The mark of man

Chapter Two 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.
In the second chapter, we follow the arrival of humans to the valley and their impact through history.

The mark of man

The story of human occupation in this valley really began as the glaciers retreated northwards, leaving behind a treeless landscape.  As the climate improved, humans also tracked north and the first hunter-gatherers have left their mark in the archaeology here.  For them the river valleys were of huge importance, as the herds of animals they hunted also needed the water.  Trees soon began to cover the land, and as they increased in number the hunters learned to adapt from herds of reindeer in the open to pigs and deer in the woodland.  This was the beginning of the Middle Stone Age or Mesolithic Period.

In time these people began to build rudimentary shelters, evidence for which has been found in the Lea Valley.  These would have been camping sites, either temporary or permanent, from which they could hunt and fish from dug-out canoes and skin boats.  These were still Stone Age people, making full use of the flint found in abundance around here, and hunting for smaller animals and birds in the woods and marshes.  Their tools were of excellent workmanship, and also feature in the archaeological records.  This pleasant-sounding way of life was to last for several thousand years.  By about 4,000BC Neolithic people slowly started spreading in from the continent with their knowledge of stock-raising and pottery-making.  As time went on cereal crops were also being introduced, and by 3000BC the climate had warmed to about where it is today.

Over time the knowledge for making copper and bronze arrived with more immigrants, ushering in what is known as the Bronze Age.  By about 1,000 BC the population had grown, more land had been cleared, farming had taken off, and ditches and field boundaries were being created.  Evidence for all of this can be found in the archaeological records for the Lea Valley and its tributaries.  “Cropmarks indicating several Bronze Age circular barrow burial mounds, dating to thousands of years BC, [have been found] on Burleigh Common [SW of Sawtrees Farm], overlooking the Rib valley.”4  Similar cropmarks have also been found on both sides of the river tracking north through Puckeridge and Braughing.

Verlamion (St Albans) in the late Iron Age. The contemporary settlement at Braughing would have looked very similar.
(Peter Froste/St Albans Museum)

Copper and bronze were followed by the introduction of a much harder metal – iron, around 600 BC, and early Iron Age finds have been recorded in various places from Barley to Bishop’s Stortford and Hertford.  A high-status late Iron Age settlement was found to the north of Puckeridge that was contemporary with evidence of a mint, and multiple coin moulds have been found in the eroding banks of the Rib in Braughing in recent years.  The archaeology has also shown that these people were in contact with their contemporaries in the Roman Empire, so that when the Romans arrived in the area they were not entirely unwelcome.  The Romans of course were to bring their own customs, their own coinage and their own ways of living.

We have no way of knowing the size and flow of the Rib and Quin at that time, but it was undoubtedly much greater on both counts than it is now.  It’s highly likely that the Rib was used for transportation of goods in small boats to the Puckeridge settlement in the Late Iron Age, and then, with the upgrading of the original Iron Age trackways by the Romans, this also enabled the movement of their large armies.  Villas were scattered all across the countryside in our area, either close to the river or a local spring.  One example of a Roman villa was found at Youngsbury near Wadesmill, close to both the river and Ermine Street.

With the departure of the Romans c.400AD, and the arrival of Germanic and Norse invaders, occupation and use of the rivers would have changed once again.  These were times of tribal rivalries once again, but eventually life was to quieten down and small settlements developed close to the rivers.  We know from the Old English language that ‘the people of Br(e)ahha’  probably gave their name to Braughing, and that ‘the people of Bunta’ had control of the ford at Buntingford, as may Lott have had at Lottesford, now Latchford.  Thundridge, on the other hand, was linked to the Saxon god Thunor, whereas Standon refers to a ‘stony hill’, of which of course there are many in the area!  

Although the Vikings technically occupied this area – the River Lea being the southern boundary of the Danelaw – they have left few traces.  But by the end of the Saxon period the population of our area was already high, as can be seen from the Domesday Book.  “The recorded population in 1086 was generally 9 per square mile rising to 11 per square mile east of the river Rib.”5  However, Saxon settlements, such as Standon and Braughing, stayed close to the River rather than the Roman roads.

Standon’s entry in the Domesday Book

With the coming of the Normans the roads were back in favour, and the Middle Ages saw the rise of settlements and markets, such as Colliers End and Chipping, along Ermine Street.  The road from Puckeridge to Cambridge also saw the advent of places like Barkway and Barley.  England’s population was to expand greatly until the mid-14th century when the entire country was decimated by the Black Death, and it’s thought that the numbers didn’t fully recover until the 17th century.

Housing had also changed from the Iron Age roundhouses, through Roman villas, to more substantial timber structures.  The Normans were big on stone, but there being a total absence of stone in our area (apart from flint), they were forced to import stone from further north for major building projects such as churches.  For everyday housing, timber continued to be in use, and some of the oldest surviving houses here date from the early Middle Ages.

An additional burden on the major north/south roads here during the Middle Ages was the travelling monarchy!  Medieval kings were constantly on the move, and many of them would have passed over the bridges and through the fords of our own part of the world.  Once a more settled Parliament had become established, this tailed off somewhat, but even in later centuries many kings and queens, aristocrats and prominent religious figures came and went through these parishes.  Many had ‘country seats’ out here, and others just passed us by.  Everyone, from king to commoner, was obliged to stop for refreshment and to overnight somewhere on their route, and it was the inn that became the go-to place – even more so after the dissolution of the monasteries in Tudor times, as those places had also fulfilled that function.

Part of John Ogilby’s 1675 strip map of the Road from London to Barwick

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, known as the ‘golden age of coaching’, our main roads were packed with humanity on the move.  Inns at places like Wadesmill, by now on the Turnpike Road, were doing a brisk trade in both people and horses, and by then virtually every house along the length of these roads was turning itself into roadside inns, alehouses and taverns to accommodate the travellers.  In between these were crammed the shops and businesses that serviced both the people and the animals: cordwainers for shoes and boots, bakers for snacks, blacksmiths for horseshoes, saddlers, tailors, and the list goes on.  All life was here, and the river wound its way on past them all.  Until that is – the coming of the steam train!

Kathryn Shreeve,

All these once busy hamlets and villages ground to a halt, almost overnight.  And, worst of all, a large part of the Rib Valley was blighted by its own piece of the great ‘age of rail’.  However, it could have been a lot worse: in 1856 the proposed route of the line was intended to come all along the valley from Hertford.  “The Rib line was opposed by landowners including Christopher Giles-Puller of Youngsbury and the Buntingford line was placed in the Ash Valley, passing through Wareside and Much Hadham.”6  As will be seen later, it still came through a large portion of our valley, keeping company with the river for quite a distance.

In the 20th century even rail fell out of favour, and now we have the motor cars and heavy lorries still ploughing the same route north as the people of the Iron Age and Roman eras!  And in more recent times, the noise has been added to by the aircraft from Stansted Airport.  Despite all this, and the hugely-increased population, there are still many places in both valleys where you can walk by the river in peace and tranquillity. 

1 See FORQ website for more on the geology of the area
2 Natural History article – see ‘Sources’
4 Blowers

5 Rowe
6 Blowers

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”

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