A Timeless Journey

Chapter One of Life Along the River by Kathryn Shreeve

Local historian and writer Kathryn Shreeve has been with Friends of the Rib & Quin from the very beginning. She has published several books on the area through the ages and in ‘Life Along the River’ tells the story of our river valleys through history, serialised into chapters on our website.

A Timeless Journey

The rivers Rib and Quin are features in the landscape that we all take for granted. We walk past them and drive over them without really seeing them – just accepting the fact that they are there, have always been there, and always will be there. But will they always be there? This is something that, on our watch, has become an extremely urgent and important question. Perhaps this is the right time to take a look back at just what the Rib valley has ‘seen’ through the ages, how it has provided a central focus for the communities that live beside it, and just what could be lost if its degradation is allowed to continue.

Extract from William Smith’s 1815 Geological Map of Great Britain
Source: Natural History Museum

So what do we know about the valleys formed by the rivers Rib and Quin? Firstly, we can say they were a remnant of the Anglian glaciation, and now form one of a handful of similar river valleys on our side of Hertfordshire that flow into the River Lea and thence into the Thames – the others being the Mimram, Beane, Ash and Stort. Due to the underlying geology of the region, these are classed as ‘chalk streams’, which are globally rare1. Most of them occur in Britain, with the better known ones probably being those in the South Downs National Park in Hampshire, such as the Test and the Itchen. However, this shouldn’t mean that the ones in our own county are any less precious.

Both of our rivers have their sources on roughly the same latitude in the north-east of the county, although precisely where depends on who you ask! However, according to the Ordnance Survey map, the Rib rises just west of the A10 at Mardleybury near Reed, and the Quin just east of the B1368 next to the cricket ground on the Cokenach estate.

The sources of the rivers. Image Microsoft Bing Maps

The Quin then flows south, passing to the east of the village of Barkway, roughly parallel with the B1368 – an old coaching route to Cambridge. Just south of here is Barkway golf course. At Biggin Bridge, close to the moated Biggin Manor farm, the river takes a turn west, passing under the London Road followed by a minor road at Cave Bridge, and then back to the east side via Stapleton Bridge. Here it picks up a couple of other tributaries – one from Anstey and another from higher up. This is all open countryside, with scattered farms off on either side.

Then we come to the village of Hare Street where the river picks up the two Hormead Brooks. South of Dassels is a small detour past Quinbury Farm at Hay Street after which it enters Braughing, picking up the Braughing Bourne on route. Here it flows west of the church, once a Saxon minster, and across the ford in the centre of this picturesque village. Just south of here it flows under the road once again, at what was once known as Griggs Bridge, to its confluence with the Rib near Ford Bridge.

As for the River Rib, having set off from the moated Mardleybury (possibly Old English for ‘marten or weasel clearing’) it too flows south. The road follows the course of the river all the way to the village of Chipping, crossing the A10 at Chipping Bridge. This road is of course the dead straight Roman Road once known as Ermine Street or the Old North Road. Just south of here the river detours away from the road, passing through the grounds of the Corneybury estate. By this route it enters into the northern end of the town of Buntingford – one of the many settlements that grew up along the Old North Road during medieval times.

Here the Rib flows right through the centre of the town, crossing under Station Road and on to Aspenden Bridge. Picking up ‘The Bourne’ on its way, the next ‘stop’ is Westmill, one of two Westmills it passes on its travels. Here it passes to the east of the village, between it and the A10, where: “it receives a considerable addition to its stream from various perennial springs which rise in a meadow on the farm of Westmill Bury.2” It also crosses the Prime Meridian for the first time at this point. Running through more wooded parts of the beautiful Georgian Coles Park estate, it crosses once again to the eastern side of the A10 at New Bridge, through more woodland of the Hamels estate west of Braughing and on to the confluence with the Quin.

Passing through Ford Bridge under the Braughing road, the Rib has now left the A10 to go past the old Gatesbury Mill, and flows to the east of Puckeridge village, picking up the waters of Braughing Warren Bourne and the two Puckeridge Tributaries, until it reaches the old flour mill at Standon, now converted into flats. Here it crosses under the A120 and runs through Standon west of the High Street. Just south of here it flows by the old Paper Mill and then makes a turn to the east around Standon Lordship – the house built by the Tudor statesman, Sir Ralph Sadleir, only parts of which still survive.

From here it wiggles its way through the Lordship’s meadows, where the river makes a number of tight turns. It is in this way that the river has gradually changed its course in places over the millennia, creating meanders and oxbow lakes, which can still be seen today.

Lordship’s meadows, Standon. Image Google Earth

It then flows past the hamlet of Latchford and the Arches Hall estate, and on to Barwick hamlet where it picks up the Barwick Tributary. At Great Barwick Manor and Barwick Ford it is crossed by the footpath called the Harcamlow Way which has run parallel with it from Standon village. Going due south once again it passes Sawtrees Farm and, wiggling on, it turns west past Cold Christmas on the south and the medieval house called Fabdens on the north, re-crossing the Harcamlow Way and the Meridian line once again. The old Thundridge church is next with the remnants of the moated Thundridge Bury on the south, and the sizeable Youngsbury estate on the north. Passing under the A10 again it squeezes its way between Thundridge and Wadesmill villages and out into a quieter valley where it is joined by the Chelsing Tributary.

Anchor Lane now runs parallel to the river, with the old Poles Park estate (now Hanbury Manor) to the east, and having passed under the A602 from Ware to Stevenage, it turns due south by the Westmill farm fishing lakes. Continuing south round Ware Park it comes to the outskirts of Bengeo, and passing close to the Grade II* listed Bengeo Hall, arrives at the River Lea having run for 31 kilometres. As we shall see in later chapters, every place along the route of these rivers has its own story to tell and its own amazing history, whether it be a fully-fledged town or just a single farm house, and whether the people there were rich or poor.

So where do the two rivers get their names? Various suggestions have been put forward over the centuries, so we will stick to the more recent ones. For the Rib, one possibility is that rib was an old East Anglian word for watercress – Hertfordshire having historically been a chief supplier of this crop, and to which we will return later. Secondly, and arguably the more plausible, is that it comes from the Old English rithe (with various spellings) meaning a small stream. This is also thought to be the derivation for the place-name Reed, close to where the Rib rises. The earliest written reference found so far has been a late 12th century charter which calls it a river, followed by another reference in the 13th century which refers to it as ‘a stream called Ribbe’.

`King Stephen
(1096 -1154)

The word Quin, however, has a later derivation, and is thought to come from the name of the manor of Queenbury in Braughing Parish, through which the river flows. The name of the manor itself derives from Queen Maud, wife of King Stephen, who granted the lands to the Queen’s chamberlain, Hubert de Anstey, back in the mid-12th century. However, in a 13th century deed, the river was still being called le Burne, so it may have taken a while for the name to catch on.

In many cases rivers have been used as a handy way of forming boundaries. This was probably the case in the distant past for tribal areas, but some still exist today, and in several places along our own rivers they separate one parish from another, such as between Barkway and Nuthampstead, and Barkway and Anstey parishes on the upper reaches of the Quin. They can of course also act as barriers: in Braughing, where the river runs through the village, one resident remembers: “I was surprised the people that lived up Green End didn’t know anything about the people in New Road – it’s called Friars Road now. The lack of contact – whether it’s the water that does it, I don’t know.”3 The same has been said by the locals of Thundridge and Wadesmill, where the river divides the two settlements.

Another boundary that should be mentioned is the one between Standon and Thundridge parishes. Since the advent of parishes in late Saxon times Standon had been one of the largest in the county, using the Rib as its southern boundary. It thus encompassed both High Cross and Wadesmill villages, as well as the Youngsbury estate and Fabdens. However, these places are all now in either High Cross or Thundridge parishes, and the river no longer forms the boundary. But that doesn’t alter the fact that Standon parish still has the longest access to both sides of the Rib, which runs right through the centre of the parish down as far as Barwick.

In pre-history, rivers could also be places of spiritual significance, especially where the water bubbled up out of the ground, or disappeared into a hole in the ground – how magical this must have been for early people who had no idea what lay underground! So-called ‘sacred springs’ are still well known in the landscape today. Places where two rivers met were also considered significant, and this may well have been the case in Braughing, perhaps marked by some sort of shrine. Is this why the Iron Age and Roman settlements developed here? We will never know, but it’s always good to sit by the river and dream!

In the next chapter we will look at the history of human occupation in the valleys.

1 See FORQ website for more on the geology of the area
2 Natural History article – see ‘Sources’
3 High/Nokes, memory of Lillian Allen

Blowers, Emma: Around Cold Christmas – 4th edition, 2020
Gover, Mawer & Stenton: The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, 1938
High, Val. and Nokes, Mary, ed.: No Washing Machines Then: Braughing People Remember, 2004
Partridge, Clive: Skeleton Green: a Late Iron Age and Romano-British Site, 1981
Perowne, Christopher: A History of the Parish of Standon, 1967
Plumb, Philip W., compiled by: The Archive Photographs Series: Buntingford, 1995
Rowe, Anne: Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire, 2009
Short, David, ed.: An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, 2011
Tott, Victor: A Braughing Countryman’s Diary, 2010
The Braughing of Victor Tott, 2010
The Way It Was: A Collection of Memories of Country Life in and around Standon and Puckeridge over the last 100 years, 1999
Hertfordshire Mercury, 26.6.1880: article entitled: “Hertfordshire Natural History and Field Club”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.