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Episode 18: Cambridgeshire

Where is Cambridgeshire?

In our eighteenth episode, we referred to loads of interesting Cambridgeshire-based things - and promised links and photos, so here they are:

Whittlesea Mere

It is thought that Whittlesea Mere formed from about 500 BC, when silt was deposited by the rivers Nene and Welland and water backed up because it couldn’t flow away freely towards the Wash. The Mere was at one point six miles across, the largest lake in lowland England. But it was very shallow, only from two to seven feet deep.

The Abbeys at Ramsey, Sawtry and Peterborough managed the fishing grounds on Whittlesey Mere. It was divided into 'boatgates' (one boat, three men and specific size of nets) and licences for fishing were sold, giving the Abbeys a valuable income.

Whittlesea Mere was already very popular for pleasure excursions by boat. In 1697 Celia Fiennes, daughter of a Cromwellian general, passed by the Mere on one of her journeys: she recorded that she ‘came in sight of a great water, looked like some sea it being so high and of great length. It was 3 miles broad and six long.

'In the midst there is a little island where a great store of wildfowle breeds; when you enter the mouth of the Mere it looks formidable and its often very dangerous by reason of sudden winds that rise like Hurricanes, but at other times people boat it round the Mere with pleasure, there is abundance of good fish in it.’

Holme Fen

Two monolithic cast iron posts anomalously lurk in a birch forest. At nine feet below sea level, they mark the lowest land point in England.

Once completely buried, these improvised geographical tools became gradually exposed as the peaty earth around them sank 13 feet.

The first Holme Fen Posts were commissioned by a landowner William Wells, who was concerned about the effects of his scheme to drain a local wetland, Whittlesey Mere, on the already uniform, low-lying landscape of the East of England.

The posts were purposely driven through the soft, waterlogged peat into an underlying layer of clay to measure the rate the peat contracted due to marsh drainage.

The idea was that as the peat sank, the posts, firmly rooted in the solid clay below, would gradually become exposed, revealing how rapidly the otherwise homogenous landscape was falling below the level of the all-too-close North Sea.

Thirty years after the first post was sunk, the land had already dropped eight feet.

Flag Fen

The story of Flag Fen began in 1971 when excavations ahead of the construction of Peterborough New Town revealed an almost intact Bronze Age landscape, which ran along the edge of the drained fen.

It was in 1982 when archaeologists surveying the depths of the Flag Fen Basin came across timbers of what was to prove an internationally important site.

Excavations in the basin continue to find prehistoric settlements, farms, barrows, cemeteries and religious sites along with managed river causeways across the developing fen marsh.

Peterborough Cathedral

Peterborough Cathedral is one of the finest Norman cathedrals in England.

Founded as a monastic community in 654 AD, it became one of the most significant medieval abbeys in the country, the burial place of two queens and the scene of Civil War upheavals.

The monastery was founded by Peada, son of King Penda of Mercia, and completed by Peada’s brother Wulfhere.

The Hedda Stone

At that time Mercia was a pagan Saxon kingdom, but as part of a marriage contract with neighbouring Christian Northumbria, Christian missionaries were allowed to found a religious house here.

In 1070, Hereward the Wake (known at the time as Hereward the Exile) raided the monastery and town with an army of Danish mercenaries, ostensibly to stop the wealth of Peterborough from falling into the hands of the new Norman Abbot.

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral has origins dating back to AD 673 when St Etheldreda built an Abbey Church. The present building dates back to 1083, and was granted Cathedral status in 1109.

Etheldreda restored an old church and built her monastery on the site of what is now Ely Cathedral. However the original buildings were reputedly destroyed by Penda, pagan King of the Mercians.

Following its restoration by Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984 and one of the leaders of the tenth-century monastic reform movement, Ely was refounded as a Benedictine community and became the richest abbey in England except for Glastonbury.

Work on the present Cathedral began in the 11th century under the leadership of Abbot Simeon, and the monastic church became a cathedral in 1109 with the Diocese of Ely.

The Cathedral is built from stone quarried from Barnack in Northamptonshire purchased for 8000 eels a year and transported along the river. Several decorative elements are carved from Purbeck marbel from Dorset and a local limestone, clunch.

The building work took years to complete and it is rumoured that 365 men died during the construction.

The Acting Witan of Mercia

The Mercian Constitutional Convention was formed in 2001 as a result of the complete refusal of the government of the United Kingdom to discuss the future of Mercia with its democratic regionalists.

Membership of the Convention was open to all interested people across the region and, following over two years of debate and discussion, it produced the Constitution of Mercia in 2003.

As Mercia and the other historic English regions were forcibly destroyed by the Norman conquerors after 1066, they still exist in law and the UK is in illegal control of them. Therefore, because Mercia remains extant de jure, the Constitution of Mercia is the fundamental law code of the region.

The Acting Witan of Mercia was formed from and initially by members of the Constitutional Convention in 2003 to spearhead the full democratisation of the region and the re-establishment of its de facto independence under the Constitution of Mercia.

Since then, around 2,500 people in the region have registered as citizens of Mercia, acknowledging the Constitution as the ultimate legal authority in the region and the Acting Witan as the de jure acting government of Mercia.

Membership of the Acting Witan is open to all the registered citizens of Mercia.

Oliver Cromwell House

Oliver Cromwell – a name that still divides opinions more than three hundred years after his death. But who was he and why is he so important to British history?

From the point of view of a Parliamentary Soldier he was one of the greatest military leaders we have ever had. Without him, Parliament would not have won the Civil War. However, from the viewpoint of a Cavalier, he was seen as a traitor, as he ordered the King to be beheaded.

A Puritan Gentlemen on the other hand would describe him as a Godly man who ruled this country justly. Such people believed he brought stability back after the war so that we could all live in tolerance and peace.

The Round Church

Modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Round Church in Cambridge was founded between 1115 and 1131 by ‘the fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre’ and ‘in honour of God and the holy Sepulchre’.

No other record of this mysterious fraternity exists, and its exact purpose remains unknown.

Cambridge University

The start of the university is generally taken as 1209, when scholars from Oxford migrated to Cambridge to escape Oxford’s riots of “town and gown” (townspeople versus scholars). To avert possible troubles, the authorities in Cambridge allowed only scholars under the supervision of a master to remain in the town.

It was partly to provide an orderly place of residence that (in emulation of Oxford) the first college, Peterhouse, was founded in 1284 by Hugo de Balsham, bishop of Ely.

Over the next three centuries another 15 colleges were founded, and in 1318 Cambridge received formal recognition as a studium generale from Pope John XXII.

Cambridge remained fairly insignificant until about 1502, when a professorship of divinity was founded—the oldest in the university.

In 1511 Desiderius Erasmus went to Cambridge and did much to inculcate the new learning of the Renaissance there. In 1546 Henry VIII founded Trinity College (which was and still remains the largest of the Cambridge colleges).

In 1570 Elizabeth I gave the university a revised body of statutes, and in 1571 the university was formally incorporated by act of Parliament.

March Stone Cross and St Wendreda's Church

The Stone Cross in March - or the base of it that remains - sits at the corner of The Avenue and Causeway Close, possibly marking the site of an ancient market in the original village, and used later as a preaching cross.

Although not far from St. Wendreda's church, legend says that the townsfolk wanted to build another church nearer the market place. But every night the Devil came and tore down what had been built the day before. The cross was erected to try and drive the Devil away.

It succeeded, but the church was still never built.

At the beginning of the 20th century, other legends about the Stone Cross were current among local children. It was said to have been a resting point for the body of an unnamed queen, who was being transported over a great distance to her burial place.

Plus, children were told that, if they walked twelve times around the topmost step of the cross base, they would hear the Devil 'sharpening his knives'.

The ceiling of St Wendreda's Church

The Lantern Men of Wicken Fen

Ghostly lights in the Cambridgeshire Fens are carried by evil spirits drawn to the sound of jolly whistling passers by, a method which only makes their intentions even more dastardly.

The Lantern Men lure their victims to a horrid death by drowning in the marshes and inlets of this most flat and damp of counties, and the only way you can evade their clutches once they have you in their sights is by lying on the ground and sucking the mud.

The Cambridgeshire Toadmen

Beware the Toadman!

In the folklore of historic Cambridgeshire, they were believed to have made a pact with the devil. This pact gave them supernatural power over horses.

They could make horses stand completely motionless until released with a magic word. On a whim, they could also convince horses to act so wildly that no human could handle them except the Toadman.

In a time when horses were a major form of transportation, they were said to use these powers to get revenge on others or to keep themselves fruitfully employed.

The Shug Monkey

The Shug Monkey is a black dog with the face of a monkey that haunts the area around Slough Hill Lane, Cambridgeshire.

Its characteristics differ depending on whom you ask, but according to the British author James Wentworth Day (1899 – 1983), the monkey could either “shuffle along on its hind legs” like a monkey, or “whizz past on all fours” like a dog.

The legend of the Shug Monkey has even spread to the neighbouring county of Suffolk, where it is believed that the mythical creature is not only part dog and monkey, but also part bear as well.

A man named Sam Holland spotted the Shug Monkey in 1956, when he witnessed a spectacular beast that he believed to be at least 10 feet in length.

Tom Hickathrift

Tom Hickathrift is a legendary figure of East Anglian English folklore — a character similar to Jack the Giant Killer.

He famously battled a giant, and is sometimes said to be a giant himself, though normally he is just represented as possessing giant-like strength.

In the fairy tale as told by Joseph Jacobs, Tom lived in marsh of the Isle of Ely and although initially lazy and gluttonous, he was prodigiously tall and it soon became apparent that he had the strength of twenty men.

He eventually got a job carting beer in Wisbech, but the long journey tired him, so one day he cut across the land of the Wisbech Giant. The giant took this badly and fetched his club to beat Tom, but at this point Tom took the axletree and cartwheel and fought the giant.

After a furious battle the giant was killed. Tom took his land and was from then on held in esteem by the people of the area.

The Gogmagog Hills

Those who visit this locality would rarely be aware of its history or its centuries old derivation.

Gog, the chief prince of the land of Magog, is referred to in the Bible (Ezekiel 38-39) and the Biblical association is continued in the Book of Revelation (Ch20:7-9) with apocalyptic associations.

Legend also links to ancient Greece, where a king chose husbands for his thirty daughters. Only one, the youngest, was happy with her choice and defied her sisters’ decisions to have them slain. As a punishment, the girls were set adrift until they came to an island which they named Albion. Subsequently they populated a race of giants, of whom Gogmagog was twelve feet tall and of superhuman strength. (Note: you can listen to this story on our Middlesex episode!)

Local residents may be aware that in the village of Cherry Hinton children were discouraged from playing in the local chalk pits lest the buried giants Gog and Magog awoke and chased them.

Gog was reputed to have quarrelled with his wife, Magog, and threw earth at her. It missed, but instead the present day hill was formed. A third hill was created when in a fit of temper Gog buried Magog alive.

Intriguingly, in the car park of the Robin Hood pub, at the crossroads in Cherry Hinton, there is a dark stone three feet across and with a size 10 footprint carved out of it. So the mystery persists, but no one should be discouraged from exploring our local history or enjoying the beauty spot which comprises the Gog Magog Hills.

Hereward the Wake

The legendary Hereward the Wake, the guerrilla leader who headed Anglo- Saxon resistance to William the Conqueror for five years, has been called one of history's "greatest Englishmen".

The earliest references to his parentage are found in the Gesta Herewardi, which records he was the son of Edith, a descendant of Oslac of York.

It is also been stated that Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva were Hereward's parents, however, little credence is given to this theory.

Abbot Brand of Peterborough is said to have been the uncle of Hereward.

Primary sources on Hereward's exploits are either brief or sometimes enigmatic. They consist of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the Domesday Book, the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely), and much the most detailed, the Gesta Herwardi Saxonis ('Deeds of Hereward the Saxon'), compiled by monastic scholars in the eleventh century.

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