Rediscovering the Varsity Line past Caldecote

An in-depth journey along the alignment of the former Oxford-Cambridge Railway between Cambridge and Sandy, taking in relics and curios along the way.

David Goddard, a rail enthusiast, sent Sue Day this link to a film tracing the route of the line from Cambridge towards Bedford through the Bourn Valley. Caldecote is not mentioned by name, but many people remember the line running past Old Caldecote. The line was not closed until 1967, by which time it had become goods only.


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A Greek Tragedy in a Cambridgeshire Village


Not so very long ago, in the 1970s, a tragedy reminiscent of the dramas written by the ancient Greek poets Euripides and Sophocles was acted out in the peaceful farming settlement of Caldecote.

As with so many dramas it was a family affair, and at the heart of the tragedy was a dispute over money, Greek money.

Many years earlier an elderly man of Greek extraction had bequeathed to his family a cache of Greek coins. At the time that the sequence of tragic events was about to unfold the coins were said to have been worth £40,000. In today’s terms £40,000 could be multiplied ten times to give a present day value of up to £400,000. The stakes, then, were high.

In the late nineteen-sixties or early nineteen-seventies a bungalow called “Westwinds” on Highfields (now Highfields Road) was purchased by Mr and Mrs Empedocles. The couple had plans to renovate the property and to create a butterfly habitat in the garden. But before the work could be completed Mr Empedocles died suddenly. Eventually his bereaved widow, Margaret, moved into the property. Of the couple’s three sons, the youngest had been killed in a road accident, the eldest, Philip, was a professor of chemistry and an educational film producer in the United States of America where he lived with his wife and children, and only the middle son, Anthony, then in his mid-twenties, remained with his mother.

Within the bungalow was a safe, and it was here that the cache of Greek coins had been deposited for safe keeping. At sometime over the next few years it is probable that Anthony removed some or all of the coins, possibly intending to sell them. By 1975 Anthony had become fixated with the idea that his brother, Philip, was going to kidnap him as a punishment for taking the coins. The matter must have been the subject of some transatlantic correspondence because on the evening of 8th December 1975, during a business trip to England, it was arranged that Philip would visit his mother’s home to meet Anthony and to discuss the ownership of the coins. Chillingly, Anthony prepared for the visit by purchasing two crossbows, which he loaded with deadly bolts and concealed in a roll top desk in the family home.


The two brothers argued through the evening and into the night. At about 2am on 9th December Anthony took one of the crossbows from the desk and shot Philip with it, fatally wounding him through the heart. In a statement that he made to the police while in custody Anthony was to say of Philip that “I shot him. He went berserk for two seconds, shouted and then he fell unconscious. I reloaded and shot him twice more”. It was Anthony who calmly telephoned a doctor and the police and told them what he had done. He was immediately arrested. A contemporary press photograph shows a small, slim man in a checked shirt, his face concealed by a jacket, being led away by two police officers. On 10th December 1975 Anthony Michael Empedocles, aged 28, was charged with the murder of his brother, Philip Basil Empedocles, aged 36.

At Norwich Crown Court on 1st April 1976 Anthony Empedocles pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of his brother, Philip. His plea was accepted after the court heard evidence that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The judge, Mr Justice Mars-Jones, decreed that Anthony should be detained in Broadmoor for an indefinite period.

There is one more victim of this Greek tragedy who has been silent throughout this terrible sequence of events. Margaret Empedocles first lost one of her sons to a road accident, and then she lost her husband just as they were planning to settle into retirement in the home of their dreams. Finally, she was to have one of her remaining sons brutally taken from her by the other. Having endured so much pain, and having seen her family destroyed, Margaret Empedocles died on 2nd September 1978, alone and without immediate heirs. On 24th May 1979 Margaret’s solicitor advertised in the London Gazette for claimants to her estate. If anyone came forward it is not recorded. The ancestral wealth of the Empedocles family was to destroy them and that, in the end, is their tragedy.

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Mediaeval hit and run accident near Caldecote


Example of a horse and cart – Archival photo ‘Soil Conservation in Huntingdonshire- Agriculture in England, UK, 1944’ from Wikinedia Commons

The following accident is recorded in the Barnwell Book and occurred about 1250 involving a monk called Alan:

A certain converses brother [monk], called Alan, purchased certain necessary items for himself in the wood of Bradele [Hardwick Wood] next to Caldecote and sent there one good carrying cart with two horses to the value of 60s for the conveying home those items which he had purchased. And, behold, as the cart driver was walking incautiously outside the wood with a laden cart, the cart suddenly tipped over and crushed a certain person, who immediately died. When he saw this, the cart driver speedily urged the horses on and fled home with the empty cart. The coroner, indeed in the manner of his office, made an inquisition and when he had truly understood what had happened he impounded the cart for the King and the horses as deodand. (If a thing caused a death it was forfeited to the crown and used for charitable purposes. This ancient law whose name comes from Mediaeval Latin for ‘to be given to God’ wasn’t abolished until 1862). But the brother Alan acted wisely and with the agreement of the coroner and the sheriff had the horses and cart valued by two legal men at two marks. Whence the same brother made a security from his own money to be released at the eyre of the justices and he kept the horses and cart in his own wise counsel.

There is a note in the Barnwell Book following this to say that the Prior of Barnwell acted with great prudence when the justices came to Cambridge to examine the case. It can be assumed that Alan was closely associated with the Priory and attached to Caldecote Church.

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Old railway carriages as homes in Caldecote

Railway carriages

Railway carriages

Many of the early occupants of Highfields lived in old railway carriages. Some such as the shop (by what is now Uniplum) were old Pullman coaches. Others were the more old everyday type coaches such as those in the photos here. They were extremely well built made of good quality wood such as teak and mahogany. The ones in the picture here though are still on a railway and are awaiting restauration back to their original form.

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The Cole Family Graves

The Coles were important farmers in the region. We know that in 1715 a William Cole was buried in Caldecote. He died in July aged 53. Mary, his wife died in 1731. Another Mary Cole is recorded as being buried in 1736. On 19 February 1701 John their son William was buried and on 11 October 1723 Robert another son was buried.

4-12 one of the listed graves 20 jan 2009

One of the listed Graves in Caldecote Craveyard

One of the listed gravestones was erected in memory of Elizabeth Black the wife of Simon D. Cole. She died in March 1734 aged 36 years. Three of her children, Eliza, Simon and Elizabeth are buried beside her.  Elizabeth their daughter was born but never baptised before she died in 1732 not a year old.

Another Elizabeth Cole was buried in 1731. That same year Robert Cole died aged 37.

Because families have the habit of naming their children after either their parents or their grandparents, trying to sort out which child is related to whom can be difficult.

We come across this problem with Simon and Elizabeth Cole. When looking at the records we find another couple with the same names, who also had a daughter named Elizabeth. However, with regard to the Cole family, we learn that sadly their daughter (also called Elizabeth after her mother) died and was buried on 7 April 1740. Equally tragic was the fact that her mother also died shortly afterwards and was buried on 17 April the same year.

Simon then married a Mary. They had a daughter, again called Elizabeth, who was baptised on 13 September 1750 and died June 1753 aged 3. This is one of the listed graves. She had a sister born 29 October 1751.

In 1745 on Sept 8 James the infant son of James and Ann Cole died.  Ann herself died on 24 January 1750.

On 18 October 1753 Hannah the wife of William Cole died.

In 1761, Simon Cole was buried aged 61 years. This is another listed grave.

William Cole, the husband of Ester Cole, died 31 March 1761 aged 46. This could be the same William who was married to Hannah and then remarried.

Another William Cole listed as from of Caxton was buried in 1764. It is equally possible that this was the William Cole married to Hannah.

The problem in tracing all the details is that entries in the records are often quite sparse. To make matters worse, with Caldecote being as small as it was, it is difficult to trace all of the details available. People married partners from other nearby villages and not in Caldecote. Often they were buried elsewhere.

A classic case of this was James Butler who was a major local landowner. We will meet him in the chapter on housing. As with many families, the same given names were also given to the succeeding generations. To make matters worse, with the high death rate, the same name was often given to a baby whose elder sibling had died as a child.

On 1 April 1782, Simon Cole married Mary of Kingston in Caldecote. Mary Thurley, William Hart and Sarah Cole were witnesses.

The next day Sarah married Joseph Tharp (Or Thorpe) of Holywell. Her witnesses were Ann Cole, Robert Mayes, Martha Angier and William Cole.  Ann and William were I suspect siblings.

On 3 November 1778, with the consent of her mother, Elizabeth Cole, listed as a spinster of Caldecote, married Francis Sole of Oakington. Ann Cole and H. Humphreys were the witnesses. We know that a Francis Sole had land in Kingston.  It would be logical to think it is the same man. (See below and the chapter on housing).

On 21 February 1779 the Soles had a daughter, baptised privately and named Elizabeth. She was followed by Sarah, baptised 13 December 1784, and Martha on 1 April 1787. William was baptised on 19 August 1804. He later moved to St Neots but was buried in Caldecote in 1856 aged 52.

On 27 February 1779 Jephthal Cole was born. A Mary was his mother. He could have been born to the Mary who died in 1818. The relation to the above Coles is not clear.

On 4 November 1782, Ann Cole married Thomas Main of Gamlingay, with Elizabeth Sole and William Careless as witnesses.

Mary Cole died on 20 June 1797 aged 73. She was listed as a widow at death. She must have been born in 1724. This is one of the listed graves. From other information received, we now know that she either owned or let the Manor Farm. This was up for let in 1782 and it was mentioned that the Coles had occupied the farm for 40 years. However, as we know of two Mary Coles alive at this time we cannot be completely certain. One of them had found herself in trouble as the entry in the Cambridge Chronicle on 28 May 1768 attests:

Whereas we Richard Papworth and Mary Cole, widow both of Caldecote in the County of Cambridge, having falsely and scandalously defamed the Rev. Mr Murrhall, to the prejudice of his character, we the aforesaid persons, on the account of the said Rev. Mr Murrhall’s dropping his intended prosecutions at law, out of compassion to our families do hereby declare the defamatory aspersions to be entirely false and groundless and therefore do publicly and sincerely ask pardon for our calumny and injurious treatment and  do faithfully promise never to offend him any more, contrary to law. Witness John Smith.

In 1805 in Bourn Thomas Cole, a bachelor of Bourn married Mary Sibley.

A Simon Cole died on 14 July 1812 aged 50. He had come from Swavesey.

A Mary Cole was buried on November 3, 1818 aged 68. She must have been born in 1750.

In January 1815, Francis Sole borrowed £150 from William Nash by way of mortgage using three acres of land in Caldecote and eight in Kingston as security. William Nash as we learn in the chapter on housing was the Steward of the Earl of Hardwick. This was land purchased from John and Elizabeth Mortlock in 1796 with Simon Cole of Kingston Wood. As Simon had recently died, Francis was the sole owner.

Francis Sole is listed as of the parish of Caldecote when buried in 1815 aged 66. (Thus, he was born in 1749). The dates tie up so, having married into the Cole family, he looks to have settled in the village. There were other Soles here too who were no doubt relations. The Soles have elaborate graves in the graveyard.

The Old Rectory, which consists of a house, an outbuilding and a 17th century cottage, lying just north of the rectory are the other listed ecclesiastic buildings.  We will come across these in the later chapter on housing.

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Early Prehistory

The end of the last Ice Age marked the beginning of the Holocene era. We are still in this geological epoch. In terms of human evolution, this is the Mesolithic period, also known as the Middle Stone Age. This is a period of modern human hunter-gatherers, using quite complex flint and stone tools. The earliest definite evidence of human activity in Cambridgeshire dates from this period. Extensive flint scatters have been found along the river valleys and fen edge, showing the importance of water, both for sustenance and probably transport.

Mesolithic artefacts

Mesolithic artefacts (most Wommersom quartzite) found during excavation in Stevoort, 2008 (Collection Prehistoric Archeology K.U.Leuven). By Vaneiles (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Mesolithic flint scatters have been found in Caldecote.

The transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic is marked by the shift from hunter-gatherers, probably nomadic with seasonal settlement, to a more agrarian way of life. The Neolithic sees the first permanent homes. Neolithic people cleared the land by cutting down the forest to create land for farming. This is the period when animals were first domesticated for farming purposes, and the first crops grown rather than picking wild seed.

Cambridgeshire has some extensive Neolithic sites with evidence of surviving field boundaries on the fen islands near Chatteris. Neolithic houses, where known, are rectangular, presumably holding families and livestock.

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Caldecote Photos

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Why are there so few early records of Caldecote people?

As we have seen, the devastation left nationally by the Black Death in effect created a revolution. Labourers were no longer tied to the land as serfs but were a wage-earning group. Ownership and its tenancy had changed too. Details of those living at the time are scant.

One reason for this is the fact that the clergy in all of its forms was particularly hit. As a group they mixed more with all sectors of society, were more mobile and dealt with the dead and dying. As this group was the most literate section of society and were used to record taking, their loss meant that records became sketchy. In addition to this, there wasn’t a legal requirement for records of baptisms, marriages and deaths to be kept until 1538, though many parishes ignored this law and another order was sent out in 1558 to reinforce the rule.

17th century parish records

17th century parish records

Many of the early records, where they still exist, are often difficult to read (See photo). The records that still exist for Caldecote run from 1604. The first is the marriage between Raphe Bagleye and Margaritte Bull.
At the time, not everyone living in Caldecote would be listed there. With strong links to the nearby villages, especially Bourn, we find that items are recorded in this parish’s records.

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Lottery funding?

August 2012
The Group have been as busy as ever researching and writing up their findings. We have applied for lottery funding to try to meet our our projects’ aims. We hope that we can receive the help we really need to build the archive and make the resources available to all.
More news of this soon.

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Busy Writing Chapters

The Group are busy this year putting all the research into readable text. We are working on chapters about: Crime; the Church; the School and 20th Century Memories.
The hope is to publish ‘The Book of Caldecote’. 
Drafting the text takes a long time as we have a wealth of research

Want to help or perhaps you have more information ? Get in touch!
What do you think we should include?

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