black gold”.  Footpaths here are relatively few, and are mostly along the banks of the rivers and fen drains. So the fen droves as a means of access on foot, horseback or by bicycle assume a great importance.  In recent years, some have been added to the map as minor roads.  Others continue to have an ambiguous status.  The following excellent essay by John Andrews of Suffolk examines the position in fenland villages in neighbouring Suffolk. We are grateful to John for permission to reproduce his work here.

Fen Droves in Brandon, Lakenheath and Mildenhall
I think the origins and history of these routes are so different from the normal development processes of roads and paths that it makes sense to try to discover to what extent there are aspects common to all of them.  Quite a number have been gradually incorporated into the ordinary maintainable highway network and others were included on the Def. map – most commonly as RUPPS.  The majority, however, of which those in Mildenhall form the largest group, have no recorded public status.

The droves were laid out to provide access to agricultural land being created by the fen drainage schemes which peaked in, I think, the 17th century. They were the property of the Fen Commissioners, the bodies which managed the areas and later gave place  to their successors in title, the internal drainage boards. Although the land to which they provide access is in private ownership, the droves remain the property of the boards, who have maintained them except where that function has passed to the Highway Authority.

However, it is clear that for a very long time there has been a general view that the majority of the droves are used by the public as of right and most of them are still in use, in some cases very frequently, by the public without `let or hindrance’.  At Mildenhall, for example, the Parish Council is in no doubt that the droves are very largely public routes, but has declined to get involved in pressing the case for inclusion on the Definitive Map because it is thought that the considerable workload involved in that would be a waste of time because `everybody knows’ that they are public and nobody is ever prevented from using them.

That stance does not, of course, assist the process of discovering the full facts, but the problem of trying to produce user evidence for all of them – I have applications for a total of approx. 35 still outstanding – would be an enormous one.

However I believe that there is a useful body of evidence from which one can draw some conclusions about the whole group.

Some of the most weighty is to be found in inclosure awards. At Mildenhall there are a few droves where parts of them crossed land being allotted; those portions had, therefore, to be `set out’ by the commissioner in order to prevent their being stopped-up under the `default’ provision in s.11 of the 1801 general Act. They are set out as a `Private Carriage Road and public bridle way’ and the unaffected continuations of these are described as `droves’.  This is a firm indication that the commissioner was acting to preserve the status quo of private vehicular and public bridle rights.

Similarly, one of the public footpaths set out terminates on  a ” Drove Way leading to the Fen”. That drove way must therefore have carried public rights of at least FP.

There was an very similar situation in the Lakenheath, Undley Common, Inclosure, where parts of two of the droves crossed land being allotted. In this case, however, the portions set out were awarded as public carriage roads and are now part of the ordinary local highway network. Some of the other droves were awarded as private roads for the use of certain specified persons only; the latter were all culs-de-sac and provided access only to agricultural land.

In the other Lakenheath inclosure there is one public road set out which is a part of a drove  – the `new inclosure’ over which it passed again supplying the explanation. Only one or two droves are located in that area, but one of them was amongst the group of 8 roads awarded as `private’ – of which only two, however, were described as being for the use of specified persons.

This brings us, inevitably to the `big issue’  – that there is now an accummulation of evidence nationally that numbers of `private roads’ carried public rights of way.  There seems little doubt that the way in which the word was used during that period referred normally to the responsibility for repair and maintenance, raher than in relation to rights of user. This still leaves us with the need to have evidence of the existence of public user rights before the route can qualify for inclusion on the Def. Map – but it does mean that it is not justifiable to dismiss allegations of a public way solely on the grounds of a reference in documentation to a private road or way.

There is a classic example at Brandon, where the Inclosure Award set out a public bridle road connecting a private road with a drove. The `private’ road in question was shown to be a public road by reference to the almost contemporary Quarter Sessions diversion order in which it was described as the `highway leading to Wilton Ferry’.

As a generalisation, the evidence seems to point to the fact that those droves which were thoroughfares were or became public routes, whereas those which had no obvious public function – in terms of getting from A to B, but were culs-de-sac leading only to fields etc., have remained `private’ in both senses of the word.

There is other relevant documentary evidence which points to the same conclusion. I have already drawn attention, in the context of the investigation of Claims A and D at Lakenheath, to the early railway plan evidence of public footpaths which linked some of the droves in that locality. The information contained in the plans associated with the 1949 Great Ouse Flood Protection Act provides support for the public status of at least one other drove which has not yet received attention. Some aspects of the latter documents have conclusive force, since they constituted diversions sanctioned by act of Parliament.

Added to all this is the Statutory Declaration made by the Mildenhall Internal Drainage Board in 1968, which lists a substantial number of droves as carrying a public right of way and has been acknowledged in writing – by the solicitor who serves as Clerk of the Board – to be good evidence of a public right of way – at the very least, on foot.

John Andrews           24th January 2002

Anyone for golf?
In January, a Suffolk correspondent reported to a walkers’ Internet site that officials of a local golf club had angrily accosted members of the RA’s Bury St Edmunds Group – complaining of their unacceptable behaviour whilst walking along a public footpath across the golf course.  Of what antisocial practice was this unseemly rabble accused ?  Talking!!!   Seemingly, the response of the unseemly rabble was not meek compliance, but more like hysterical amusement…

This story provoked quite a prolonged correspondence.

A golfer-cum-rambler replied,…”it all depends on the circumstances.  If it was a large group and they were talking loudly and near a tee where players were preparing to take a stroke, then the Ramblers were just being discourteous….”

Another response, “I have to agree that the conduct on the day was absolutely deplorable.
How dare members of a golf club disrupt people walking on a public right of way.  To my mind the footpath was there a long time before the golfers built their course across it.”

The original correspondent replied, ” The footpaths – more than one of them – were certainly in existence in the 1880s – which probably means that they have been there for several centuries – and have already been diverted for the convenience of the golf club !”

The final commentator took a very strong line, “What the walkers should have done is called the police or made a complaint afterwards on the grounds of unlawful obstruction and verbal assault.”

Perhaps the Bury St Edmunds golfers should be grateful they have only walkers on their course.  We have seen golf courses in Scotland with sheep and even highland cattle wandering about.. But then they don’t talk!

Parishes in the Fens, signs and ways
Whether in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk or Lincolnshire, the fenland parishes tend to have features on common.  Often the  village is rather disperse, with a scattering of isolated farms over a wide area. Roads tend to run beside the drains, and what footpaths there are (and generally, they are in short supply), also follow drain banks, or droveways.

A very attractive feature that have appeared in the last 30 or 40 years is the illustrated village sign. The following information on fen villages was derived from a delightful little book, “Village Signs in Cambridgeshire”, published in 1986 by the Cambridge Federation of Women’s Institutes. Several of the signs have been repainted and smartened up as part of Millennium celebrations.  Consider visiting some of these atmospheric parishes, and maybe investigate which of the nearby fen droves can be walked.

Haddenham’s sign dates from April 1983. One side represents the Old West River, sweeping through the fen to the hill on which Haddenham stands. The church and prominent watertower are reprented, as is local agriculture by horse & plough. The reverse shows orchards, goats and cows.
This parish has pride of place in the list, with numerous fen droves all registered as public rights of way (mostly byways, some footpaths), and with a parish council interested in their maintenance.

Downham in the Isle’s village sign (erected 1977) stands on the rising ground of Church Green, not far from the Norman Church of St Leonard. The sign illustrates the coats of arms of the Isle of Ely, the Bishop of Ely being the Lord of the Manor. Also shown are reed-mace, designating the swampy fens, oak leaves representing the bog oaks, and the Bishops palace, which was situated at Towers farm.  On the reverse the open bible represents Bishop Lancelot Andrews, a co-translator of the Authorised version of the Bible, who lived in “Little” Downham 1608 -19.
The local path network is well-developed and waymarked, with the County Council’s promoted route “The Bishops Way”passing through the village, en route to Ely. (A leaflet is available from Cambridgeshire County Council, tel. 717445).

Waterbeach has a splendid wrought-iron village sign, showing a heron flying over the River Cam, erected by The Village Society in 1980, at one end of the village green.
This is another village that cares for its public rights of way, taking an active part in the County Council’s Parish Path Partnership Scheme, and being a prime mover in the development of The Fen Rivers Way. This has not prevented there being problems for walkers in the parish.  The riverside walk along the west bank of the Cam, passes as a right of way along The Washes, an area of wetland regularly flooded in Winter.  For many years, usage was also along the flood bank, especially in Winter.  Now the landowner has put up a barricade of barbed wire along the flood bank, and the parish council is claiming a right of way.  Part way along this bank, the grassy track, Angler Drove, gave access to the bank from Long Drove, a public roadway.  The issue has been with the County Council many months.

Welney in Norfolk has two skaters on its sign of 1976, in this commemorating the great Welney sportsmen of a former age, including “Turkey” Smart, a World Skating Champion.  The windmill is a symbol of the early fen drainage. The pub sign, “The Lamb & Flag” is equally interesting.  The Hereward Way Long Distance Path passes through the village on the road.  Indeed, there are few paths, except on the banks of The Hundred Foot river.
Many will be familiar with the hide and shop of the Wildfowl Trust, and we ourselves have enjoyed a magic evening, with the waters floodlit, and the wild Bewick & Hooper swans coming to feed.  It is a pity that the hide itself obstructs a right of way, with no provision  made for walkers to divert, for example, around the back,  away from the road busy with birdwatchers cars.

Thorney.  The village sign illustrates the seventh century abbey, with a monk standing either side.  The abbey church is well worth a visit, and a leaflet may be obtained therein describing a short local walk. The nineteenth century Duke of Bedford planned an estate village, much of which remains on this isolated fen island. Like many of these fen villages, one is unlikely to be able to visit, without a car or an energetic bicycle, in the almost total absence of public transport.
Some of the fen droves were registered on the Definitive Map for Cambridgeshire in the late 1980s,and several have become minor roads, but this remains a challenging place to take a prolonged recreational walk.

Isleham, tailpiece
In Cambridgeshire, several fen droves were registered as rights of way in the late 1980s, but equally many remain ambiguous on the map, and with an equally unresolved legal status.  Isleham, in Cambridgeshire, looking across the River Lark towards Mildenhall parish, exhibits areas of map equally devoid as Mildenhall of red or green dots. The new Explorer 226, Ely and Newmarket, shows only a track of unknown status for West Fen Drove, and by Twelve Foot Drain, although public footpaths lead to them, and an interesting circuit could be made.  Is there someone in Isleham who will delve in dusty documents to find their status? Every parish needs such an enthusiast – Suffolk is supremely blest with the skills & persistance of John Andrews who devotes many hours to such pursuits with great success, but we have no such scholar in Cambridge.

Roger & I have looked up Inclosure Awards for a few South Cambs. parishes with contentious paths, but with on-site path problems to pursue in 100 parishes there is no time to delve further.  Does anyone have, or wish to develop, a flair for this?

This is a privately produced magazine, and the views expressed are solely those of the editor, or the author of an individual item. Janet Moreton 01223 356889


Price 10 pence where sold

© Janet Moreton, June 2002