Brief History
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By C W R D Mosely, MA, PhD, FSA, FEA, FRSA, FRGS

Copywrite 1988, 2001 by C W R D Moseley; First Published 1988; Reprinted 1989; Reprinted with minor additions 1999; Second Edition 2001.

Please note that hard copies, signed by the author, can be obtained at a cost of £4.00 - applications should be emailed to


No history of a village will ever please everybody. Many prefer their history anecdotal, and would like a collection, however loose, of stories of the doings of the recent past. It is with some regret that I have chosen not to write this short book in such a manner, for there are plenty of stories, delicate or indelicate, in Reach.

There is probably no such thing as a typical village, but Reach is odder than most - it has never been an ecclesiastical parish, for one thing, and so its development cannot be separated from that of its now larger neighbours, Swaffham Prior and Burwell, in whose parishes it stood. Over the centuries response to a changing environment, changing social patterns and the changing economic needs of its neighbours has left visible marks on the village and the houses in it. It has recently undergone a period of perhaps more radical social and architectural change than any before: when I first came to the village in 1963, the majority of men still worked within a five mile radius of home; when the women went out to work, they tended to work at Tillotson’s box factory in Burwell or in Cambridge. A large part of the village was linked in extended families; about four surnames dominated (though not the same surnames as had dominated a century earlier). Most of the old property in the village was still owned by families whose forebears had lived there before them. There were few children. Now, forty or so years later, the number of people who work in the village is small, as the demand for agricultural labour has decreased and most of the smallholders have retired; the largest centre of employment is Cambridge; a large proportion of the inhabitants are incomers who do not always stay long; a lot of new property (with virtually complete disregard of the honest architectural vernacular that this part of England had developed) has been built - often by carving plots out of gardens that once were big enough to keep a large family in vegetables and eggs throughout the year. And there are hordes of children, without whose presence the school at Swaffham Prior would have to close. The age profile has got a lot younger, and the village is a lot richer. It is also tidier. But something rather valuable has been lost - a sense of permanence, perhaps, and of perspective. It is in the hope that it may provide something of a perspective that I offer this little book.

My information has been derived in large part from published sources, but a good deal is the result of conversations with my old friends Seth Badcock, Harold Sennett of Wicken, C.F. (Toby) Sargeant who kept the post office, and Colin Washtell. On them be peace. I also owe a good deal to many conversations with Major H. B. Jones, and to the historical acumen of John Clarke of Burwell, of Mrs Peggy Watts, and Mr Stewart Bell. But I have not hesitated to draw my own inferences from what I have noticed from tramping for years over virtually every inch of the countryside.

Geology and Structure

The village sits at the northern end of a broad peninsula, jutting into the fen, of hard chalk (clunch) of the Cretaceous period overlain with a sticky clay. The clunch rises to above the 30 foot contour, and the fen is at or near sea level. The gault clay is a substantial deposit under the chalk, and runs under all this part of eastern England. On top of it in the fen is (or was) a layer of peat that in some places was many feet thick. The peat fen, before any attempt at drainage, was intersected by innumerable small streams whose general trend was north-easterly. Some of these old watercourses laid down in their beds a certain amount of silt, and as the peat fen has shrunk with drying and wind erosion, occasionally the old river courses can be picked out as roddons - raised, lighter-coloured areas of soil meandering across the fields.

Neolithic, Iron Age and Roman periods

In Neolithic times the fenland seems to have been covered with the old woodland of England, composed mainly of beech and oak with some yew and pine. Primitive man hunted here extensively; it is extremely common to find his arrowheads, of dates ranging from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic. His quarry certainly included the red deer, which was common in this area; the ancient animal, to judge from the size of the antlers that have been found, was considerably larger than the modern red deer which has adapted to the poorer pasture of the uplands of this island. The area has also produced important finds of very fine Neolithic and Bronze Age work - including the famous Burwell jadeite axehead now in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, made of stone that originally came from China.

[We commonly underestimate the sophistication of our ancestors’ trade, industry and politics. The existence of the complex of flint mines at Grime’s Graves in Norfolk argues a highly developed social and political structure, able to organise the division of labour and the marketing of the product. I myself possess a Bronze Age stone axehead, found in Isleham Fen, that has tentatively been identified as originating from Great Langdale in Cumbria. Axeheads from that area have been found on a line reaching across England, through East Anglia, to the Low Countries and the Rhineland - which argues a lot of regular travelling and possibly trade].

Early settlement and agriculture was probably confined to the drier ground on Reach Hill ("Church Hill" on OS maps) and in Driest Fen, just to the west, there are still discernible traces of Neolithic or, more probably, Iron Age habitation sites. These appear on aerial photographs as a series of circles, probably the remains of grain storage pits.

Remains of primitive man himself have occasionally been found, though, alas, such dramatic finds as that of a complete "bog-person" like Lindow or Tollund Man, have been recorded only in the most unscholarly way. James Wentworth-Day in one of his books on the area recounts the story of a find in Burwell Fen of a completely preserved body standing in a dug out canoe. While some scepticism is certainly called for, something significant was clearly found, which made a deep impression on the finders who may well have subsequently embellished their memory of it.

We may be quite certain that when the Romans came here they found no wilderness, but a countryside populated, organised politically and exploited efficiently. The strip of easily cultivated ground on the chalk between what is now the fen and the thick forest to the east and south would already have been extensively farmed. A money economy of sorts was in operation: a coin of the Catuvellaunian king Tasciovanus (1st century AD) was found between Burwell and Reach some few years ago by Mr J. W. Clarke. What we know of the British kingdoms in the years immediately before the coming of Rome points conclusively to a high degree of civilisation.

The Roman period, dating from the late 40's of the first century to the first years of the fourth, left no part of England unchanged. Within the village of Reach, there is a major Roman villa site. It lies at grid ref. 572652, just on the right after crossing the old railway bridge as one approaches the village from Swaffham Prior. The villa was of the corridor type, and seems to have been occupied over a long period. It was in all probability the centre of a largish, and, to judge from the fragments of painted wall plaster that have been found, quite prosperous estate, producing a surplus sent to market along the Reach Lode that the Romans were the first to dig. At 570650 there are remains of another substantial Roman building, which has not been excavated. It lies near a former spring, and just possibly may have been a bath house. I have been informed that when the area was deep-ploughed around 1955, the tractor driver turned up large numbers of small square pieces of stone. I have been unable to find any, but if the report is correct one must suspect the existence of a tessellated floor of some kind.

These are not the area’s only Roman sites: there are several in Burwell, and there have been several finds of Roman material along the fen edge in Swaffham Prior and Burwell. This area was important economically and strategically to the Romans. Eastern England was an exporter of corn to Germany and Gaul as well as to the north of the country, and the network of canals and roads that were built argues a considerable volume of waterborne trade. The sluggish rivers, meandering through a flat countryside that, with changes in sea level, was already becoming waterlogged in the first century, were no use to navigation or transport, and so the Romans dug straight lodes, from Swaffham Bulbeck, Lode and Reach, at an angle to the existing watercourses to carry their goods to the Cam, and from the Cam via the Car Dyke to Lincoln and to the old sea port where Wisbech now stands. (Roman remains have been found along the line of the old Reach Lode, which is parallel to but not exactly that followed by the present one.) The expending of so much effort and money is conclusive evidence that the government considered the area important; and we may assume that the improvement of transport had beneficial effects on the economy of an already prosperous region.

Few obvious traces of the Roman period are to be seen today, with the exception of the lode, a few bits of rubble in a field, and the odd Roman tile reused as a straightening course in what remains of the old chapel behind the present church. It has however been suggested by Christopher Taylor that in Swaffham Prior the field boundaries on the fen edge mark Roman parcels of land, as they almost certainly do in Horningsea; Roman material has been found on each parcel.

The Devil’s Dyke

The most obvious man-made feature on the landscape, and the one that brings most visitors to the village, is the Devil’s Dyke. It is a huge structure, overlying a much smaller one, running some 6.5 miles from the end of Reach Lode, on which it is aligned, to the old boundary of the dense and impenetrable forest at Wood Ditton. It was clearly carefully surveyed: the long central section is dead straight, laid out on an alignment whose ends are intervisible, and the two changes of direction at each end, which are slight, were designed to connect this long straight section with the end of Reach Lode and to avoid the depression near Wood Ditton called Dane Bottom. The builders kept to an alignment that would allow them to use the maximum amount of the high ground. The labour involved in such an undertaking is immense: it has been calculated that using the simple technology of picks, shovels and baskets, one million man-days or more were needed for its construction. Whoever built it clearly had not only a pressing reason for doing so, but also the political and administrative ability to organise a very large body of workers.

There have been many theories about its origin. All that can be said with absolute certainty is that it was built either very late in - say after 370 AD - or after Roman times: Roman remains have been found under it. It must have been built (at the very latest) before the eighth century when it is already being used as a boundary. In early Anglo-Saxon times and through the Middle Ages it was the boundary between the parishes of Burwell and Swaffham Prior, and the administrative and tax districts of Staine and Staploe Hundreds. The Dyke is designed so that the rampart is to the east of the fosse, and thus an obvious inference is that whoever built it was expecting trouble from the south-west. It deliberately closes, except for one ancient opening, the Icknield Way, one of the major trackways of ancient Britain, dating back to prehistoric times, which runs from East Anglia to Salisbury Plain. Every invader we know of who hit the East Anglian coast moved along that track into the heart of Britain. The length of the Dyke makes it militarily indefensible against any serious attack, but equally, with a fosse filled with thorns, it would be a major obstacle to any attempt by a large fighting force to get across it towards Exning fast and unnoticed. There are three periods in those three obscure centuries when the political circumstances of Britain as a whole might have led to the building of the Dyke.

After the cities and communes of Roman Britain were told to make arrangements for their own defence by the Emperor Honorius in 411, it is quite clear that although the Anglo-Saxon attacks and settlement (which had been going on for well over half a century) intensified, there was no immediate general collapse of Roman power. The Romano-British were certainly on the defensive, and the evidence of burials and place names is conclusive that in the eastern part of England they lost most if not all control. The settlers set up their own little states, one of which later was centred, during the reign of Anna, King of the East Angles, on Exning, a strategically important spot, controlling the easily-travelled Icknield Way.

[The odd boundary of West Suffolk, almost isolated in Cambridgeshire, follows the line of the old royal possession. Anna was father of the lady who became St Etheldreda, foundress of the Abbey of Ely. She married, first, the prince of the British kingdom based on the Isle of Ely, which thus peacefully passed into Anglo-Saxon control].

But the Anglo-Saxon advance was mysteriously halted about the end of the fifth century by a resurgence of Romano-British power under someone called Ambrosius Aurelianus, or Artorius, who may be the historical seed from which the legends of King Arthur grew. At the great battle of Mons Badonicus, which certainly took place though we do not know where, the Romano-British smashed the army of the invaders, imposed peace on them for at least one generation, but were not strong enough to expel them from the country. It seems as if the newcomers had to be content with being penned up in clearly defined areas they held already. The evidence of place-names and burials indicates that Anglo-Saxon penetration ceased for a good time; and when it started again in earnest, the newcomers had been converted to Christianity. Now, it is attractive to see the Dyke as built in response to that situation by a power centred on or near Exning, fearing attack from the south and west, and constructing a massive frontier and trade barrier in a countryside devoid of natural boundaries except the fen and forest. Alternative, equally plausible, views are that the Dyke was built for the same sort of reason against the aggressive and expanding power of Mercia under the pagan king Penda (632-55); or, right at the beginning of the possible period, by the Romano-British in East Anglia to protect them from Anglo-Saxon settlers who had used the rivers to penetrate in force as far as Cambridge. Furthermore, the Dyke may quite easily have been built by one group to serve one purpose, and reused and heightened by another in quite different circumstances. Originally the Dyke ran at full height right through the village, until it disappeared into the Fen where the Hythe now is. When William Cole the antiquarian visited the village in 1743, that was how he saw it; but when he returned in 1768, the Dyke had been levelled and the fosse filled in to make the Fair Green that is so distinctive a feature of the village today.

The Village

The Dyke divided the mediaeval and later settlement at Reach into two hamlets, East Reach in Burwell parish, and West Reach in Swaffham Prior. Both parishes needed access to Reach Lode for the transport outwards of their surplus goods and the import of materials - such as hard building stone, and later coal and timber - that could not be provided in the parish. But some time in or just before the XIIIth century the first Burwell Lode was cut, thus reducing the dependence on Reach of that parish. Of East Reach hardly a trace now remains, though until the fields running down to the fen edge lying behind the present church were thoughtlessly deep ploughed and the hedges grubbed up some years ago, undulations in the ground, crop marks at certain times of the year, and the site of an ancient pond would have made the recovery of the ground plan of the mediaeval village relatively easy. Swaffham Prior's dependence lasted much longer than Burwell's, and West Reach remained an important community until well into the XIXth century.

A glance at the parish boundaries on the map will show that Swaffham Prior, like several parishes round the edges of the fens, has a long, thin shape. There are good economic reasons for this. The parishes so organised enjoyed near their centres of settlement the fertile, easily worked ground that had been cultivated since neolithic times - the headland of one of the great fields of Swaffham Prior is still discernible as a low bank running from the top of Reach Hill in a slight curve towards Snakehall Farm by the old railway bridge. Further away from the fen, there was the valuable common grazing of the Heath for the vast flocks of sheep who grew the wealth of mediaeval England on their backs. Finally, each parish enjoyed a share of the fen.

The gradual waterlogging of the fen, already well under way by Roman times, had killed the old forest; the dead trees had fallen - some say, as a result of a great storm, for many of them lie in the same direction - and round them, as they gradually turned into "bog oaks", had grown up huge deposits of peat. For centuries this fen was an important economic resource: not only did it provide fuel - and there were still people in the fen cutting peat for fuel a decade ago - but also summer grazing for the sheep, and very valuable fisheries and supplies of waterfowl. The birds were trapped, either by baiting hooks - again, done within living memory - or by decoys; later, they were gunned down in hundreds at a shot with punt guns. There was a substantial trade in waterfowl with Cambridge and with London itself. One of the reasons why there was so much local opposition to the draining of the fens from the XVIIth century onwards was precisely because it implied the loss of these resources and the common rights that enabled the poor to live, if not in comfort, with at least a fire and a fowl to cook on it.

An old road from Swaffham Prior to West Reach, and eventually to Burwell, ran along the fen edge: it is now a green road called, as far as Reach, Barston Drove, a name traceable back as far as 1319. (The name "Barston" implies the presence of lime trees, tilia cordata, one of the native species of England; and by Spring Hall Farm there is still a lime tree, though not of the native small-leaved species). This road provided the main axis of settlement, for even at the time of the Enclosure Award, just after 1800, there was little settlement on what is now Fair Green beyond Hill Farm, even though the Dyke had been demolished decades earlier. The road continues as what is now Little Lane to the old centre of West Reach, the Drying Green. This was once much larger, but has been encroached upon by building and the original back lane servicing these houses and tofts has become the main road, Great Lane. At or near the Drying Green it is possible that there stood the lost chapel of St Etheldreda. In the garden of the fine fifteenth century house adjacent to the Drying Green, White Roses, the late Colin Washtell and I found a base for a cross-shaft, the carved Barnack stone voussoirs of an arch, and what might well have been the remains of a crypt. (The site is unexcavated.) Along the banks of the Lode in the area known as Delph or Delver End since at least 1442 were a series of basins or docks: at least four are still discernible, though only that between the Hythe and White Roses still has water in it permanently. The Hythe itself, like many of the docks, is a mediaeval structure. Now gratuitously ruined by the insensitive placing of the sewage plant, it was originally dissected by docks, to provide a greater water frontage as a means of handling a greater number of vessels at once - and some of them were 40 feet long. A mat of osiers was laid down at the head of Reach Lode, and rammed chalk was then used to construct a surface for loading and unloading. It was at this point that Reach Fair used to be proclaimed before Fair Green was constructed. The present footbridge across the Lode is of course inimitably modern, but there has been a bridge at or near this spot since at least 1585, when it was called Delfe Bridge.

Little building dating from before 1800 remains. Apart from White Roses, which at the end of the XIXth Century was occupied by the curate of Swaffham Prior who looked after the chapelry of Reach, the most notable early building is Water Hall, the last house going out of the village along Barston Drove. It is a fine XVIIth century house almost certainly on the site of a mediaeval dwelling of substance. It is attractive to connect the William Water de Rech whose brass of 1521 is in Swaffham Prior church with this site. Manor Farm, in East Reach, despite its mainly seventeenth and eighteenth century appearance, has some XVIth century features, and Hill Farm, on Fair Green, is a timber framed XVIIth century building that has been brick faced and extended in the style newly affordable by prosperous farmers at the end of the XVIIIth century. The cottages facing the Green are probably XVIIIth century, and the elegant early XIXth frontage of the house - formerly the Swan Inn - facing the early XVIIIth century former Post Office conceals a XVIIth century structure. The east wall of a chapel behind the present church may be that of the Chapel of St John in Burwell parish. The base of the wall up to the sill of the window appears to be XIIIth century work and the window itself XIVth Century. When William Cole of Milton, one of the early antiquarians, visited the village in 1743, he drew it as it then was: a small, ruined building, with two transepts still standing. The street plan, despite the distortion of Great Lane, is still effectively that of the mediaeval village, and the network of lanes and paths crossing the hill was there as far back as I have been able to trace. Similarly, the roads and paths to the east of where the Dyke stood are old. The present Burwell Road, called on the Enclosure Map Scotred Lane, which runs nearly straight from the Green to join up with the old fen-edge road, may have originated as a result of the levelling of the Dyke.

Reach Fair and Market

Reach Fair is now locally well-known and is much like village fairs and fetes anywhere. Once it was of national if not international importance, and like Stourbridge Fair in Cambridge a major occasion in the economic calendar of the whole region.

In 1201 King John granted a charter to the Mayor and Burgesses of Cambridge, who since the time of Henry II had had legal control over the water trade in the region of Cambridge. This allowed them to control the trade at the important head of navigation at Reach, and to deal summarily with trade offences and civil disturbances at a court of pie powder (Pieds poudreux). The right of market was of course highly profitable to those who held it – stall-holders’ fees, fines, and so on made a charter a valuable possession. We may be sure no charter would have been sought or granted had there not already been a considerable trade at Reach.

The fair was to start on Rogation Monday, and although the date of it has unnecessarily changed to the Spring Bank Holiday it is still opened, according to ancient custom, in person by the Mayor and Aldermen of Cambridge, and all people of evil disposition are warned to depart by the Sergeant-at-Mace. The fair was thus the first in the year of the big Cambridge fairs, held at a time when travelling was easier for man and beast. In due course it became a big affair, attracting buyers and sellers from all over East Anglia and, like Stourbridge Fair, from the Continent too. Though its goods remained general, it became noted for its horses. By the early years of the century, the main stock was Welsh ponies, which were penned in in the declivity at the beginning of the Dyke. Ezra King, who used to keep the White Horse, the last to function of the old pubs in Reach, remembered the sight of the village full of horses; he told me many years ago that the auctions took place on the Hythe, and the large stone which still stands at the approach to it was the Auction Stone, struck when the bids had been called for the third time.

Reach Fair, like all the big fairs in the pre-industrial age, provided amusement, creditable or not, as well as business. It could be violent and the Sergeant-at-Mace's warning was often as necessary as it was unheeded. The Upware men are supposed to have looked forward to Reach Fair as the night on which they would walk in a body up the Lode to have a good scrap with the Reach men. (It was also supposed to be the one time in the year that they got their hair cut). "Dissolute characters... attracted by the Annual Horse Fair" were blamed in one newspaper report in May 1852 for causing the serious fire that threatened to burn down the whole of Galley's farm and yard and spread to the rest of the village. The fair is now, like all of them, a ghost of its former self; its economic function has completely disappeared, though until fifteen or so years ago it was still of great emotional importance to the older villagers: it was the time when families returned to the nest, when fresh whitewash was applied to walls, when gardens were "cleaned up for the Fair".

It is easy to forget that this was not Reach's only fair. There was a regular market in the Middle Ages. In 1274 Edward I granted right of market for 15 days from Whitmonday to Robert Tibetot (or Tiptoft) lord of the manor of Burwell. Later there was a regular Market on Wednesdays, and this was substantial enough for the village to be called a "Market town" in Gough's 1789 edition of Camden's Britannia.

The Port and Industries

The Hythe and the docks along Delph End, now deserted, were once the site of much activity. The barge traffic, which only finally ceased just after the Second World War, was once very considerable: the Lode, made deeper by the building of Upware Lock in 1821, gave access eventually to all the inland waterway network of Southern England - particularly after the building of the canals - and to the sea at Lynn. From early mediaeval times the water trade through Reach was large. The inward trade was mainly timber, iron, and later coal, as would be expected; but it is the outward that is of real interest.

For Reach is a post-industrial site of major importance. The whole of Reach Hill, some fifty acres, has been lowered several feet, cut away by people seeking the easily-worked clunch for building stone. The network of lanes and the quarries themselves date from long before any Enclosure Act. Much of this stone went by water to Ely and other great churches and buildings of East Anglia: indeed, the Lady Chapel at Ely is mainly Reach Hill. The shallow drifts on the top of the hill, dramatically framed by a cliff-like quarry wall, represent the gently sloping inclines up which horses hauled carts laden with the stone from the face that was being cut. Much of the stone was worked on site: clunch cuts easily with a big-toothed two handed saw when wet or damp, and hardens as it dries. It is a pity that so many of these pits, which give a landscape every bit as dramatic as the quarries at Barnack, are being filled in without a thought for the centuries of human endeavour they represent.

This stone was most easily and cheaply transported by water. But by water went also agricultural produce, such as corn, and (particularly in the XIXth century) peat cut from Reach and Adventurers' Fen in Burwell parish. This trade, however, was seasonal, for peat can only be cut when the fen is dry enough and the peat has itself had time to dry. The scale of the operation can be judged from the fact that in the 1883 edition of Kelly’s Directory, out of a total population of around 500, three men described themselves as "turf merchants".

Briefly, just after the middle of the XIXth century, a third extractive industry grew and flourished: coprolites. Again, the water trade was important for this high bulk, low value product. These phosphatic nodules were in great demand as a source of fertiliser, and much of Cambridgeshire was dug over for them. Cambridge itself is supposed to have built a new Guildhall on the profits from coprolite digging on Coldham's Common, the surface of which was lowered several feet by their extraction. The 1886 OS map shows a "Fossil Mill" and an associated pond at TL564664, and other coprolite pits have been found further down the fen. The labour required was more than the village could provide, and hundreds of itinerant labourers moved in. They had to sleep where they could, and according to newspaper reports were evidently often troublesome. A newspaper report of Reach Fair in May 1858 notes with some relief that though the public homes, numerous at that time, were "well patronised, good order prevailed" among the 600 or so coprolite diggers at that time in the neighbourhood.

Other trades in the village must have remained fairly constant through the centuries, ministering to the local needs every village had. There were shops - in recent memory, at least one butcher, a baker, a carpenter and coffin maker, a wheelwright and a blacksmith. For a time there was lime burning on the hill - the 1886 OS map shows a "kiln" at S67658 - but this was probably not on a large scale, and probably for local use in building.

Ecclesiastical Matters

Each settlement, West Reach and East Reach,was a chapelry, of Swaffham Prior and Burwell respectively. Two chapels are known of in the Middle Ages, one of St John, the probable remains of which I noted above, and the other of St Etheldreda, which was in existence by 1447. In 1448 a license for "Reach chapel" in Bishop Bourchier’s register may refer to the installation of a priest in this chapelry. It may have been the chantry chapel founded in 1378 by Sir John Peksbridge. Despite the tantalising mention of one Robert Sparkes, "a priest of this place", who in 1457 in Cambridge was made "publicly to do penance and retract his errors of heresy", little is known of the ecclesiastical details in the village. The Reformation suppressed chantry chapels, and it is likely that both chapels were disused from that date - though since they would be made mainly of cheap local clunch, it is unlikely that they would have been worth demolishing. The 45 acres attaching to the Chapel of St Etheldreda as endowment were appropriated by the Crown.

In 1861, thanks largely to the efforts of Thomas Preston, Vicar of Swaffham Prior; a new Church-cum-school was erected on the site of the Chapel of St John to the design of C. F. Hayward. It is not a beautiful building, and it was designed to double as a day school - which it did until the early 1900's when the curate, Rev St John Dearsly, who lived from 1899 to 1913 at what is now White Roses, recorded in his diary, "Church clear of Day school. Thank God!" Anomalously, it stood in the ecclesiastical parish of Burwell, despite being chapel-of-ease of Swaffham Prior. The school in its heyday drew children from right down the fen, as far as Upware. One old lady I knew, Kate Johnson, told me that as a girl in the 1890's she and her siblings walked in all weathers the two and a half miles up the Lode bank, longing in foul weather for the warmth of the pot-bellied stove in the church whose ashes still form a thick layer in the churchyard. A good frost was a blessing: they could skate up the Lode.

There is also a notably confident Congregational chapel building, now converted to a dwelling. In its day it was extremely well-supported, for by long tradition, the Church of England has never been popular in this area; it was all too often too closely allied to the landed interest. I have been told that in Swaffham, just in living memory, if you were not seen in church on Sunday you had no job on Monday.

Enclosure and the Damage of the Fen

We take the fact of the draining of the Fens so much for granted that it is easy to forget just what an enormous, costly, and dangerous undertaking it was. We also forget that to get it under way those who "adventured" their capital had to overcome local resistance that could make an excellent economic case for the retention of things as they were; and also to be circumvented were the rights of turbary, messuage and fowling and fishery that under the common law innumerable people enjoyed and used as an important part of their livelihood. Indeed, fen drainage met exactly the same difficulties as the related activity of enclosure. In both cases, the poor were often the losers. The enclosure award (1803) for the Parish of Swaffham Prior attempted, as Parliament usually did, to provide some compensation for those who had lost rights. 17.5 acres were set aside as allotments on the side of Church Hill for the poor of the parish, to make up for what they had lost in the way of rights in the common fields, rights of grazing, and so on. It hardly seems adequate, particularly as it only took account of those households in existence at the time of the act. Any expansion of population was bound to increase the numbers of those who could not support themselves, and had to become labourers, or even to slide into pauperdom.

Nevertheless, the ingenuity and inventiveness that went into drainage is worthy of admiration. The first part of the fen where it seems drainage was attempted was the little bay of fenland between Church Hill and Swaffham Prior. Occasionally, a possible mediaeval drainage pattern shows perceptible traces here, on a rectangular grid aligned on a bearing of 300 degrees; it aligns on no modern boundaries or ditches. In the same area, Adventurers' Fen was drained very early: Driest Fen in Swaffham Prior was drained before 1680 - possibly as early as 1637 in the middle of the great craze for draining. Reach or Little Fen (the part stretching some third of a mile from the fen edge, between Black Drove and Reach Lode, called Huggins Fen) was drained by 1710. The rest - the parts called on the enclosure map Reach Turf Fen, (along Turf Fen Drove), and Sedge Fen, (around Straight or Reach Drove) ­ were drained by 1800. The catchwater drain which cuts off the headwaters of streams that originally trickled out of the chalk at the fen edge into the fen must have been cut after the XVIIth century as it bends to avoid the XVIIth century Water Hall. By the time of enclosure, there already existed enclosures between it and Barston Drove.

In other areas enclosure tended to give rise to isolated farms set in the middle of their land. Here that did not happen much. There was some settlement on the Fen during the agricultural boom of the XIXth century, but no certain trace of any before enclosure. Some of those few farms have now vanished. New Gant, a charming little timber house now exists only as a field name, and that is nearly forgotten; Pout Hall, down on the river bank near Upware, in which someone I knew brought up a large family on what the fen provided, collapsed into a jungle of nettles some twenty years ago. The only outlying farm of early date still to survive and thrive is Spring Hall by Barston Bridge. Most of the cottages that sprang up along the fen side of the catchwater drain have now gone too. Modern drainage and farming methods have changed the appearance of the fen from what it was even a generation ago. It is not long since a wet winter regularly brought water lying deep enough over the fields for a boat to clear with ease the barbed wire fences erected to keep stock in. Now the deeper drains and faster pumps have eradicated that, and there are few animals either. The trees that lined the roads as a sensible precaution against wind erosion mostly went too: so, as a result, has much of the soil that made the land so valuable in the first place. The places where mushrooms grew in profusion, the ditchsides where dewberries overhung water iridescent with damsel flies are now merely tidy. Only the great skies stay the same, as they have done since man first came to this landscape that, perhaps, has undergone more radical changes than any other in England.

The Railway

Reach never had a station, and there might seem no good reason for mentioning the railway whose track passes the village a mile away. But the building of that line had a profound effect on the economic base of the village, and changed it radically.

The moving spirit behind the construction of the line from Barnwell Junction just outside Cambridge was Charles Peter Allix, the squire of Swaffham Prior and major landowner in the parish. A line was opened in 1884, to Fordham, and extended to Mildenhall in 1885. At its peak, the line carried five trains per day in each direction, plus excursions. The last passenger train ran in 1962, the last goods in 1964. The service at its best before the Second World War allowed at least one Swaffham Prior resident to commute to his daily work in the City of London.

The line was never as profitable as was hoped, but for many years it paid its way. Outward traffic was mainly hay, straw, sugar beet, and for the London market - cut flowers from Swaffham Prior. Inward goods were coal, coke, cattle food and fertilisers. The line was a considerable employer in the region. For example, in about 1900, at Lode, there was a station complement of a stationmaster, three clerks, two signalmen and one porter. The little station at Swaffham Prior employed at least four people, and jobs were sought after: when H. K. Betts became Stationmaster there just before the war, there was village resentment at him getting the job, for he was an "outsider" from Red Lodge, Freckenham.

But the real significance of the railway is that at a stroke it severed Reach from the hinterland that had made it prosperous for centuries. Burwell's and Swaffham's needs for cheap bulk transport could now be met much more readily by rail than by the water trade along Reach Lode, and to C.P. Allix’s determination to have a station at the bottom of his park rather than at the obvious economic centre, Reach, must be attributed one of the most striking features in the present village: the virtual absence of any new building between the 1880's and the 1950's, when the present council houses, in Ditchfield, were built.

During the prosperous years in the XIXth century a lot of new building went on. Fine barns were built in the first fifty years, and cottages were put up for labourers. Old houses were demolished and replaced, or refronted. All this argues that the village was doing very nicely. But after the railway was built, this stops; and the population begins that massive decline that led to Reach being called, when I first knew it, a "dying village". In 1851, Kelly's Directory gives a total population of 416, 301 in West Reach and 115 in East. In 1871, this has risen to a total of 435 - 352 in West, 83 in East. In that year, there were three pubs - the White Horse, the Black Swan, the Ship, and 2 "beer retailers" - making their living from the village and from the trade that came to it from the Lode. Other trades were carried on as well - ample evidence of a well-balanced community. In the 1970's the total on the electoral roll barely bettered 150. In the twenties, so I was told, at least one delightful cruck cottage (now replaced by a modern house) had simply been occupied by squatters, and nobody cared. In the sixties, properties lay empty or derelict; and it made more economic sense to let a XVIlth century timber framed cottage burn down and free the land than to call the fire brigade. This is only a third of a century ago. The building of the council houses did have one important benefit: it anchored families in the village who might well have moved right away.

But without the provision of a good bus service and, later, car ownership those families could not have found work; for there was less and less work in the village. The agricultural depression of the thirties was so severe that many farms laid off workers and never took them on again: one man I knew scraped a living for his family by the laborious job of digging up horseradish root from the road verges, and sending it off by rail to London: he was paid half a crown per half-hundredweight sack. Each must have taken him more than a day to fill. The trade brought by the Fair and the waterway disappeared, and the barns built to house the goods in transit fell down. The mechanisation of farming in the last fifty years has led to farms that employed a score of men being run by just two or three. The net result was a village community that had to seek its employment outside; and although the village is now growing faster than it has ever done, that trend away from work on the land within it cannot but continue.


Reach, first mentioned in 1086, but much older than that, has no more than any other place been immune to change. Just at the moment the change is faster than at any time in the past - in the nature of the village, its relative wealth, its landscape, and its housing. Its appearance has recently been altered by the planting of a wood on the hill where the clunch was mined, and by the setting up of a Nature reserve where once rows of sugarbeet spread their polished leaves to the winter rain. A few sheep are back in the village, and the horseflesh one sees around is better quality than most – but the old folk would have sneered at a beast so useless for pulling a cart or plough. Reach could so easily become just another dormitory village, where people have few roots. Yet the links with twenty or more centuries are there for those who look for them. I turn up a flint arrowhead in my allotment, and as I hold it I think that the man who all those centuries ago loosed it from his bow sweated at that same stiff clay as I do now and as others will after me. I look at the Enclosure map, and see it littered with names like Harding, Boutle, Bowyer, Mason, Allix, Galley, Adams. Those families are gone; but Robert Galley built my house in 1848, and I turned up a stone in my garden with his name on it some years back. I hope we build as well as our fathers did. We have not so much inherited this place from our fathers as hold it in trust for our children.


Draft OS map of 1811, published 1836
Enclosure map of c.l802
H. C. Darby, Historical Geography of England before 1800 (Cambridge, 1961)
S. Hocking, Fen-edge Settlements, (unpublished dissertation, University of Durham, 1985)
T. Malim, et al., "New Evidence on the Cambridge Dykes and Worsted Street Roman Road", Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, Vol. LXXXV (1996)
E. Porter, Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore (London, 1969)
O. Rackham, History of the Countryside (London, 1986)
Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, Northeast Cambridgeshire (London, 1972)
C. Taylor, The Cambridgeshire Landscape (London, 1973)
J. Wentworth Day, History of the Fens (London, 1970)
J. K. Wilson, Fenland Barge Traffic, (Kettering, 1972)

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