Life In Old Cambridge – The Grassland Strip

WHAT was there 2,000 years ago where Cambridge now stands ? A bird taking flight from Castle Hill would have had below him a shining streak of waters, such as you see when the floods are out on the commons. In places it would be half-a-mile or so across, but if he flew north, Ely way, the lake would run into another and another, each wider than the last, so that by Waterbeach there would be a bay with waves chasing each other before the wind. Right away to the Wash and the sea were marshes, and a log or raft, put into the water at Castle Hill, could drift on mile after mile till it came out on to tossing seas.’ Cam and Ouse and their streamlets ran together into a waste of waters which cut off Norfolk and Suffolk from the rest of England, making them almost an island.

Out of the shallow water of the marsh, reeds and grasses grew thick and tall and made green banks on either side of the river. These banks sloped gently upwards and spread out into wide hillsides, on which might grow gorse and sloe and a few may-trees. Then among the may-trees might come a few birches, white-stemmed and dainty, swinging in the breeze, and here and there a feathery ash-tree or a thickset oak. Closer and closer grow the trees, big beeches and great dark oaks as the hills rise, till presently all light is shut out and you can only see a yard or two either way.

For many miles the woods go on, covering the hillsides with a dense coat of timber for many days’ journey till they feel the bleak east wind and the salty air of the North Sea.

Now between the forest and the water there lies only one long narrow strip of open grassland, a sunny upland by which men could travel in the daylight, leaving the dark, tangled forest to left and the shining water to right as they ran southwards from the bracken lands of Norfolk towards the warmer uplands that fence the Thames valley from the North winds. Look at it well, that corridor of grassy slopes. Some forty miles it runs, flanked by Forest on the one side, Fenland on the other.

It holds the secret of the life of Cambridge. Whoever comes sailing over the chill North Sea, land where he will along the coast between Thames and Ouse mouths, he must come inland by that grassy slope. If he leave ship at Lynn he cannot cross the marshes but must work along their edges to Brandon before he can turn west and south.

If he land at Harwich the Forest faces him, dark, tangled, full of beasts, and he must work northward to turn its outposts till he comes to the open passage at Brandon. And so too if a troop would find its way to the sea from Bedford or north from London, the Forest blocks the Way eastwards, the Marshes bar it on the north, only by Royston slopes to Brandon can it pass to the east and the sea.

That was the Open Road, ” over the hills and far away ” ; everyone out of East Anglia seeking his fortune in the world must tread the springy turf of the Brandon and Royston uplands.

On the sunny south-looking slopes of the chalk hills lay the pit-dwellings of the first men. To try to live lower down in the valleys was dangerous, for often the water would rise and soak the soil, and any huts or camps they had made would be washed away. It was a pity, for the grass down there was longer and richer than on the hillsides ; in the lakes too and rivers were many fish and wild duck to be caught by those who knew how, and so after a time men did try to live down there in spite of the danger. Leading down to the river was a strip of gravel, and here and there it spread out into a patch of drier ground, a little hillock standing perhaps a few feet higher than the grass elsewhere ; there they would dig out a flat floor for a hut, throwing the earth up in a little round wall into which they thrust strong branches to meet overhead as a roof.

The spaces between them they blocked with more earth mixed with reeds or grass, and thatched the top with reeds. When it rained for days together the mud walls began to melt ; then the marsh water too was swollen and rose. They were so often washed away that at last they found a way to protect their huts. All round the dry patch or hillock, on which their huts were crowded together, the men would dig a ditch deep enough to carry off flood water, and with the soil that they dug out they threw up a great bank.

Such a place, perhaps, was once the spot we now call Cambridge ; flat as it looks it must have stood above the surrounding marsh when first men built their huts there.

Beside the group of huts ran the Cam, a long, winding chain of lakes and bogs, and beyond it the sun would set behind a big hillside. If you could get across the water and scramble up the hill you would find the land still rising slowly as you went west away. Where the river ran round the foot of the hill it was easy to cross, for the bottom was gravel. A ridge of gravel began there and passed by the huts and back all the way to the grassland slopes of the Gogs. From the Wash southwards this was the first place where you could cross the marshes.

There between the river and the grasslands the first dwellers in our district, little wiry men whose ancestors had come from warm lands in the south of Europe made their home, many thousand years ago. They were very short, with long, egg-shaped heads, fine black hair and beard and sharp features. From the hill their keen sight might often pick out a troop of men and cattle, moving along the grassway on the slopes of the Gogs, seeking new pasture or going to chaffer for flints at the Royston pit, or northwards to Grimes Graves at Brandon.

Such a troop running lightly afoot soon beat out a track over the hillsides, winding here to avoid a rough growth of thorn-scrub and oak-tree, mounting higher there to escape from the muddy margin of a marsh or streamlet, and marked along its course by mounds raised to cover the bones of mighty chiefs or to guide strange wayfarers.

Such was the country round Cambridge in the New Stone Age and Bronze Age. To the north-east were the Brakelands (Norfolk and Suffolk), open common and heath. There the early men clustered around the flinty gravel pit or chalk quarry, fed their reindeer and the little, long-horned oxen on the grasses and mosses, and traded in cattle, hides, pottery and basket-work. To chaffer with them came other groups of the same people from the southern valleys. These had travelled along the upland Ridgeways from Chiltern and the Berkshire Downs, and even distant Stonehenge or Avebury, bringing beads of the beautiful Irish gold or lumps of tin and perhaps lead from Cornwall and the West.

These old grass ways of the stone users can still be traced and in Berks and Wilts they still sweep on for mile after mile over the wide downs paved with soft springy green turf and thyme.

For centuries the Stone and Bronze users held the land, learning by degrees how to burn the grass and scratch the surface of the hill. The original is in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

A few of them seem to have reached our district, for in Barnwell was found one of the pottery vases called Beakers which they made, and a few of their bronze celts or axes, but we don’t know whether they settled here. They were half-a-foot taller than the first men, and had beetling eyebrows and big cheekbones.

THEY were followed by wave upon wave of races from Europe, these newcomers too drawn probably by the wish to trade. Of middle height and beardless, with round bullet-heads, they seem to have been more ready to fight than the rest, or perhaps they had more cause, as each fresh group filled up the open grass lands and had to live nearer the river or to clear away some of the forest.

By this time men had found out how to work iron ore into tools and weapons, and had to build strongholds to keep their families and cattle safe. Tribe after tribe pressed into Britain between 1200 B.C. and the time when Christ was born. One of them was called Britons, and though it was only a small group it gave its name to the land. Coming from over the Channel they settled in the south and east, a strong tribe named the Iceni taking the land between the Wash and the sea. Safe against attack on either side, they found their only danger in the open way across the grass by which for centuries folk had come north from the Downs and Thames to trade and settle. So they planted a settlement at our fords of the river and along the gravel ridge to south of it, higher up, too, where Grantchester now is they passed the narrower streams. But others could do so, and perhaps wrest the rich grass and riverside lands from them. How should they secure it against all corners from the south ? On the chalk hill tops where little wood could grow except the beeches they built big camps, digging out the soil for 12 or 15 feet, and throwing it up into a great encircling mound on which they could plant a strong fence of timber. This would do well to hold the hill, but enemies could still pass along the open way below to the rich lands of Norfolk and Suffolk. They must bar the open Ridgeway. So they made Dykes of earth such as fenced. their camp-villages, but longer and mightier. Like the men of China or Babylon they would build a great earth-wall to shut the open entrance to the land of their tribe. From in under the eastern forest of oaks and beeches on the hills it should run out into the open where wind and sun played hide and seek with the cloud-shadows all along its sides. There the grass grew short and sweet and the Dyke ran on and on down the slopes to where the water of the Fens made marching impossible. Right on down into the water they built it so that there was no room to pass between the dyke and the marsh at one end of the dyke and the forest thickets at the other, and a few Britons on the dyke could challenge all corners from the south. Two such great Banks and ditches run close to Cambridge, the Fleam Dyke from Balsham to Fen Ditton still lies like a great grass swathe across the way to Newmarket and Brandon. Not one or two only were the Dykes, but four. North of it lies ” the Devil’s Dyke,” and to the south two more.

An invader trying to come in along the Way would first have had to force the passage of the Brand Ditch, running from the bogs between Melbourne and Fowlmere to Heydon on the hills above the Thames, then the Brent Ditch near Abington (then that of the so-called Worsted Street),’ then Fleam Dyke, and at last the mighty Devil’s Dyke, a massive pile 30 feet high from the bottom of the Ditch to the top Probably not a dyke; the old name is Wolf Street Way.