Cambourne is a new settlement and civil parish in the district of South Cambridgeshire lying south of the A428 road between Cambridge, approximately 9 miles (14 km) to the east, and the same distance to St. Neots to the west. It comprises the three villages of Great Cambourne, Lower Cambourne and Upper Cambourne and the current population is approximately 11,000. Cambourne has recently been used by government departments and in school geography lessons as it provides a useful case study of designing and building a settlement from scratch.
It is the largest settlement in South Cambridgeshire, with a population that has risen sharply each year because of continued house-building and a very high birth-rate. The recently approved planning application for a development west of Cambourne will add a fourth village with a further 2,350 homes to the parish.
Below are two articles on the history of Cambourne. The first is a short history while the second looks in more depth at the pre-history of the area, through to the mid twentieth centrury.
A Short History
As part of plans to build thousands of new homes in the south east of England, a new settlement on 400 hectares of former agricultural land, 9 miles west of Cambridge was considered in the late 1980s. In 1994, the Section 106 agreement from the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 was completed by the developers (MCA Developments), South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridgeshire County Council together with the landholders. Planning permission for the development was given in November 1996, and construction began in June 1998. The first house was moved into in August 1999.
Cambourne was initially going to be named Monkfield after the name of the original farm, which is commemorated by Monkfield Lane in Great Cambourne and the village pub, The Monkfield Arms. However, Cambourne was chosen, created from the names of Cambridge, the nearest city, and Bourn, a nearby village.
The South Cambridgeshire (Parishes) Order 2004 created the new civil parish of Cambourne from 1 April 2004 and changed the boundaries of the Bourn, Caxton and Knapwell parishes.
In 2008, building work began on Upper Cambourne, with the original estimated date of completion being 2012. The existing planning permission allowed 3,300 homes in the development. On 3 October 2011, planning permission was granted for a further 950 homes. This will take building work up to approximately 2018 at which stage Upper Cambourne should be complete.
Although a new settlement, excavations were carried out by Wessex Archaeology within the Cambourne Development Area which gave an insight into historical occupation.
Situated on the clay uplands west of Cambridge, which had seen little previous archaeological investigation, the results were important in demonstrating the ebb and flow of occupation according to population or agricultural pressure.
Short-lived Bronze Age occupation was followed in the Middle Iron Age by small farming communities with an economy based on stock-raising and some arable cultivation. The Late Iron Age seems to have seen a recession, perhaps partly due to increased waterlogging making farming less viable.
From the mid-1st century AD new settlements began to emerge, possibly partly stimulated by the presence of Ermine Street, and within a century the area was relatively densely occupied. Several farmsteads were remodelled in the later Romano-British period, though none seem to have been very prosperous.
The farmsteads that had been occupied for more than a millennium were still used after the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century. By the 9th century, however, the landscape was changing and people across Britain were beginning to move from isolated settlements into villages; to places like Caxton in the case of people living on the Cambourne site.
Dispersed occupation may have continued into the early 5th century at least, followed by a hiatus until the 12th/13th century, when the entire area was taken into arable cultivation, leaving the ubiquitous traces of medieval ridge and furrow agriculture.
Medieval ploughs destroyed almost all the archaeological evidence in the area, so the knowledge of this period is patchy, but it is believed the land had been turned into regular strip fields where villagers grew their crops. This continued until the land was enclosed and farmed privately in the first half of the 19th century and farmhouses were built.
A richer history of Cambourne can be researched at Cambourne Library.
See Before Cambourne below for a a detailed history of the Cambourne area.
Some of the Metalwork, personal objects – Brooches uncovered during the pre-development dig(s) for Cambourne
Images reproduced with the kind permission of ‘2009 Wessex Archaeology Ltd’ from
‘Cambourne New Settlement – Iron Age and Romano-British settlement on the clay uplands of west Cambridgeshire’
Before Cambourne: A history of people and their use of the area from pre-history to the mid 20th century
In the Middle Stone Age, somewhere between 82,000 and 40,000 years ago, a small group of nomadic hunter-gathers moved through the forest that then covered the Cambourne area. We know because they left a few flint tools in what is now the southern area of Jeavon’s lane. These were found by archaeologists (Wessex Archaeology) working on the preliminary exploratory digs before Cambourne was built. Much of what follows is based on their interesting and comprehensive report which can be found at eBook: Cambourne New Settlement.
This article is intended to give a picture how people used the Cambourne area from the ‘stone age’ up to the start of the Cambourne project itself.
2.0 The geography of the Cambourne area in pre-history
The key to understanding how early humans interacted with the area, which was to become Cambourne, is its geography. Cambourne lies on high ground and clay soil between the valleys of the rivers Cam to the south and east and the Great Ouse to the west, swinging across to the north.
The river valley soils are lighter, alluvial, types which drain well and are very suited to agriculture. In contrast, the Cambourne area clay drains poorly and is more suited to woodland and grazing pasture. Logically, the Neolithic peoples, the first farmers in the New Stone Age (about 12,000 to 5,000 years ago), preferred the river valleys for settlements. As the population density at that time was very low there was no pressure to settle and use the higher clay land such as the Cambourne area. Such land was used for hunting, gathering wood for fuel and construction and foraging for edible plants, nuts and berries.
Eventually the numbers of people in the river valley settlements increased and some tried making small settlements on the higher, clay land. These were probably small, family units using simple ’round houses’, or huts, about 2 to 6 metres in diameter made of a wooden frame, thatched or turf roof and walls sealed with a mix of clay and animal dung. The round house would have a simple enclosure for animals made from a roughly circular ditch and probably a simple, low fence made of sticks woven together. Not every settlement would be successful; the archaeologists found evidence of some in the Cambourne area which fell out of use for whatever reason.
Eventually, about 5,000 years ago in the bronze age, a simple track appears to have been formed, indicating regular passage of people. This ran roughly where the A 428 now runs. There is also evidence of a few simple tracks over the Cambourne area, showing increased activity here, but there is only limited evidence of people actually living in the Cambourne area at that time. However, by the middle Iron Age (from about 2,400 years ago) the archaeologists found more tangible evidence of simple farmsteads. Analysis of plant remains shows that the old forest of oak and elm was much thinner by then, probably due to people cutting the wood for building, fuel and to clear areas for farming.
With the arrival of the Romans (roughly 2,000 years ago) we see the further development of the track which is now the A428 plus the building of the road they called Ermine Street, now the A1198. These formed a cross roads just north of the area which became Caxton. Over time these tracks and roads played an important part on how early peoples used the Cambourne area.
3.0 The earliest evidence of people in the Cambourne area
The earliest evidence was the stone tools refered to in the introduction. These were dated to between 82,000 and 40,000 years ago. This was within the Middle Stone Age, or paleolithic. These people were ‘homo sapiens’, ie ‘modern man’. At this time people were nomadic and few in number. They used simple, temporary shelters and were constantly moving in search of food found by hunting and foraging. They clearly passed through the largely forested landscape which was to become Cambourne, but probably spent most of their time in the river valleys where much more evidence of their presence has been found.
By the New Stone Age (the Neolithic, about 12,000 to 5,000 years ago), we know that people were starting to settle and farm for the first time. The archaeology indicates little evidence of settled farming in the Cambourne area over that period. The ground was not as suitable as the river valleys and the population was so low that these early farmers had no need to venture up onto the higher Cambourne area other than to supplement their crops with hunting and to gather timber from the forests covering it. The archaeologists found evidence of hunting during the Neolithic, with leaf-shaped arrowheads at Lower Cambourne and Knapwell Plantation.
There is evidence that much of the forest in the Cambourne area was cleared by the middle of the Bronze Age (about 5,000 to 3,000 years ago), leaving a more open area of oak, hazel, ash, field maple, and willow, along with elements of scrub such as blackthorn and hawthorn. We know this from archaeologists finding dateable charcoal from camp fires in the area. We also have evidence from analysing and dating soil samples which can be carbon dated and show what type of plants were growing in the area at those times.
The archaeologists found evidence of the first settlements in the Cambourne area by the mid Bronze Age. These were simple round houses formed of timber, probably with with turf roofs and suitable only for small family groups. It is worth noting that the evidence shows that these settlements often did not last long; such small groups were very vunerable to injury and early death which often made them non-viable. It is only later in the Bronze and Iron Age (about 3,000 to 2,000 years ago), that we see evidence of smalll clusters of huts making viable farms which could survive the deprivations of life in those times.
By the late Bronze Age there appears to be a growing number of small tracks linking some of the small farms in the area and the track which ran east/west in the postition that the A428 now runs. Some still exist as tracks or roads, for example the Crow Dean bridleway and the Broadway. Lower Cambourne has revealed bronze age finds in the form of roundhouses, loom weights and a quern for grinding grains. Perhaps the brook, by Crow Dean bridleway, and the south facing slope of the land made that area of particular value to the early farmers. Similarly, through the late Bronze Age and into the Iron Age the evidence suggests a number of small farms settled on the south facing slopes of Knapwell plantation and Little Common Farm, all close to water courses.
4.0 The Roman influence
In this country the end of the Iron Age is normally taken as the arrival of the Romans in Britain. In fact their influence on the country, particularly in southern coastal areas started many hundreds of years before that, with trade. After the invasion, the Romans massively improved travel and communications across the country with their roads. In the Cambourne area the Romans improved the old track along the route of the current A428. In addition they built Ermine Street, a major route across the country from London (then Londinium) to Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) and York (Eboracum). This was a properly ‘metalled’ Roman road, carefully built with stone.
The presence of these roads must have helped movement of the local Romano-British people and at this time settlements start to grow in places on the Roman Road such as Caxton and Godmanchester. In the Cambourne area the evidence shows that the simple farmsteads of the Iron Age people were starting to be re-modelled in the Roman style. Farming enclosures tended to become rectangular rather than the earlier round or oval enclosures. These were marked by ditches and simple wooden fences much as before. Nevertheless, the local Romano-British population still appear to have preferred to build round houses to live in. The settlements of this period across the Cambourne area appear to have been mainly low-status, but those on the Lower Cambourne site show evidence of a richer life-style. These settlements also show evidence of longer continuity of use, unlike those which were lower status.
The climate in the Romano-British period was generally drier and so the Cambourne area became a little easier to farm. The area was also more open, with fewer trees, usually oak, pine and birch, but mainly scrub and hazel. Trees appear to have been coppice managed for building huts and fences, as fuel and for making charcoal; vital to making iron.
It is in this period that the archaeologists found what is probably Cambourne’s earliest human remains, in what is now Lower Cambourne. This was an adult female buried in a crouched position on her side. This indicates her people followed an Iron Age ‘pagan’ religion. Christian burials are usually indicated by the body being laid on its back in an east/west orientation and with no ‘grave goods’.
It is worth remembering that pre-Christian and Christian burial practices co-existed for a long time. About seven graves from the Romano-British period were found in the pre-building exploratory digs. They were usually on the boundaries of farmsteads. Their skeletons show they were strongly built but evidence of arthritis and ruptured spinal discs which indicated hard, physical, work. In addition to these graves another was separate, away from others at the area north of Monkfield Drive. This is interesting as it had no skull. It is difficult to read meaning into this. Skull removal after death was surprisingly common in this period, though far from the norm. In this case the evidence shows the head was removed after death, so it is unlikely the person was executed, but they may have been a society ‘outlier’.
5.0 The Anglo-Saxons to the Vikings
About 1,500 years ago the Romans left Britain and we see a mix of peoples from the continent, mainly Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands, moving into the east of the country
initially. These included the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. They mixed with the local peoples to become known as the Anglo-Saxons. There is evidence from the digs that the climate became wetter and that some of the Romano-British farmsteads in the Cambourne area were abondoned. Much of the area reverted to scrub land. There is however, evidence of these Anglo-Saxon peoples in the area. The archaeloogists uncovered a copper girdle hanger near the Grange on the Broadway. These were worn by women at the waist and used to carry items via loops of string or leather, for example small knives or simple keys.
By about 1,100 years ago the Viking peoples, infamous for their raiding, started to settle in this country. They eventually ruled much of the North East and Midland areas of the country. This included that which was to become Cambourne. The archaeologist found little evidence to prove continual occupation of the Cambourne area at this time. This is possibly due to conflict and upheaval. However finds indicate that the Lower Cambourne area may have seen some continuity of occupation.
6.0 The Normans and the Middle Ages
After the Norman invasion of 1066 they conducted a huge survey of the country’s resources. This was written up in the Domesday Book (1086). This survives and gives us a valuable glimpse into the state of the country and specific town and villages. We can access a digital version of the Domesday Book at http://opendomesday.org/. Of course Cambourne did not exist, but the reader will find interesting references to nearby villages such as Caxton and Bourn.
Two hundred years after the Norman invasion there is the first evidence of ridge and furrow farming on the Cambourne clay soil. This technique of ploughing was in use in this country until relatively recently and the marks it made in the landscape can be seen across the area. Nevertheless, the archaeology shows little further development in the Cambourne area itself, beyond a few farms, all the way through to the twentieth century. The Roman roads became major routes in the medieval period and the cross roads north of Caxton became the site of the infamous ‘Caxton Gibbet’ where criminals, usually convicted of ‘highway robbery’ were hung in chains until they died and their bodies rotted away. This was intended as a warning to other potential thieves and murderers. This could be something to think about when you next stand in the McDonald’s carpark at what is now the roundabout on the A428.
7.0 Modern times
Moving on to more recent times, in the mid 1930’s Cambridge University used the field to the south east of the Caxton Gibbet junction to establish a gliding club. The high ground with few trees was ideal for an airfield. The first glider flight took place from the simple grass field in 1935. Later the field was also used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) for basic flying training and, during the Second World War, as an emergency landing area for aircraft from other bases. It is worth noting that during this war the Caxton Gibbet airfield was attacked by German bombers and several RAF personnel were killed and aircraft damaged.
Of course it is the Bourn airfield which is the more obvious sign of the impact of the Second World War on the Cambourne area. This was developed in 1940 and became a bomber base for a number of aircraft types including Wellington (then Stirling) and Lancaster heavy bombers and light fighter/bombers such as the Mosquito (see below). It is interesting to note that the Upper Cambourne area, the closest to the airfield, carries the names of these and other aircraft based at the airfield. We should note that over the period of the war 135 aircraft flying from Bourn failed to return. Wikipedia reports that 648 crew from these aircraft were killed. It is worth noting that the average age of these men was 23 years. (Wikipedia August 2017)
The RAF left Bourn airfield in 1948. It has been used since by a number of companies and ‘The Rural Flying Club’ has continued to act as a base for light aircraft often seen in the sky around Cambourne today.
By the 1980’s the Cambridgeshire planners were starting to look at the area for housing. Building work began on the Monkfield Park area in June 1988 and the three ‘villages’ of Cambourne began to emerge. In April, 2004 the ‘South Cambridgeshire (Parishes) Order’ created the new civil parish of Cambourne.
It is worth reflecting that over the whole of the period described in this article the land which was to become Cambourne was never more than a few relatively small farms. Nevertheless, it is hoped that this article has shown that people have passed through and some settled here for many thousands of years. Remember that the archaeological survey prior to building started could only sample what was under the soil. Next time you dig your garden or allotment you might look carefully; the soil may contain items made and used by the people of the past.
Dr Howard Denton – August 2017
Cambourne New Settlement: Iron age and Romano-British settlement on the clay uplands of west Cambridgeshire. J. Wright et al. 2009 Wessex Archaeology Report No 23.