Sawston Village History Society

Home Page

February 2009 Meeting Report

Countryside Clutter - by Bill Wittering

Braving the blizzard conditions, Bill Wittering made a welcome return visit, giving a talk intriguingly entitled ‘Countryside Clutter’ at our February meeting. This was, perhaps, a slightly misleading title for a slide presentation and description of what were essentially mainly redundant items now disused but often finding a different, decorative use.

He started by showing the Cley windmill, overlooking the salt marshes near Blakeney Point and one of the oldest mills still standing. It has now been converted to holiday flats. Another attractive mill, now given a new lease of life, is Denver mill, which still grinds corn and makes bread used by the café next to the mill. A somewhat unusual mill was the one at Great Burshaw, sometimes referred to as a smock mill because of the shape of the sails on its octagonal structure, giving it the appearance of a baker’s smock. Wicken Fen mill was originally built to pump water out of the fen, but because of the lowering of the ground surrounding the fen due to drainage, it now has to pump water back into the fen. Close to home Bill showed us the restored Hinxton water mill which is open several days each year.

There are still examples of village pumps, some working in local villages such as Hardwick, Thriplow and Fowlmere, although our own beloved village pump and the ones at Pampisford did not get a mention. Replacing pumps were water main outlets, with water supplied from the local water company which were hand operated, an example being found at Anstey. Slightly more recent was an example of a hand operated petrol pump near Lowestoft, when petrol was 1s 11d a gallon. The idea was to pump the petrol into a can which was then poured into the car. Was smoking discouraged during the refill?

During the era of the horse most towns had their own municipal trough, like the one in Stevenage, which the engraver had spelt Stevanage. These have now mostly been converted to attractive flower beds.

The iconic red telephone box, first introduced in 1922 is fast becoming quite rare, now occasionally being replaced by soulless “vandal proof” boxes. Bill related the incident in Thriplow when an overzealous contractor removed the red box by the village shop because the driver had got the name wrong; it was meant to be Thurlow! It took a year for this mistake to be rectified! Sometimes the first telephone exchanges can still be found, like the one hidden amongst the trees at Fowlmere.

RAC and AA boxes are now things of the past, but examples can be seen at the Lowestoft Transport Museum. Although one police box has been requisitioned by you know who, some remain in use such as the one in Newtown Linford in Leicestershire.

Yet another icon is the traditional red pillar box, first suggested by Rowland Hill. Letter boxes of this kind were already being used in France, Belgium and Germany. However there were no roadside letter boxes in the British Isles until 1852, when the first pillar boxes were erected at St Helier in Jersey at the recommendation of Anthony Trollope. He was working as a Surveyor's Clerk for the Post Office. Often next to pillar boxes were stamp machines when, between about 1840 until 1918, one could buy stamps to the value of 1½d to post a letter anywhere in the UK.

There is still evidence of some old railway lines which were closed down nearly 100 years before Beeching. Such a line was the one going to Newmkarket, to take the toffs to the races. Initially, college pressure ensured that Cambridge was not on the loop, but it was rapidly seen that that was a mistake and a dog leg to Cambridge from Chesterford was built in about 1845. This resulted in the premature closure of the line going from Chesterford to Newmarket, going just to the north of the A11 between Hinxton, and crossing the A505/ A11 junction, just behind the old crossing cottage. This line lasted just 6 years in the 1850s.

Some very old milestones can still be seen, originally placed in 1730 at the behest of Dr Moyse of Trintity College. Examples can be seen in Trumpington, and between Fowlmere and Newton. Reminders of when we had to pay to travel by road, on the old toll roads at toll houses can be seen at Hauxton and in Trumpington, near Waitrose.

Village signs, depicting a local hero and/or forms of local industry, have now made a comeback; attractive examples were shown of signs in Balsham, Hardwick and Helions Bumpstead.

Somewhat surprisingly Bill suggested that there were often interesting manhole covers, although the one shown did not appear to merit any special consideration.

Pub signs can often prove to be of interest and speculation. Why a Blue Lion, as seen in Hardwick? The Fox and Hounds at Barley is unusual because it goes across the road, and the Newton Queen’s Head features a goose on the sign.

Bill then gave some examples of buildings which provided special services but now superseded or just redundant. The shining example is the Thriplow smithy which is fired up during the Thriplow Daffodil Weekend at the end of March.

Some dovecotes have still been preserved or renovated, such as the ones at Thriplow and Foxton, and of course, behind the John Falkner (or Lower BellBird) school here in Sawston. Surprisingly an oast house can be seen in Foxton.

Indications of the old style modes of punishment are exemplified in the lock up at Barley, the stocks at Shepreth, and somewhat more gruesome, the gibbet at the Caxton crossroads.

Barley also boasts a fine example of an old town house, now restored and available for various functions, and a straddle barn, poised on what looks like enormous mushrooms. These are intended to prevent rats climbing into the barn. A rebuilt straddle barn can also be seen at Wandlebury, but the brick columns would not seem to be particularly rat-proof.

There are still numerous pill boxes in evidence, reminding us of the fraught time in 1940 -41. One of these is now almost hidden on the track between Thriplow and Whittlesford, and another just by Swans Corner on the Sawston to Whittlesford footpath.

Before concluding this fascinating talk, Bill also showed examples of follies such as can be seen at Wimpole Hall, an old court house in Foxton, the Walston Mausoleum at Newton, a field grave outside the church grounds and the turf maze at Hilton.


Local Archaeology News

Acting on a tip off, I was invited to have a look at the ‘dig’ presently being carried out at the Spicers site by an archaeological team from Birmingham Archaeology led by Bob Burrows.

In spite of the weather, making the site extremely muddy, the team had uncovered strong evidence for a Mesolithic flint knapping site, c 6,000BC, the star find being a superb axe head about 5” long. Also, intriguingly, nearby, there were several Saxon ‘grub’ houses of about the 6th century. Could this be the site of the original Saxon settlement of the Salses, who called their settlement ‘Salsingetune’, the farm of the Salses clan? They may well have used the top of Huckeridge Hill as their graveyard, where a Saxon warrior’s grave was discovered nearly 200 years ago. It is believed that the Salses came from the area around Selsingen in north Germany. This connection led to the twinning link in 1990. There was also evidence of Roman occupation and a medieval settlement.

About Us | Contact Us | ©2006 Sawston Village History Society