Map Gazing by Gerald Feakes

I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and WhoJust-So Stories Kipling

“I have used maps during much of my life. At school I became interested in geography and particularly in the sub-division of geomorphology or the form of the earth. I did not find a great interest in regional studies; trying to learn the output of the industries of Brazil or the products of successive agricultural zones of the USA from West to East was very distant and unappealing. However, I could see “geomorphology” wherever I went and study the effects of glaciations in Scotland and the North of England, discover the causes of the many different rock formations that occur along our coastline and trace the history of the development of larger areas such as the Downs and Weald of South East England into the form they have today.

Essential to a study of the landscape was knowledge of maps. You can study landscape directly only as long as you are there but a map, which is the representation of landscape onto a flat sheet of paper, makes it possible to visualize a landscape at a distance. The use of maps is complementary to the study of landscape itself.

Another purpose of maps is to enable people to find a way from where they are now to where they want to be next – walkers on hills, drivers in cars, pedestrians in towns or, as in my case, as a navigator in aeroplanes.

About half my working life was spent as a Navigator in the Royal Air Force flying in small passenger aircraft. The crew numbered two, a pilot and myself and as there was not, or needed to be, a special navigator’s table I occupied the co-pilot’s seat next to the pilot. These aircraft could not (as we did not carry oxygen) be flown above about ten-thousand feet and from here the landscape was clearly visible – except when there was cloud when other mysteries of the arts of navigation were utilized – and the ability to read a map was essential. As I sat studying the ground for navigational purposes I also thought of it in geographical terms looking at the pattern of the villages and towns, the courses of the rivers and wondered, why is that town situated there or why does that river seem to follow such a peculiar course? Locally, these problems could be why does the river Ouse make a right-angled turn at Huntingdon, why is there a deserted medieval village at Washingley (West of Stilton) and why is the parish church at St Ives right on the Western edge of the town and that at Woodwalton a mile from the present day village?

I think that I gave my primary navigational duty the full attention required and that never (or perhaps only very, very occasionally) was the old navigator’s cry heard from me, “Lost? I’m not lost, only temporarily uncertain of my position.”. When I left the RAF I trained to become a teacher and, unsurprisingly, chose as my main course of study geography. My old interest was fully rekindled particularly in field excursions to the very varied landscape in the large county of Yorkshire.

Now to turn to Houghton and Wyton I shall be talking about “parish” and “village” so perhaps I ought to define these terms. unfortunately this is not as easy as it might seem as there many definitions available.

One meaning of parish is an area under the religious care of a pnest. This sounds simple enough with us, there are two parishes, Houghton and Wyton and each has (or had, until Wyton church was made redundant in 1974) a church. Bur even here there is a complication, as except for the period 1847 to ci 970 the same priest served both churches and parishes. The parish is also a unit of local government particularly from about the sixteenth century when officials such as the constable, churchwardens and overseers of the poor were appointed from the village population though quite how our parishes operated together or separately in this is not clear. The parishes (combined) are still a unit of local government but this is now called the civil parish and is no longer co-incident with the ecclesiastical parish as it gained an area previously in Hartford in the 1930s.

A village is usually thought of as an area of settlement and perhaps is much easier to understand than the concept of a parish. However, our two villages are so close together that visitors (and even residents) cannot tell where one ends and the other begins without being told or consulting a map. This leads to confusion, as while villagers will say that they are from “Houghton” or “Wyton” and their postal address is one or the other we often refer to both as just the village of Houghton and Wyton.

On map 1 I have reproduced you can see the size and shape of the two parishes. Their shapes are interesting. The Western boundary of Wyton and Eastern boundary of Houghton both strike North from the river and after a similar distance change direction about forty-five degrees to meet at a point South of Old Hurst. The boundary between the parishes runs from this point directly South to the river. Is it possible that there was originally only one parish and at a subsequent time they were divided so as to make two almost equal sized parishes with acreages that were almost identical at 1640 for Houghton and 1690 for Wyton, where there was only one before? The division of a parish in this way is not unusual, another local example is the Hemingfords.

Take map 2. It is the earliest large-scale map of the villages produced by the Ordnance Survey after the survey made in 1885/6. It shows the villages, river, roads, buildings, garden and field boundaries, the boundary between the two parishes, flood banks and several other details as well.

Most plots of land on the map have two numbers, for example Houghton churchyard has 96 which is a reference and .545 which is the area of the churchyard in acres.

The village roads shown on the map make an interesting pattern. They suggest that the village is not a settlement that has evolved steadily over centuries from Saxon times when villages usually had no regular pattern, to the present day but one which was, perhaps, planned and laid out at one particular time and which has evolved since then.

The clues are in the rectangular pattern of the roads. There are two parallel North – South roads one from White Bridge to the mill (St ives Road and Mill Street) and the other formed by Chapel Lane and Laughton’s Lane. At right angles to these are Huntingdon Road and Thicket road and Lanes (Love Lane and The Lanes).

The planning and layout of villages was very common in Britain and the clues can often be seen in the resulting layout.

Who could have made the plan and ordered the layout to be made? The most likely candidate is the Abbot of Ramsey as the parishes and villages belonged to the Abbey from about 990. But when?

In 1001 a farm worker in the village of Slepe (the old name for St Ives) which like Houghton and Wyton belonged to the Ramsey Abbey, found a coffin while ploughing. The Abbot was an astute businessman and realized that this was a chance to claim that the coffin and its contents were those of an obscure Persian bishop named lvo. Nowadays it is thought that they were the remains of a Roman farmer. Such relics were of great importance as they attracted pilgrims who brought money and left it behind to the benefit of the abbey in offerings, accommodation charges and the purchase price for relics and tokens. The Abbot also saw another opportunity; he founded a priory to the East of Slepe village and between the two laid out a town and market which for over one hundred years from 1110 was the fourth largest international market in England. Now we have the answer to one of the questions I posed earlier the one about the position of St Ives parish church.

The plan of the Abbot’s town which he called St Ives from the name of the supposed Persian Bishop is still largely the layout of the central part of the town today.

It is possible that the Abbot sought to reflect some of this prosperity into the parishes of Houghton and Wyton – in which he already had an important asset, a mill – by planning and selling out a new settlement.

This is a definite starting point in studying the landscape history of Houghton and Wyton. the basic pattern of this layout remains in the street pattern but there have been many changes during the succeeding nine or ten centuries.

Always there is pressure on open space in a settlement. If the lines of the two North – South roads in Houghton were first laid out straight and parallel with, perhaps, an unbuilt-on “Green”, except for Houghton church, between them, perhaps over the centuries The Green was “pinched” particularly at the point where the East – West road (Huntingdon Road – Thicket Road) crossed the North – South roads. This would be the place where most travelers would be and therefore the most valuable place to trade. It is possible that the houseThe Nook which is now set back from the road is a house which has continuously over the years been rebuilt on the original building line.

A similar process happened in St lves where the broad central street once stretched uninterruptedly from where Budgens is now to The Waits. Where Bridge Street met this street buildings were erected and the once wide road was reduced at this point to the narrow Merryland and Crown Street.

Houses in medieval times, as they do today, have two elements, the house itself which was known as the croft and the plot of land the house was built on called the toft Often there was a back lane at the rear of a line of tofts and this could be the purpose of Love Lane. The front of the tofts would be along Thicket Road and Love Lane marked their rearwards extent. Incidentally, the fields between Love Lane and the river show the ridge and furrow pattern of the medieval ploughing system.

The East – West road (Thicket Road – Huntingdon Road) follows an interesting route. One curiosity is obvious; why is there a right-angled bend at Laughton’s Lane so that the road enters today’s remnant of the medieval green from the North? Logic would say that the road – which is probably far older than any twelfth century village plan – would take a straight line following perhaps from where it passes Manor Close to the commencement of Thicket Road by the Three Horseshoes.

There are also some interesting bends on Huntingdon Road where it is joined by Rectory Lane, Ware Lane and Green Lane. Were these bends formed by people “cutting the corner” as they moved from the E-W road onto a North or South road or vice-versa?

Watercourses are a prominent feature of the village today and must have been more so in the past when the river was a major transport route and the village was not protected from flooding as well as it is today.

In the eleventh century there were two watermills, one in Houghton and the other in Wyton. Houghton mill was probably at or near the site of the present mill but there is now no trace of Wyton Mill. However, there is such an extensive set of waterways (check 160 map) of waterways downstream from Houghton Mill that might indicate that there was once a second mill in this area.

The village is bounded on three sides by a substantial ditch which runs North from the. junction of the Trout Stream with Sandy (or Waterworks) Lane;then West beside Meadow; Lane and the main road the A1123) and then South along Splash Lane back to the river. Was this ditch just for drainage or was it used, in the days when transport by water was by far the easiest and cheapest way of moving goods, for taking items on small lighters from the river to points in the village? On one old map, surveyed in 1773 there is an indication that there was an area of water where Sandy Lane meets the Trout Stream. This could have been a small dock area and there is an enlarged area at the end of a ditch running along Thicket Road opposite The Elms that could have had the same function.

Also interesting is the small waterway from the river that terminates in the ponds near Wyton rectory. The purpose of these ponds is obscure; where they ornamental? Or were they once used as part of a transport system perhaps originating when stone was transported for the building of Wyton church.

As you will have realized by now I find the landscape of our village fascinating and a never ending source of wonder as I walk our roads and footpaths. There are so many interesting features that make me want to question Kipling’s honest serving men and ask, “What is this, Why is it here, When was it built and by Whom?”

It is often not possible to supply definite answers to these questions but sometimes research into early records, of which little has been done, the work of historians and the study of similar villages could provide more explicit answers.”


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