History of a Landscape: Thriplow

By Dr Alan Crosby and Shirley Wittering
Find out how to uncover the history of a village by paying close attention to the landscape. Join Shirley Wittering and her colleagues as they conduct orginal research and consult with specialists to produce a picture of the past.
A coin found in the meadows of Thriplow 

Historical background

Image of Thriplow village sign
Thriplow village sign
Thriplow lies on a gentle north-west-facing slope in the valley of the river Cam. Land in the parish ranges from about 20m above sea-level in the north to 50m in the south.

A small stream rises in the village and flows north. Other streams form the eastern and western boundaries of the parish. The village itself lies in a basin formed by a hard type of chalk, known locally as clunch, which is suitable for building and from which plentiful good water bubbles up in springs.

The parish gets its name [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml] from a hlaw, a Saxon word meaning 'hill or mound' usually associated with a sacred site: the present church stands near a Bronze Age burial mound which is now ploughed flat but was once 80 feet (24 metres) across and 15-20 feet (5-6metres) high.

Standing at the highest point in the parish and capped with gleaming chalk, it would have been visible in all directions for many miles. Trippa, who gave his name to the village, was probably the chieftain buried within the mound.

'The earliest mention of Thriplow is in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts ...'

The earliest mention of Thriplow is in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts which tell the story of the Saxon nobleman Byrhtnoth, who in his will bequeathed his estates (including Thriplow) to the monks of Ely Abbey. After the Abbey of Ely had acquired the land at the end of the 10th century, the present village was founded, with the houses in the middle surrounded by three open fields [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml] , which were divided into many strips cultivated by the villagers.

Each man would have a fair share of the crops and a fair share of good and poor soils. Thriplow is mentioned in the Domesday Book [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml] of 1086 and by the 14th century there were four manors in the parish. The village was enclosed by Act of Parliament in 1840, when the great open fields were divided up into small hedged enclosures [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml] .

Only part of the story

Image of the old enclosure in Thriplow being measured
Measuring the old enclosures in Thriplow

The sort of local history we had found out was very typical of what can usually be found in existing printed sources [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml] . Such information has been gathered from documents by antiquarians and scholars over the past 300 years and then published in books.

Information like this is very important but it only tells part of the story. What intrigued us was that during wet weather, hollows filled up with water, revealing straight edges and right-angles, showing that these ditches had been made by man.

'I started writing down the entries relating to Thriplow and found the reports of accidents, fires, crimes and coroner's reports ...'

Were these ditches surrounding the areas where houses had once stood? It was these 'humps and bumps' which led us on a trail of historical discovery and the formation of the Thriplow Landscape Group.

At first it was difficult to know where information about the village could be found. One of the early speakers to the Thriplow Society [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml] was Mike Petty of the Cambridgeshire Collection, part of the main library in Cambridge.

He had card-indexed all village references in the Cambridge Chronicle a newspaper [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml] that had started in 1770. So I started writing down the entries relating to Thriplow and found the reports of accidents, fires, crimes and coroner's reports fascinating.

I went into Cambridge every week and the past seen through these newspaper reports became more real than reality! I joined a class run by Cambridge University's Board of Continuing Education on Local History so that I could find out more about this fascinating subject.

The physical landscape

Image of a map showing the roads closed following the enclosures of the early 1840s
Roads closed following the enclosures of early 1840s

The Thriplow Landscape Research Project started in 1997 from a different direction. Some members of a ten-week landscape archaeology evening course [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml] in nearby Sawston wanted somewhere to study in detail.

They were on the lookout for a village with an interesting 'shape', and about which little research work had been done. They chose Thriplow and asked me to talk to them about the village.

By then I had become completely hooked on local history and had a large number of copies [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml] of documents and maps, so I went along, armed with the maps, and was made an honorary member of the group.

The local history trail that we followed went beyond 'known' history, the history less often written down which would reveal how the local landscape revealed clues to the village's past. That is where the real detective work began.

The group began to devise their own historical investigation, trying to find out about the development of the community and its landscape. We talked to locals and give regular reports on our progress in the Thriplow Society's journal.

'I had long been intrigued by various 'humps and bumps' in the fields off School Lane ...'

I had long been intrigued by various 'humps and bumps' in the fields off School Lane and was delighted to find a group of people who were as keen as myself to find out about these unusual features. During the summer months we walked [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml0] the lanes and fields of the village, trying to work out the origins of the boundaries and demarcations of the village.

I coloured a map which showed the boundaries of the village before its landscape was remodelled in the early 1840s, when enclosure had taken place. This map was so large that I had cut it into four and had each piece laminated. This made it a manageable size and was weatherproof - the sun does not always shine even in Cambridgeshire!

During the winter we wrote up our findings and spent some time re-discovering the 33 lost roads that had been closed in 1840 when the village was enclosed. We had wondered why there were such pronounced bumps on the roads leading out of the village and discovered that these corresponded to the ancient, pre-enclosure strips of the open fields that ran at the boundaries at right angles to the present thoroughfares.

Ice Age connections

Image of Thriplow from the church tower
A surveyed field seen from the church tower

Meanwhile several members joined other classes to increase their knowledge - subjects included science in archaeology; field surveying; vernacular architecture; and several of us attended a WEA course run by Alison Taylor, County Archaeologist, on Roman and Anglo-Saxon History.

'We learned that a pingo was originally a mound of soil pushed up by the freezing of an enclosed pond of water below it.'

One of the group went to the Geology Department of Cambridge University to find out more about the origins of 'pingoes'. These Ice Age relics are features of Thriplow's soil and take their name from an Inuit word meaning 'hill'.

We learned that a pingo was originally a mound of soil pushed up by the freezing of an enclosed pond of water below it. On thawing, the cone of the mound collapsed, which gives the pingo its distinctive shape.

Pingoes can be very large, over 50ft (15m) across, but the ones in Thriplow are quite small about 9ft (3m) across’. In the past they would have been useful because of the water in them. We were slowly managing to identify the intriguing bumps of Thriplow.

Bronze Age clues

Image of crop markes revealing a Bronze Age burial mound
Crop marks reveal the site of a Bronze Age burial mound

We had learnt that our village's name was derived from the burial mound of a Bronze Age warrior, Trippa. This mound was no longer visible as it had been flattened during the Napoleonic Wars when arable land was desperately needed.

We were keen to identify its original location. To help me do this, I was given a ride in an Auster aeroplane by its owner, David Miller, whom I had met when giving a history tour of Thriplow. We took off from Duxford Airfield and I took a beautiful aerial photograph [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml1] of the Bronze Age site, revealed as a crop mark in growing wheat.

'Dowsing rods can be made of metal such as old coat hangers or hazel ...'

Crop marks show features below the ground. They are revealed by a change in colour or height of the growing crop such as wheat. If there is a ditch below the ground then the crop will be greener and higher than the surrounding plants. If there is a wall or building below the soil this will stunt the plants and cause them to ripen more quickly and show up as a paler mark on the aerial photo.

In 2000, the group asked Dr David Trump, who excavated the tumulus in 1953-1954, to talk to them about his finds. At first, he had not been able to locate the precise site - field boundaries had changed so much in 45 years - so he had got out dowsing rods.

Dowsing rods can be made of metal such as old coat hangers or hazel; they work by interrupting the earth's magnetic field to reveal anomalies below the soil. The site proved to be just where the subsequent aerial photograph showed it.

I talked to the landscape archaeologist Dr Christopher Taylor about the origins of the parish as other interesting sites appeared from aerial photographs which we then traced onto maps. This revealed a Roman villa just over the border in Whittlesford parish. The existence of this had always been known about as painted pottery and tiles had been found in the soil, although the area is yet to be excavated [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml2] .

The true landscape revealed

Image of the plane table used assess the gradients
Assessing the gradients with a plane table

There are other ways to gather data on the precise measurements, gradients and location of the distinctive mounds of Thriplow, and the group sought expert advice. They asked Steve Kemp of the Archaeology Field Unit of the County Council to show them how to use a plane table to survey Godson's Close and Squirrel's Grove (names dating from 1279), two of the fields with interesting humps and bumps.

'... we persuaded the vicar to take us up the church tower.'

A 'plane table' is used to map the area accurately and uses a scale to plot areas which are then drawn on paper using long and short lines to show the steepness of the land. It's sometimes the most basic of equipment which yields the most exciting results!

In the summer of 2000, we persuaded Peter Cott, who had a resistivity meter, to come and survey for us. A 'resistivity meter' measures changes in electrical resistance in the soil. This is translated by a computer into a plot. It is one way of finding hidden structures under the ground. While this was going on Jim and I covered the same ground using dowsing rods. The results were similar but not exact.

In order to get a different perspective on the humps, we persuaded the vicar to take us up the church tower. This is built on the highest land in the parish, with a breathtaking view over the surrounding countryside.

We took pictures of the school field we had been surveying and compared the results. We also 'aged' the hedges [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml3] by walking the lanes and counting tree species in the hedges. The theory is that that counted over a 100-metre length of hedge, the total number of species represents the number of centuries. The greatest number we got was six, representing the six centuries of the hedges' existence.

We continued to attend lectures, seminars and day schools, and met every fortnight to exchange information and ideas. We also visited other historical sites.

Mysteries uncovered

The Thriplow Landscape Research Group
The Thriplow Landscape Research Group

The Group have reached some important (though, they emphasise, 'tentative') conclusions. The humps and bumps in the meadows which had so intrigued us may be the platforms (level bases) of medieval houses running off an ancient sunken lane leading from the village green to the church and perhaps deserted after the Black Death in the mid-14th century, when up to half the population of England died.

The aerial photographs indicate that long before the Norman Conquest there were several distinct settlements surrounding the present village, but that sometime during the late Saxon period Thriplow was remodelled [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml4] as a single nucleated settlement surrounded by its fields. Traces of earlier boundaries, common in many other villages, are also visible in the village.

'We also discovered the curious right-angled twist in the village stream was man-made ...'

These include the pollarded (heavily cropped) ashes, which were used to form ancient boundaries. We also discovered the curious right-angled twist in the village stream was man-made and was probably formed when the wet centre of the village was drained to form the present 'nucleated' village, where the village lies in the middle of farming land.

These are some of the answers the group has provided, but the project is still in full swing. We are hoping to do much more surveying and have recently received a grant from the Local Heritage Initiative Fund to buy surveying equipment. The next project will be to make all our findings and research available to the wider world.

We want to share the fruits [/history/trail/local_history/landscape/history_landscape_thriplow_fact_file.shtml5] of our research and tell people what we found on the local history trail. After four years of engrossing research, steeping ourselves in many aspects of Thriplow's past, we realised that we had the makings of a publication and have set out to publish our findings.

About the authors

Image of author Shirley Wittering
Shirley Wittering's practical interest in local history was sparked by an event which occurred in 1987 - a gale damaged the barn in which local bygones and farm implements were housed. People could no longer see them and the owner of the collection began to sell the items. Concerned at the loss of so much village history, she helped form a committee to try to rescue the collection. She helped found the Thriplow Society and began to research and investigate the history of her village.

Published on BBC History: 2005-03-03
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