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Some aspects of local heritage are well known to most people: historic churches, Roman roads and castles are the sorts of places that we are all familiar with, even if only vaguely. A good example in North Hertfordshire is the Icknield Way, which is the name of local roads and paths and which is followed by the A505 from Baldock to Royston.

Icknield Way at Ickleford, North Hertfordshire

Icknield Way at Ickleford, North Hertfordshire

It has been described as “the oldest road in Britain”, consisting of “prehistoric pathways, old when the Romans came” and it “survives as splendid tracks and green lanes along the chalk “spine” of England”. This would make it one of the most important ancient monuments in Britain, if all this were true. But how much of what we think we know is based on actual fact? If we want to understand the past, we need to question every bit of received wisdom that is passed on from generation to generation.

The conventional view

The Icknield Way is usually thought of as prehistoric trackway of great antiquity, in use from perhaps as early as the Mesolithic (before 4000 BC) but more certainly from the Neolithic (4000-2000 BC). It runs from East Anglia to the Thames Valley. Although according to some, it starts at Grimes Graves near Thetford, others extend it north to Holme-next-the-Sea or east to Lowestoft; it ends near Wallingford on the Thames, although it is sometimes extended west along the Berkshire Ridgeway to Marlborough.

It was one of the “four royal roads” (quatuor chimini regales) mentioned by the Anglo-Norman historian Henry of Huntingdon. According to him, an ancient king of Britain “constructed four great highways in it, from one end of the island to the other”, of which “the first is from west to east and is called the Icknield Way”. Henry did not say exactly where Icknield Way ran.

In the 1320s, another historian, Ranulf Higden, named the four royal roads as Foss Way, Watling Street, Ermine Street and Rikeneldes (or Hikenhild) Strete. According to him, it bygynneþ in Meneuia in West Wales (“starts in St Davids, in West Wales”), streccheþ forþ by Worcester… by Birmingham… by Derby… by 3ork… (“stretches on by Worcester… by Birmingham… by Derby… by York…”) and so forþ anon to Tynemouþe (“so forward on to Tynemouth”). This is clearly not “our” Icknield Way and today, Ryknild Street is a name given to a Roman road through the West Midlands. The name Ryknield derives from Middle English atter Ikenild (“at Icknield”), so there was apparently some confusion in the High Middle Ages about which road was Icknield Way.

Early archaeologists knew that three of Higden’s roads were built in the Roman period but suspected that the Icknield Way might be much more ancient. O G S Crawford, who worked for the Ordnance Survey, came up with the idea of four prehistoric routes across Britain: according to him, the Icknield Way was used to distribute flint from Grimes Graves across the south of Britain. He added the Jurassic Thoroughfare, from Lincolnshire down to the Thames Valley, the North Downs Way and South Downs Way, both south of the Thames. These were the main routes in the south (actually, just in England) through a landscape that, by the Neolithic, was densely forested and largely impassable.

In Crawford’s day, knowledge of prehistoric settlement in Britain suggested that it was restricted to the ridges above the clay soils of the Midlands, where ridgeways gave access through the woodland. Icknield Way and the two Downs Ways followed chalk ridges, while the Jurassic Way followed a limestone belt. The soils that had developed around these soils were thin, supported thinner woodland and were more easily worked by pioneering Neolithic farmers.

The idea of prehistoric trackways was complicated by Alfred Watkins’s “discovery” of what he called ley lines. He believed that all ancient sites were largely of Neolithic origin, linked by “old straight tracks”, and could be discovered by seeking alignments of sites on Ordnance Survey maps. He “discovered” them in 1921, when he realised that the routes were marked by present day and ancient landscape features. The archaeological community could not accept such a dense network of Neolithic tracks, which went over the tops of high hills, crossed rivers at points too deep to ford and were as common in places where no Neolithic settlements were known. Ley lines do not exist, as shown by Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy’s study, Ley Lines in Question, published in 1983.

Nevertheless, the way that ley lines were taken up by enthusiastic amateurs who, from the 1960s, started to link them with mystical sources of an unspecified spiritual energy made archaeologists wary of even thinking about prehistoric travel. Although people clearly did move around and objects were traded, Crawford’s principal paths were accepted as the only major pre-Roman routes.

Of course, people had never forgotten that roads were built during the Roman occupation, even if their exact routes were often forgotten and many had fallen out of use. Thomas Codrington (1829-1918) was an engineer who published the first study serious study of Roman roads in Britain in 1903, which eventually ran to three editions, the last of which was reprinted in 1928. According to him, “Icknild Street… bears but little likeness to a Roman road… except between Newmarket and Chesterford”. His work was expanded by Ivan Margary in the 1950s; he worked with a group of amateurs, collectively known as the Viatores, who published an enthusiastically dense network in the south-east midlands. According to their research, Icknield Way as a Roman road. In contrast, Margary vacillated about its use in the Roman period, but included it in the third edition of his book, in 1973, partly on the basis of excavated evidence.
This included the site at Blackhorse Road in Letchworth Garden City, where John Moss-Eccardt’s excavations from 1957 to 1973 revealed the ditches of a road on the traditional line. They dated from the late first century BC on, while the road itself had worn itself into a hollow. Nearby, cropmarks show a road running on more-or-less the right line across the northern edge of Roman Baldock. Gil Burleigh’s excavations in the 1980s revealed one of the ditches on Clothall Common, where they proved to be of the same date as at Blackhorse Road, although a line of earlier Iron Age postholes, apparently a fence, ran across the road, showing that it was not on this line before about 100 BC.

Excavations at Blackhorse Road, Letchworth Garden City, in 1973

Excavations at Blackhorse Road, Letchworth Garden City, in 1973

The Icknield Way was also thought to have played a role in the Saxon invasions of the fifth century. One of the puzzles of archaeology was evidence for very early Saxon settlement in the Upper Thames valley, well away from the coast where these sea-borne invaders were believed to have landed. These early fifth-century remains cluster in the area where the Icknield Way crosses the river. Because there was equally early settlement in East Anglia, at the other end of the Icknield Way, the archaeologist E T Leeds hypothesised in 1925 that the West Saxons had invaded along the route, starting out in East Anglia and moving south-west to settle around Dorchester-on-Thames. This idea was always controversial and few other specialists in the period accepted it. It is also wrong, partly because the Icknield Way passes through a large area with no early Saxon settlement, which includes all of North Hertfordshire.

Locally, the Icknield Way is mentioned in an early medieval charter, as þa stræt to the south of Norton. Old English stræt, from Latin strata, was generally used to designate a road of Roman origin; the word became street in modern English. Elsewhere in North Hertfordshire, the road was recorded in a document of 1638 as Edeway in Lilley and in 1686 as Ede Way in Hexton. These names derive from the Old English term Þēod-weg, meaning “national road”, which suggests that its long distance character was known when people spoke Old English (600-1150). It forms the boundary between Lilley and Hexton. It’s important to note that the early documents don’t call it Icknield Way, which first happens during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189).

Critique from historians

Early in the present century, the apparently well established idea of the Icknield Way as an ancient track began to fall apart. It was realised that the “four royal roads” were a twelfth-century invention, never mentioned before the 1120s. Their origin had been set in prehistory by Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Gesta Britonum (‘Deeds of the Britons’, better known as ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’) was a work of historical fiction that pretended to be real history and was taken seriously by some of his contemporaries. The idea of these was adopted by other writers who foisted them on the pre-Norman English kings, including in the Leges Edwardi Confessoris (‘The Laws of Edward the Confessor’), a hoax from the reign of Stephen (1125-1154).

The name occurs in charters from the tenth century onwards, as Ic(c)enhilde weg, Icenhylte, Icenilde weg, Ycenilde weg and Icenhilde weg. Only one of these (the last) is on the route today accepted as the Icknield Way: they apply to a ridgeway running between Wanborough (Wiltshire), Hardwell in Uffington, Harwell, Blewbury and Princes Risborough. This forty-mile stretch from Wiltshire to Buckinghamshire is our earliest evidence for the use of the name Icknield to apply to a road or track. It does not occur anywhere in Hertfordshire or eastwards, and placenames such as Ickleford, Ickleton or Icklingham are not related to it. The problem is that although these early charters date from the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, they exist only in thirteenth-century copies, so we cannot be sure if the name was genuinely included in the original or if it was added by a scribe who knew about the “Four Royal Roads”.

Critique from prehistorians

Archaeologists’ understanding of prehistoric Britain has changed a great deal since Crawford’s time. We now know, thanks to more extensive pollen analysis, that the landscape was never densely forested and that in many places there was only scrubby grassland. We have found that even the heavy clay lands, once thought deserted until the Iron Age, were cleared and farmed from the Neolithic on. This means that the population of Britain, while small, was still larger than once thought.

Prehistorians now also believe that early trade did not depend on long-distance routes. Instead, items travelled through what is known as down-the-line exchange, in which they are passed between people time after time and eventually end up a long way from where they were made. This happened particularly with unusual or valuable objects. It almost certainly did not involve professional merchants engaging in a free trade system, which is something that has developed only in the last few centuries.

As our knowledge of prehistory has increased thanks to more aerial photography, geophysics, fieldwalking and excavation, we have discovered that the supposed concentration of sites around Icknield Way does not exist. Instead, we can see that this was the zone where pioneers of aerial photography were best able to document crop marks and earthworks. Since the 1980s especially, the distribution of sites has expanded away from what has been termed the “Icknield Belt” so that, at any period, we find people living and working across all the habitable parts of the British Isles.

Ancient travel seems to have involved both tracks and rivers. Water-borne transport was both efficient and easy, so it was perhaps the preferred method and we know that the bluestones at Stonehenge were transported from Dyfed to Wiltshire by sea and river, with only minimal overland transport. Movement along the coast was commonplace from the Neolithic onwards, when polished stone tools from places like Mounts Bay in Cornwall or Penmaenmawr in Gwynedd were exchanged across the whole of Britain.

Sarah Harrison’s research

This critique of the concept of the Icknield Way as a long-distance trading route derives from research carried out by Sarah Harrison, published in The Archaeological Journal in 2003. As well as looking at the documentary record, she examined the archaeological evidence for the route along its entire claimed length. She sought out sites along it where there ought to have been traces of a track and discovered that there is no evidence for its existence in prehistory and that the route is blocked in many places by large sites of different dates. These include long linear ditches that extend right across the supposed belt of land used for travel.

This was true of the accepted route apart from in one single stretch, the part between Royston and Dunstable that passes through north Hertfordshire and South Bedfordshire. Even so, the earliest evidence for a track on this line belongs to the end of the first century BC. Elsewhere, she found that places where the line seemed well established and had been accepted by the Viatores as a road improved in the Roman period, as at Aston Clinton, was not a route at all until much more recently. There, the “Lower Icknield Way” proved to be completely blocked by Iron Age and Roman features, including enclosures and fields. In south-east Cambridgeshire, it also seemed well established but is cut across by co-axial features, including tracks and boundaries that are continuous.

The Cambridgeshire Dykes, which cross the route, have long been known about. They include massive earthworks that survive as impressive landscape monuments, such as Devil’s Ditch and Fleam Dyke. They were long suspected to date from the fifth and sixth centuries AD and this has now been confirmed by archaeological excavation. They make no provision for a major route through them as all the gaps followed by modern roads have been cut more recently.

Ultimately, it seems that the Icknield Way was an invention of the High Middle Ages, connected with early twelfth-century writers. Sarah Harrison found that some of the “missing” sections were “filled in” during the 18th century because antiquaries “knew” that the road existed, so where they were unable to find it, they built it. She suggests that the “Upper” and “Lower” Icknield Way in Buckinghamshire were created at this time, while unrelated “branches” such as Ashwell Street and Hambridge Way were brought into the system. These were real but probably medieval trackways.

The idea of the Icknield Way as a long distance trading made a good story and convinced early prehistorians and before that, the pioneering antiquaries of the early modern world. They built their hypotheses around what they thought was established “fact”.

Ickleford and the Icknield Way

Ickleford is first recorded in the twelfth century as Ikelineford (it is not mentioned in Domesday Book as it was part of the manor of Pirton at that time). The name probably derives from Old English *Iclingaford, ‘the ford of Icel’s people’. Icel was the name of an ancestor of the kings of Mercia, who were known as the Iclingas. The name has nothing to do with Icknield Way, despite a superficial similarity, which only involves the first three letters of the modern form of the name.

St Katherine's Church, Ickleford

St Katherine’s Church, Ickleford

However, the meaning of Icknield (Ikenild in the twelfth century) is obscure. The idea that the Ickn- element derives from the British tribal name Iceni is fanciful (despite what Wikipedia claims!). The -c- would have become a -tch- sound: the name of the River Itchen in Hampshire probably derives from the same word as the tribal name, being Brittonic *Icēnā. Icknield is more likely to be an Old or Middle English word; the ican– element may mean ‘increase’.

Icknield Way in North Hertfordshire

In North Hertfordshire, the track that we now call Icknield Way was known as þa stræt (“the street”, meaning a Roman road) on the south side of Norton in 1007 and as Edeway in Hexton and Lilley during the seventeenth century. In other words, it was not being called Icknield Way in the medieval and early modern periods, yet this is the one section of the road we can show to be genuinely ancient. How do we resolve the apparent contradiction?

The answer is another ancient track, known as Avenell Way, rediscovered by Valory Hurst. It runs through southern Cambridgeshire, through Bassingbourn and Litlington, joining the A505 at Odsey. A section was excavated across it at Steeple Morden Quarry, close to Ashwell Station, where it was found to have originated at the end of the first century BC. At Odsey, its alignment south-west from Litlington continues as the line of the A505, gradually turning to a more west-south-westerly line as it approaches Baldock. This is what we know now as the “Icknield Way”.

East of Odsey, no archaeological evidence has been found for the Icknield Way. The line of the A505 turns to a more easterly alignment as it leaves Odsey, heading towards Royston. Here, the Roman Ermine Street crosses the Icknield Way at the town centre, and it has always been a puzzle that there is not the slightest trace of a Roman settlement at this point. As a supposedly major road junction, we might expect a trading post to have grown up, yet Roman activity in the town lay some distance to the south-west of the junction. Should we perhaps think of the road between Odsey and Dunstable as the Avenell Way?

If this blog post has seemed a bit negative, that’s because it has involved debunking a familiar and well loved concept that has turned out to be a misconception. The idea of the Icknield Way is firmly ingrained in local consciousness, with a long history of almost 900 years. The origins of the idea are an interesting story in their own right, but they involve medieval writers inventing a past that they thought ought to have existed but for which they had no evidence at all. In many ways, exploring a “wrong” idea can often be more informative than repeating a “correct” one, while the way this particular idea was used by early archaeologists helps to tell the history of the discipline.

The last words are best left to Sarah Harrison. “Icknield Way is one of the last bastions of the traditional archaeology”, which saw “prehistoric activity… confined to light land” and “‘trade’ meant much the same as it does now”. “It appears to have been at most a medium-range Saxon trackway” between Wantage in Wiltshire and Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire. “But for the creative minds of… medieval chroniclers it… would have been… forgotten” and “it is… curious that something for which there is so little evidence should be so secure a feature of British archaeology”.

A guest post from Dylan Bailey

For a week or so in August, I worked as a volunteer at the as-yet-to-be-opened North Hertfordshire Museum in Hitchin. I wanted to do some work experience to put on my personal statement, as I am interested in studying History at university and thought working at a history museum would be an interesting experience to include.

I was given a job to do on my first day. In the museum, which contains a variety of valuable museum pieces collected from all over North Hertfordshire, there is a map (presumably printed in the 1930s) called the ‘Incident Map’, which shows us where Axis bombs were dropped in and around the Hitchin Rural District during World War Two.

Hitchin Rural District Council's Incident Map

Hitchin Rural District Council’s Incident Map

The map (which was originally on display at Hitchin Museum) has a key with eight symbols on it. These symbols each represent a different bomb or object that landed in the Hitchin Rural District during the war. The eight ‘subjects’ that are featured on the map are: ‘High Explosive Bombs’, ‘Parachute Mines’, ‘Oil Bombs’, ‘Firepot Bombs’, ‘Phosphorous Bombs’, ‘Fly Bombs’, ‘Rockets’, and ‘Enemy Planes’. The final one, ‘Enemy Planes’, was marked by a Swastika (the symbol most typically associated with the Nazis during World War Two).

Bombs dropped between Pirton and Holwell on a modern background

Bombs dropped between Pirton and Holwell on a modern background

This map indicates that all these bombings took place throughout the war, from 1939 all the way to 1945. The task that I was given to do at the museum was to start mapping out these bombing positions on Google Earth, so then people could see where the bombs landed in relation to our present-day geography. I was given this job due to my personal fascination with World War Two and in general modern history. There are plans for the Google Earth map to eventually be processed, so then people can interact with it in the museum.

Incidents around Lilley mapped onto an aerial photograph from 1945

Incidents around Lilley mapped onto an aerial photograph from 1945

Knowing exactly where the bombs fell in North Hertfordshire in relation to how the county’s land is laid out now and being able to interact with it will hopefully help people to learn more about our local history then they could before now. I finished placing all the bomb markings on except for the ‘High Explosive Bombs’. I started on them but found that there were simply too many to finish by the end of my tenure at the museum. However, I got the vast majority of the bombs mapped out onto Google Earth.

The bombs so far mapped by Dylan shown in Google Maps

Yet I think I have made a positive start to the project in which the museum workers can continue to work on. I had some trouble with the scaling, and so I am not completely confident that I have placed all the markings from the map in the right spot on Google Earth. However, I feel that overall I have made a significant contribution to the North Hertfordshire Museum and helped them in their goal of preserving North Hertfordshire’s culture and heritage.

31 August 2016

On Sunday morning, I led a walk with Angela Forster (from Hertfordshire County Council’s Countryside Management Service) around the Weston Hills, south of Baldock. Taking in parts of Baldock, Clothall and Weston, it goes through a variety of landscapes that help tell the story of the local geology, ecology and archaeology. It is one of the Countryside Management Service’s regular Walks and More events that aim to get people out into the county’s often under-appreciated rural areas both to learn about local wildlife and heritage and to help maintain an active lifestyle.

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Learning about geology in a dry valley near Old Wellbury Farm

The walk began in Baldock (in the car park at the rear of Tesco) and we went along South Road and Limekiln Lane and on to the footpath leading to the footbridge over the A505 Baldock Bypass. Here was a good place to stop and for me to tell people about the archaeological importance of Baldock. The line of the road south-east from the ancient town crosses the fields between this point and the A507, eventually falling into line with the footpath close to Old Wellbury Farm before climbing the hill to Clothall. Baldock is really two separate towns: an ancient settlement that was abandoned by AD 600 and the Knights Tempar’s ‘new town’ of the 1140s. The earlier settlement has strong claims to be Britain’s first town, developing in the fifty years or so before Julius Caesar’s invasions in 55 and 54 BC.

From the footbridge over the A505, we walked to Old Welbury Farm and turned right into a dry valley, along the long-distance Hertfordshire Way. This is a good place to discuss the geology of the area, with its underlying chalk bedrock formed 90 million years ago beneath a sub-tropical sea. A period of uplift pushed the tectonic plate above sea level until it sank again, to be covered in a layer of clay when it was at the bottom of a lagoon. Further uplift pushed it above sea-level once again and during the Anglian Glaciation, 475,000 to 424,000 years ago, North Hertfordshire was covered by an ice sheet. As the climate grew warmer, the meltwater wore valleys into the chalk bedrock that are today dry, although they look as if they should have streams in them. The glaciers also fractured the chalk, mixing it with surviving patches of clay, breaking flint nodules and depositing acidic sands in pipes and cracks in the rock. This makes for a very complex geology that is the bane of gardeners and archaeologists alike.

At the top of the hill, we turned right (north-west) off the Hertfordshire Way to cross the large field on a trackway leading towards the triangular woodland. Off to the right is a large crater that often has a pond in it, thanks to the underlying clay that impedes drainage. This is just one of several visible on the top of the hill, which were formed in August 1944 when two American B17 bombers from Parham airfield, near Framlingham, collided. They were on their way to Nazi shipyards at Brest in Brittany as part of the Allied invasion of Europe when the pilots realised that collision was inevitable so, to minimise the danger, they shed their bomb load. Part of the wreckage fell at Friend’s Green in Weston, killing a child and a woman evacuee.

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The henge at Weston Hills, seen as a slight hump in the centre of the field in the distance

Beyond the crater, it is just possible to make out a slight rise in the field behind the wire fence. This is better seen from the far end of the triangular wood at the end of the field, where its position at one side of the dry valley we had entered earlier can be appreciated. It is not an obvious monument in the landscape, but if you know where to look, it is visible as a slight earthwork. From here, the ditch that helped to define it is visible. Henges are believed to have been ritual monuments of the Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (about 3100-1800 BC), but they are not the same things as stone circles, so don’t think of Stonehenge. Norton Community Archaeology Group excavated a similar monument in Letchworth Garden City between 2010 and 2013 and it is possible that this one in the Weston Hills was built as a replacement when the Norton Henge went out of use around 2200 BC.

From here, we crossed another field with more bomb craters either side, to the footbridge across the A505 Baldock bypass. Here, the edges of the cutting were seeded with chalk downland plants, providing an important ecological zone. This was one of the reasons for keeping the tunnel so short, the other being cost. The tunnel, though, reduces the visual impact of the cutting when seen from the east, helping to hide it in the landscape. At the top of the cutting, it is possible to see orange glacial sands filling glacial pipes and cracks in the chalk bedrock, visual evidence for the impact of the Pleistocene glaciation of this area.

The Weston Hills tunnel in 2013

The Weston Hills tunnel in 2013

From here, we descended into the Weston Hills nature reserve, designated as such in July 2012. It is actively managed by the Countryside Management Service and the Friends of Baldock Green Spaces, who keep the site tidy and help maintain the ecologically rich chalk downland landscape around Gibbet Hill. Here, a steep-sided spur is kept free from trees and scrub by grazing, as it would have been in the Middle Ages. It is home to an amazing diversity of wildlife, including the common spotted orchid and field scabious. The name Gibbet Hill is first recorded in the seventeenth century and presumably refers to a place of execution: a gibbet on top of the hill would have been a prominent and stark reminder of the potential fate of criminals at a time before the hills were planted with trees in the 1800s.

The other hillsides, which are largely hidden by woodland and scrub, have a number of ancient quarry scars, particularly to the east of Gibbet Hill. Although the name of Limekiln Lane shows why the chalk was being quarried in recent centuries, we also know that it was quarried in Roman times thanks to chemical analyses of mortar and plaster from buildings in the ancient town. More surprisingly, white tesserae (cubes of stone used in mosaic floors) from a villa in Leicestershire were also found to be from the Weston Hills. This suggests that the quarry owners were able to market their products over a wider area than just the local town. It also means that some of the quarry scars visible in the hillside are likely to be of Roman date; some of the more bowl-shaped scars could well be from then. There are also terraces on the hillside that lead to and from the quarries and many of these are probably also of Roman origin.

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Learning about the management of the Nature Reserve

At the north-east end of the reserve, back towards Limekiln Lane, management of the site is done by bringing longhorn cattle onto the site. These are docile and are not disturbed by dogs walked on the hills, unlike the sheep that graze Gibbet Hill (dogs should always be kept on a lead around sheep). By grazing in summer and autumn, they keep the development of scrub to a minimum. Thinning the woodland by hand also helps to allow some trees to grow taller while bringing sunlight down to ground level encourages the growth of woodland plants with the butterflies that feed on them. Birdlife is also abundant, with buzzards and tawny owls the main predators around the hills. Red kites are also becoming common around the Weston Hills and North Hertfordshire more generally, a real success for the conservation movement.

The Weston Hills walk is about 5.5 km (3.5 miles) and takes around two and a half hours at a gentle strolling pace. It can be muddy in places, but this is a reminder of the area’s complex geological history, and although some of the climbs are steep, it is not a difficult walk.