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Arbury Archaeology and History: Part 1

Imagine an iron age settlement. It is surrounded by a circular earthwork. People live here. There are houses, and pens for animals within the enclosure. Until recent years, it was not believed to be a fort. The settlement is larger than some, but believed to be very much the equivalent of what we now call a village - the earthwork simply to defend it from wolves and animal thieves. The earthwork is filled with water, and reeds and rushes grow there.

Despite the naming of the Arbury earthwork as 'Ring Fort Road' in the Arbury Camp Farm Arbury/Orchard Park development, the original height of the earthwork and its enclosed area were not believed to indicate that Arbury was a fort (compare to Wandlebury), and the findings of archaeologists from Cambridge and London from the early 1960s to 1970 discounted the notion.

Comment from Arbury Camp, Cambridge, A Preliminary Report on Excavations - by John Alexander and David Trump, 1970:

The excavations therefore tend to confirm earlier speculations that this enclosure belongs to the pre-Roman Iron Age and was not in use in the Roman period or later. It now takes its place among the remarkable series of circular earthworks of that period in the Cambridge region, two of them (see Note 1) lying within a few hundred metres of it. It is distinguished from the others only by its greater size and no longer merits description as a "hillfort" of any kind.

But more recent work on the site has found evidence to the contrary, and we will cover some of these findings soon.

Arbury Camp, of course, is the root of the Arbury name in Cambridge.

There is no Chesterton at this point in time. 

There is conjecture that the basis for Arbury Road came into being around the time of Arbury Camp as a track, connecting the settlement with the river, and other settlements, as part of an iron age network. If you follow the route of Arbury Road and Union Lane, they go towards the river in what is now Chesterton, at what would have been a good crossing point.

The landscape is very different from today - large amounts of trees, wolves and wild boars roaming free.

Move on in time a little and we find the earthwork is still there, but silted up and deserted. The Romans have built their own settlement on the land adjacent, and their road - Akeman Street/Mere Way cuts through the area.

There are less trees, more farming, and the lifestyle is altogether more sophisticated than the iron age development's thatched huts.

A grand Roman villa stands not far from the earthwork. 

'We have reasons to be proud to live in Arbury with such a rich history. People have lived here for thousands of years.' - 'Arbury Is Where We Live!', 1981.

But the earthwork is still very much in evidence and still referred to by (what we now call) Romano-British locals. It is very much a landscape feature.

Of course, it is not called 'Arbury'. The English language did not exist. We do not know what it was called, or what its original inhabitants called it.

There is an awful lot we assumed about the iron age people that modern DNA studies have severely shaken  - and the same for the people who came after them. The notion of a Celtic/Anglo Saxon Britain has been scrambled like a Rubik's Cube, and the fact that emerges is of something very different, far less simple - far more mixed and inclusive. 

Move forward in time again. This time it's the medieval era. The village of Chesterton has sprouted, the fields by the earthwork are part of the 'Royal Manor of Chesterton'.

The earthwork is still very much a feature of the local landscape, referenced as 'Ertburg', 'Herburg' and, according to the archaeologists, 'Herdbury' or 'Herdburw', in 13th Century documents. The name is derived from the Old English for 'earthwork'.

Forward in time again, and we arrive in 1840 for the Chesterton Enclosures. Before this, land ownership was like a patchwork quilt in the area.

The 1840 Enclosures regularised things, pulling owned acreage into large single areas. From this was formed the area's two farms - Hall and Manor - both belonging to Chesterton Hall.

Part of the ancient earthwork has been obliterated, but around half of it is still visible.

An 1839 newspaper report reveals that the area north of Arbury Road had already acquired the name 'Arbury Meadows'. The 1840 Enclosures map features West Harborough Corner (up by the Ely/Milton Road), North Harborough Furlong (up by what would become the original King's Hedges Road) and so on (see below). Harborough is a variation on the Arbury name. We had originally thought that the meadows were simply called 'Harborough Meadows', having studied the 1840 Chesterton Enclosures map, but the discovery of a reference to 'Arbury Meadows' in the 1839 newspaper report revealed otherwise. The names evolved as the English language evolved and were interchangeable. From Ertburg, Herdbury, Herdburw, and Herburg to Arbury and Harborough. 

The Arbury/Harborough (a variation on the Arbury name) Meadows, North Arbury/Harborough Furlong, Arbury/Harborough Furlong and West Arbury/Harborough Corner (by Milton Road) shown on our trusty old map.

The earthwork is clearly defined on the enclosures map, later being divided into a number of distinct plots. Later still, the land closest to and including the earthwork, then known as Arbury Camp Farm, was occupied by Chivers, of Histon jam factory fame, and became an orchard and poultry farm.

Manor Farm referenced the earthwork with two large fields north of Arbury Road - 'Arbury' and 'Arbury Field', two of the fields closest to the earthwork.

The Arbury landscape in 1900.

In 1905, geologist Professor T McKenny Hughes arrived to carry out excavations at Arbury Camp, confirming its status as what was almost certainly an iron age settlement.

The 20th Century saw many Roman discoveries to the north and south of Arbury Road, and more recent finds, confirming that this was an area that had been lived in for thousands of years.

Many of the findings were discovered during the building of the 'Arbury Road housing estate', and included Roman graves and the Roman villa near the iron age settlement in the old Arbury/Harborough Meadows.

From 'The Story of Cambridge', Stephanie Boyd, Cambridge University Press, 2005. The Roman villa was found in the old Harborough/Arbury Meadows, now Northfield Avenue, not far from Arbury Camp (see map at top of post) - and was quite luxurious, including a hypocaust (underfloor heating).

'Cambridge Evening News', 1969 - detailing the discovery of the Roman villa and earlier remains in a North Arbury barley field. Northfield Avenue was so named as a result.

Modern Arbury had begun to arrive, and the name was used many times in the area between Gilbert Road and the original (much shorter) King's Hedges Road, including Arbury School, Arbury Court, the North Arbury Post Office, Arbury Community Centre, Arbury Community House, Arbury Town Park and the North Arbury Chapel. The majority of these establishments were north of Arbury Road, which is where the majority of Arbury history resides.

Cambridge City Council planners began to confuse the issue by importing the name 'King's Hedges' from a small farm north of King's Hedges Road in the 1960s and 1970s. King's Hedges comprised fifty-eight acres, and the original King's Hedges Road, once a private road, led to it. But, from the publication of its plan for the 'Kings Hedges Estate' and the establishment of King's Hedges School in the old Arbury Meadows in the late 1960s, the council began to blur and confuse historic locations.

So, what was King's Hedges historically? The most likely explanation is one advanced by Professor T McKenny Hughes (who, as already noted, later headed excavations at Arbury Camp) in the late 1800s. 

A hedged hunting warren for royal sport had been established in the area of the original King's Hedges some time after the arrival of William the Conqueror. These warrens were used to trap and kill animals for 'sport', and the hedges were a visible landscape feature. In this case, as the Manor of Chesterton was royal and the area belonged to the king, these were the 'King's Hedges', north of what is now the guided busway, a well known local landmark, sometimes the visual landmark being accompanied by the sound of hunting pursuits within. Perhaps not something many modern folk will relish. In the early 19th Century, the 'sporting' tradition continued, with pugilists slugging it out there, attracting huge crowds from Town and Gown.

King's Hedges, which was never a district, was brought further out of its own strictly defined farm boundaries by the plans for a King's Hedges electoral ward in what was the North Arbury area of the original Arbury electoral ward - the old Arbury/Harborough Meadows. There was a sub-district of North Arbury near the original King's Hedges Road known as the King's Hedges Estate - the Council seemed absolutely obsessed with the 'King's Hedges' name for some reason - although it was poorly defined amongst locals. North Arbury defined the area (which was correct historically) and a lot of community spirit had grown up around the name, resulting in the establishment of the Arbury Adventure Playground, Arbury Carnival, Arbury Community Centre and Arbury Town Park, amongst other things.

The name, of course, linking back to the ancient settlement and its protective earthwork.

Historian Sallie Purkis believed in Arbury as a place on the map with a history, and was a major force in the primary schools (Arbury, the Grove, King's Hedges and St Laurence's)  project 'Arbury 1980'. This resulted in the 1981 book, Arbury Is Where We Live!

The 'King's Hedges' name made further inroads across the land beside the Arbury Camp earthwork when King's Hedges Road was massively extended and redirected in the late 1970s, from its original course (from Chesterton to north of what is now the guided busway) to across the old Arbury/Harborough Meadows and the Manor Farm's Arbury fields, lopping off the end of the original Arbury Road, for the A14/Cambridge Northern Bypass. 

The extension and redirection was sometimes referred to as the 'Northern Peripheral Road' during its planning stages. Few people realise that what many regard as the 'historic' King's Hedges Road is pure late 1970s invention and misplacement. The majority of King's Hedges Road now dates from the late 1970s.

Even more confusingly, as Arbury Road was vanquished at this point, Arbury Camp Farm suddenly found itself on the new King's Hedges Road!

All this, of course, suited Council planners who were, as already noted, apparently obsessed with establishing a historically groundless 'King's Hedges Estate'.

A brand new out-of-area stretch of King's Hedges Road lops of the end of the original Arbury Road in the late 1970s.

It is all very well to call things 'King's Hedges', but it can be confusing to modern local historians and has led to misrepresentations of the history of the land north of Arbury Road - including one lad believing that the hedgerow on Arbury Road (originally a field boundary) was the 'King's Hedges'!

The local councils further confused the issue of 'where is Arbury?' by chopping the estate in two in the 1970s and 1980s, moving the most historic Arbury area into its newly created 'King's Hedges Ward' and shunting Arbury Ward down into areas formerly known as New Chesterton, North Chesterton Ward and Castle Ward. 

The fringes of Arbury Ward in Histon Road, nearest the city centre, are now a short walk from the Shire Hall, but rather a longer walk to the Arbury Meadows - which now reside in King's Hedges Ward, which was not there, historically.

Arbury made it into the pages of 'History Today' in 1983.

Arbury Estate, of course, has endured some negative publicity and, in our opinion, became something of a 'whipping boy' in Cambridge circles. The notion of replacing the name with King's Hedges seemed attractive to some as time went on (although many were unaware of the King's Hedges name's origins!) but has come to not-a-great-deal as the majority of people still, correctly, identify the area as Arbury and the name change, adopted by some, did nothing to solve social problems in the area - problems that are on a far wider scale in the UK and did not originate with the estate.

As one Cambridge City Councillor told us: 'We're aware that Arbury and King's Hedges are often referred to as "The Arbury"'. Yes. Because that's correct. The Arbury Community Centre cannot logically be outside of Arbury, and ancient history cannot be rewritten.

The Roman landscape described on this modern display (hopefully not paid for by the taxpayer) was not in any area historically called 'King's Hedges' but the Arbury/Harborough Meadows, north of Arbury Road.

The Council was accused of trying to 'yuppify' the area, and push poorer people out, solving no problems at all, and, in throwing out the Arbury name, chucking the baby out with the bath water, as it had inspired great community activism.

The Council had positively fawned over community efforts like Arbury Is Where We Live!, but their plans for the area, splitting the estate in two and renaming the most historic part something unrelated, remained unaffected.

From 'Arbury Is Where We Live!' 1981. It was suggested recently to the Arbury Cambridge blog that there had been something of a disconnect between the Council and local historians as ward and name changes were being implemented in Arbury. But both City and County Councillors were well aware of the area's Arbury history, and out in force to attend the 'Arbury '80' exhibition at the Manor School in 1980.

The original Arbury Estate remains imprinted on local memory and is handed down as a clearly identifiable area - from Gilbert Road up to and including the late 1970s stretch of  King's Hedges Road and the original King's Hedges Road. It has refused to fade away.

When Arbury Camp was finally built on, the new community was originally to have been called 'Arbury Park', but people moving in protested, preferring the site to be named after the old Chivers' Jam Factory orchard at the poultry farm.

With the reputation, fuelled by the Great and the Good and the local press, of the Arbury Estate (and 'Kings Hedges Ward') their preference is, of course, understandable, although it is somewhat sad.

The outline of the Arbury Camp earthwork has been preserved at Orchard Park, although the late 1970s King's Hedges Road has lopped off the original end of Arbury Road.

So, that was Arbury and that is what Arbury is now. This is a potted history and we apologise for its brevity (the Council era, being the most convoluted, taking up rather a lot of space in a history spanning over two thousand years).

We are about to upload documents from archaeologists detailing what was found at Arbury Road (both sides) in the 1960s. These include excavations at Arbury Camp Farm, the adjacent fields, and surrounding area.

Please stay tuned!


  1. The chink of Earl Grey teacups and the meanderings of kohl rhabi and butternut squash enthusiasts up at 'The Hedges' (a minority but very snooty) is muted as they face the fact that beyond a council fiction and a 1970s highway they live in.... ARBURY!

  2. Another thing is the way Councillors glorify themselves. The road naming in Arbury is testament to that. Campkin Road is probably better named Manor Farm Drive in reference to local history, yet its named after an old councillor. Same as Brimley Road. Same as Peter Cowell wotsit. Same as Alex Wood Road. Alex Wood kept naming roads in Chesterton after locations in Scotland when he was a councillor may years ago, simply because HE came from there. It's appalling. Not only are we shunted around and forced to accept artificial ward names and areas, but councillors are only intent on glorifying themselves and forcing personal biases through 'our' road names. It stinks. We're like serfs, yet we pay for the council to exist and it's supposed to serve.

  3. When is Part 2? I liked this very much.

    1. We're working on it! Lots of scans to do as it contains the original documents from the archaeologists at the Arbury Road digs.

  4. The display is infuriating as it refers to villas at Milton and King's Hedges, as though Kings Hedges is an established historical entity like Milton. The Council wants telling straight - they only do this sort of thing to erase Arbury and appeal to incoming academics and moneyed types who don't know local history from a squashed banana.

  5. The Council does strange things. As the Roman villa was not historically at King's Hedges, it has no logical reason to say it was - except to reinforce its modern modular plastic units of governance. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and look forward to more Arbury archaeology.


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