A Brief History of the Village of Caldecote


Don’t waste bread – First World War poster

The history of Caldecote is, in many ways, unremarkable. It is now, as it always has been, set among the fields of agricultural Cambridgeshire, a rural outpost some 10 miles to the west of the city of Cambridge. But if you were to scratch beneath the surface, you will find a village that has over the centuries been very much part of local, national and world events.

In one of the earliest accounts of Caldecote, the Domesday Book of 1086, 17 people are counted as resident in the village. Those listed would have been heads of households so we can speculate that the population at that time was possibly 80 to 90, taking into account family members and others living and working in the households.

The villagers mentioned in the Domesday Book would have lived upon and farmed the land towards the southern boundary of Caldecote, around where the church of St Michael and All Angels now stands and where the land slopes gently downhill to Bourn Brook. Although the church itself was not founded until much later, we can speculate with reasonable confidence that there would have been a place of worship on the site at the time to serve the spiritual needs of the villagers.

However, the people listed in the Domesday Book were not, as we now know, the first to occupy the village. Archaeological excavations in advance of the new developments to the east and west of Highfields Road at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries revealed that a thousand years before William the Conqueror, undertook his survey of his newly acquired realm, ancient Britons, Romans and Saxons had made their homes in what has now become Highfields Caldecote. They, too, worked the land, grew crops, harvested and milled cereals and raised animals. Evidence of Iron Age enclosures and Roman farmsteads has been found, hidden beneath the earth for centuries and now lying under the new roads and cul-de-sacs, bearing names like Roman Drift, Mill Quern and Samian Close (named after a type of Roman pottery) in acknowledgement of their ancient past.

In the centuries that followed farming continued to be the predominant activity in and around Caldecote on the hard-to-work and yet fertile clay soil. Remains of medieval field patterns and ridge and furrow ploughing patterns have been identified throughout Bourn Valley, still traceable in the modern landscape. In many cases farming tenancies remained in the same families for generations, although the land may have been owned by the Church, the University of Cambridge or even wealthy individuals who lived many miles away and who may never have visited the village or the land that was cultivated on their behalf.

Throughout the centuries, too, Caldecote, along with other rural communities, shared the privations of the nation in times of hardship. At times the population became sparse and villagers moved away to look for work elsewhere. In 1554 only 9 householders remained in the village although the population later recovered. The location of the farms and the pattern of the fields within the landscape did not change very much across the centuries, although the ownership of the land changed hands many times and Enclosure Act had an impact on the village in 1854. The names of many of the villagers are chronicled in the parish records, their births, marriages and deaths recorded forever in documents or engraved in stone in the churchyard of St Michaels.

Over the years the material wants of the community were served by travelling salesmen, bearing their wares on horse-drawn wagons; occasionally small shops would open, and then close, and there was also once an inn, The Fox, which is now a private house. The villagers’ spiritual needs were served by the church of St Michael and All Angels; although unfortunately for the congregation absentee vicars rendered pastoral care occasionally haphazard. The villagers were called upon to pay their share of taxes to the State and it is recorded that during the reign of King John the village church, and its parishioners, were required to contribute to the cost of the Crusades. Later the village was to send its young men far away to other wars; some of them were destined never to return. Memorials to those villagers who gave their lives for their country in both the World Wars may be seen in the church of St Michael and All Angels and its surrounding churchyard and also in Ely Cathedral.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century one of a succession of land-owners had the idea of dividing the land on what is now Highfields Road into strips 100 feet long by 20 feet wide. Later, after the end of the First World War, demand for homes increased and on these strips of land disused railway carriages and corrugated iron sheds were set up by people coming to settle here for the first time. The make-shift nature of these structures caused Caldecote to become known locally as Tintown. Despite this influx of new residents Caldecote was slow to gain from the advantages of the twentieth century. For example, mains water was not introduced to the village until 1945, and only then after a vigorous campaign by one local resident. Mains electricity came late to the village, and oil and kerosene provided the only means of lighting and heating for many years. Mains gas is still not available to all parts of the village.

During the Second World War, Caldecote found itself on the fringes of Bourn Airfield, which played a significant part in the air defence of Great Britain. The local school was then situated on the edge of the airfield, but the building had to be demolished as it became a hazard to the aircraft taking off and landing there. The school was relocated to vacant land near Childerley Gate before moving to its present location. Some current residents of the village today attended the school at Childerley Gate and remember it well.

Since 1990, much in the village of Caldecote has changed, to the extent that the part of the village lying to the north has been renamed and is now called officially Highfields Caldecote. The settlement of Caldecote around the church remains largely unchanged. The railway has come and gone, but the fields remain and Bourn Brook continues to flow, and occasionally to flood.

The old main road between Cambridge and Bedford that at one time skirted the village has been rebuilt as a dual-carriageway and now passes us by.  We have new houses and a growing population, and the school is expanding with new buildings to accommodate a new generation of children. We have traffic-calming, in the form of mini-roundabout and those infamous “speed-humps”, only some of which are to be replaced by less aggressive traffic-calming measures.

What would the ancient Britons, the Romans, the medieval farmers, even the villagers and settlers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all of whom lived and worked where we are today, have made of Caldecote as we see it now? We cannot know, of course. But what we do know is that the land on which stands the village of Caldecote and now also Highfields Caldecote has a long history of occupation. We are fortunate to have many sources to tell us about the people who have lived here over the last 2,000 years – the archaeological record, legal documents and Church records and photographs all help to tell the story of this village. Most importantly, the story of the village is the story of its people and it is here that reminiscences and memories of long-time residents are so valuable.

Caldecote Local History Group has been formed to recover and preserve the history of Caldecote and to pass it on to future generations. Our website will be written by the people of Caldecote and everyone is welcome to contribute. This is the continuing story of YOUR village.

Caldecote Local History Group

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