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What Did The Romans Ever Do for Arbury? Jim Smith

Our trusty old Arbury map showing location details before the Manor Farm was established. The red line, inserted by Jim Smith, indicates the course of the Roman road - Akeman Street or the Mere Way. The land north of Arbury Road was the Arbury or Harborough Meadows, Arbury/Harborough furlongs and Arbury Camp, King's Hedges was in its original position, north of the railway (now guided busway) and Arbury Road ran from the Ely/Milton Road to the Histon/Cambridge Road - as it did until the late 1970s.

Introduction - by the Arbury Archivists

Jim Smith is a local history researcher and a good friend of the Arbury Cambridge Blog. He has been researching Roman finds in the historic Arbury area and has written this article for us. We are most grateful! He follows the adventures of those who scraped away centuries of soil to reveal ancient findings beneath. 

Of course, as always, we deal with historic Arbury here, not council planners' estates or electoral wards, which are both prone to boundary changes.

Historically, King's Hedges was a fifty-eight acre farm north of the guided busway, and the fields north of Arbury Road by Arbury Camp and Arbury Camp Farm were known as the Arbury/Harborough Meadows. Harborough? This was a variation on the Arbury name. Both names were in use until the late 1800s. The 'King's Hedges' name was imported into the North Arbury area by council planners in the 1960s and 1970s. King's Hedges School is actually not in the historic King's Hedges acres. Things like this can lead to confusion for local history researchers. 

King's Hedges Road was, until the late 1970s, a road leading north of the railway tracks (guided busway) to the original King's Hedges - the farm - as shown on our maps. The road was redirected and extended across the Arbury Meadows in the late 1970s as part of the A14 development, and lopped off the original end of Arbury Road at the Histon/Cambridge Road junction. 

The 'Arbury' name spread over a period of many years amongst people living in the area. The ancient earthwork was very much a local landmark.
 
Arbury history was thoroughly researched in a primary schools' project in 1980, led by historian Sallie Purkis, which was followed by a book, 'Arbury Is Where We Live', in 1981. The council planners' 'King's Hedges' was already gearing up at that time, and had been since the 1960s, but the book correctly states that the area, historically, is Arbury.

So, whether you refer to the area north of Arbury Road as 'North Arbury' or 'King's Hedges', or regard the historic Arbury area of the King's Hedges electoral ward as a sub-district of Arbury (the City Council's Arbury Ward originally ran from Carlton Way to King's Hedges Road), we are simply presenting local history.

Our two maps show the position of the Arbury/Harborough Meadows, Manor Farm and the original King's Hedges. The red line in all three maps featured in this blog post indicates the course of the Akeman Street/Mere Way Roman road across the historic Arbury area. The Manor Farm was formed some time after the 1840 Chesterton enclosures. This map features the field names from the 1909 sales particulars for Manor Farm and King's Hedges. Using our two maps, and Jim's map of the modern day area, you can place the finds discovered by archaeologists and relate them to field names, farms and so on before the modern estate was built.

Our explanations complete, it's our great pleasure to hand you over to Jim:

What Did The Romans Ever Do for Arbury?

Arbury people (Arburiani, perhaps?) have known for 70 years that the Romans were in their streets in 130 CE. Andy has written about Roman Arbury elsewhere in this blog and it was well covered 40 years ago in Arbury Is Where We Live! He quickly accepted my offer to write a bit more about the villa and the stone coffins that were dug up in 1952. Little did I realise I’d find so many records of finds varying in size from a single coin in an Arbury Road garden to the villa itself, so I decided to plot them on a street plan of Arbury.

The amount of new road building and housing and other developments around Cambridge means new sites regularly come to light. Those revealed in Aragon Close and Sackville Close during 2023 meant I had to revise the map just when I thought I’d finished it. So here it is.

The course of the Roman road - Akeman Street or Mere Way - is marked by the red line.


In 410 CE, nearly 370 years after occupying Britain in 43, the Romans left behind in Arbury pottery, coins, food, houses, stone coffins and other burials, cremations, kilns, hearths, earthworks, a villa with under-floor heating, and another dwelling, all clustered around a road, and mostly dated from 130 CE. This map shows 31 of the Roman sites that have been found. I have included the pre-Roman, Iron-Age Arbury Camp, because it’s too big to ignore. And anyway, the Romans dropped their old plates and small change there.

The villa in Northfield Avenue, the dwelling and cemetery near Fortescue and Humphreys Roads, and the Roman road known as Akeman Street or Mere Way, are the major discoveries. All this is in the context of Roman settlements around Cambridge, of Roman Britain as a whole and of the camp/town of Duroliponte, controlling the river crossing from our Shire Hall site a mile from Arbury Road.

The Roman Road

Akeman Street came from Wimpole to the south-west and crossed the road which ran north-west to Godmanchester and south-east (walkable from the Gog Magog Hills to Horseheath), probably to Colchester.

Marked in red on the map, and not on the line of the nearby street of that name, Akeman Street left Duroliponte near to Clare Street. It runs north-north-east near Stretten Avenue, along Carlton Way and on through North Arbury to Cambridge Regional College. From there it can be followed on foot past King's Hedges to Landbeach and then on the A10 to Chittering. It is assumed that it went on past Downham Market to the Norfolk coast, probably to Brancaster.

The Roman Coffins

On 19 August 1952 the mechanical digger operated by W. Sindall Ltd. (Builders and Contractors) struck the lid of a massive stone coffin when making a trench for the fresh-water main on the south side of Road No. 3 (Fortescue Road) of the City building-estate at Arbury Road.

 That’s the beginning of the report by archaeologist Clare Fell. How exciting it must have been for her to visit on the following day! Her visit is vividly recalled by Evelyn Samuel on page 4 of Arbury Is Where We Live! And Lisa Aylett remembered when Mr Cowell from the building contractor visited her school. The coffins are at number 23 on the map. The first one, Burial 1 in the report, was surrounded by the foundations of what must have been a tomb chamber, about 13 feet by 16 feet. It was lined with lead and contained the skeleton of a man.

One of the coffins revealed in the ground in 1952 (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

 There were four other skeletons which had been in wooden coffins, and another stone coffin which was designated Burial 4, but Clare Fell sadly notes: ‘The cranium of Burial 5 was unfortunately removed, presumably by children, on Sunday, 24 August, when no work was carried out and the site could not be supervised.’

 The Burial 4 coffin was also lead lined and it contained the skeleton of a woman aged 40 to 55, some fragments of her woollen shroud, and the bones of a shrew and a mouse. She’s now known to be from the Iberian peninsula – Spain or Portugal, that is. It’s on display in the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Downing Street – it’s free, so go and see it!

 

The shrew and mouse bones from Burial 4, on display in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Downing Street, Cambridge (Jim Smith)


Burial 4, on display in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Downing Street, Cambridge (Jim Smith)

The Roman Villa

 This is under King’s Hedges Primary School in Northfield Avenue, at numbers 13-15 on the map. Excavations in 1951-1952, 1965-1969, and 1994-1995 revealed this substantial dwelling, built and rebuilt in phases from the second century to the fourth. The site had been occupied from the Iron Age. Archaeologists found fragments of roofing and flue tiles, coarse red and white tesserae (bits of mosaic), wall plaster and foundations. There was pottery from the third and fourth centuries. And it had a hypocaust – Roman under-floor central heating.

 Archaeologist David Trump visited to tell Arbury children about all this – another event recorded in Arbury Is Where We Live! Stephanie Boyd writes about the villa in her book, The Story of Cambridge – there’s a new edition of it out this month and Andy mentioned the first edition, with its picture of the villa, here

Stephanie Boyd, 'The Story of Cambridge', first edition.

'Cambridge News', 1969: the Roman Villa discovered in a North Arbury field - and much more. The modern road on the site is called Northfield Avenue.

'Arbury Is Where We Live!', 1981.

Sources

 How do I know all this? Well, Andy pointed me to the archaeologists’ reports from the 1960s and 1970s and I found some of them in the Cambridgeshire Collection in Cambridge Central Library.

 Then, a well-known internet search engine soon brought to light more recent reports, a good example being the description of finds discovered when the Guided Busway was built.

 Archaeologists, as you’ll know from watching Digging For Britain, spend a lot of their time poking in the mud with their trowels and occasionally going ‘Oh wow!’ when they find something. On television that’s every five minutes, but it’s a hard slog. Then they have to be brilliant record keepers too, so there’s a National Grid map reference for everything they find, faithfully recorded in their reports, and that’s how I’ve located everything on the map.

 The Heritage Gateway is another source of grid references, which friends at the Museum of Cambridge pointed me to.

 All that stuff is out there for you to follow up, so here’s my list of source documents and websites.

Alexander, John and others, 1966. Arbury Road Cambridge, 1965–1966. A Preliminary Report on Excavations at Sites AR I, II, III, IV and V.

Alexander, John and others, 1967. Excavations in Cambridge 1964–7: A Preliminary Report on Excavations at Mount Pleasant and Arbury Road.

Alexander, John and others, 1968. Arbury Road, Cambridge, 1968. A Preliminary Report of Excavations.

Alexander, John, and others 1969. Excavations in Cambridge 1969: A Preliminary Report on Excavations at Arbury Road.

Alexander, John and Joyce Pullinger, 1999. Roman Cambridge: Excavations on Castle Hill 1956-1988.

Boyd, Stephanie, 2023. The Story of Cambridge (2nd edition).

Browne, David M, 1974. An Archaeological Gazetteer of the City of Cambridge, 1973.

Cambridge Antiquarian Society. Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society accessible at www.archaeologydataservice.ac.uk

Dickens, Alison and Matthew Collins, 2011. Down the Line: Archaeological Investigations on the Route of the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway.

Etté, John, 1991. King’s Hedges Farm, Milton: An Archaeological Assessment and Roman Cremation.

Evans, Christopher, 1991. The Archaeology of the Arbury Environs, part 2: the Unex Lands and Gypsy Ditches Site.

Evans, Christopher and Mark Knight, 2002. A Great Circle: Investigations at Arbury Camp, Cambridge.

Fell, Clare, 1956. Roman Burials Found at Arbury Road, Cambridge, 1952.

Frend, WHC, 1955. A Romano-British Settlement at Arbury Road, Cambridge.

Frend, WHC, 1956. Further Romano-British Burials Found at Arbury Road in 1953.

Frend, WHC, 1959. Further Finds on the Arbury Road Estate.

Graham, Steven, 2014. Archaeological Evaluation at North Cambridge Academy, Arbury Road, Cambridge.

Heritage Gateway: www.heritagegateway.org.uk/gateway.

Lisboa, Isabel, 1994. Archaeological Desk-Top: King’s Hedges School, Cambridge.

Lisboa, Isabel, 1994. Archive Assessment Report: King’s Hedges School, Cameron Road, Cambridge.

Lisboa, Isabel, 1995. Excavations at King’s Hedges Primary School, Cambridge.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology database: https://collections.maa.cam.ac.uk/.

Purkis, Sallie (editor), 1981. Arbury Is Where We Live!

Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHM), 1959. City of Cambridge.


Comments

  1. I well remember the 'Arbury Is Where We Live!' era and the excitement of discovering the ancient links of the Arbury name. This is fascinating and tremendously advances the work of Sallie Purkis, local people and the Arbury primary schools in 1980 and 1981. Excellent work, Mr Smith, and the Arbury Archivists. I have bookmarked this site.

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  2. I enjoyed reading this. It's quite thrilling to see Arbury recognised as an historic district again. The various layers of occupation uncovered by the archaeologists over many decades are fascinating. 'King's Hedges' is, of course, a council induced red herring - a far less historic marker and belonging elsewhere. The council really should encourage the branding of Arbury as a place of great historical importance - it was recognised as such at the time of the Arbury Project and book. It can only aid community feeling in the district, as it did back then. Phoney boundaries and artificial dormitory suburbs benefit nobody.

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    Replies
    1. We're finding it highly satisfying to put Arbury history online. We all felt that something important had been lost. Glad you enjoyed the article. It was written by Jim Smith, who has also produced work on the Hurst Park Estate and Chesterton.

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