Home Page A field where past meets present and looks to the future 25/05/12

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Hart of the Matter

If you travel out of town towards Cambridge regularly you’ll have noticed signs of work going on in the field to your left as you approach the Spirit of Enterprise roundabout.


Most people must already know that this is to be the site of Haverhill Research Park, which plans to accommodate science-based businesses bringing employment to the town. Proximity to Cambridge is one of the reasons for the scheme, which would continue the necklace of such ‘parks’ around the city, including those at Abington and Babraham.


This is at the cutting edge of scientific research and development, particularly bio-technology which is already strong in Haverhill, and is one of the reasons the town is seen as modern and forward-looking.


For many years the only way for Haverhill has been forward. Even in the 19th century the Gurteen factory was ahead of the game in bringing in steam power and it has been the same at intervals ever since, most notably when the town became ‘pioneers in town expansion’, as it used to say on the gateway signs.


We did not look back because we had nothing to look back to. The recent development of new gateway signs eschewed any reference to the past, such as ‘a market town’ because, however much retro may be chic in many lifestyle areas, it does not appeal to businesses and drivers of the economy, we are told.


In recent years there has been a revival of interest in Victorian architecture nationally, sparked by Sir John Betjeman among others, and the importance of Haverhill’s 19th century heritage began to be more appreciated – again, much to the frustration of ‘business’, as we see in the varying attitudes to the listing by English Heritage of the Gurteen site which makes it so difficult to redevelop.


As for the ‘market town’ concept, that is generally dismissed because there is virtually nothing medieval left in Haverhill so people assume there never was anything. This is far from the truth.


Haverhill is one of the few towns in Suffolk which had a market at the time of William the Conqueror’s great Domesday Book of 1085 – the first, but not the last, time the town was subject to a survey.


If you took an interest in last year’s archaeological digs in Clare, you will have discovered that that little town, so redolent of the past and so picturesquely in tune with what everybody imagines to be historic England, in fact hardly existed before the Conquest, producing very little evidence of Saxon occupation.


Haverhill, on the other hand, had a well-established Saxon settlement around St Botolph’s Church, which stood somewhere behind Vine Cottages in Camps Road, and where a graveyard was excavated there some years ago.


And then there is the tumulus, that mysterious mound beside the final roundabout on the bypass heading towards Sturmer, which cannot, apparently, be excavated until techniques have improved enough for archaeologists to find anything. Its origin is thought to be Roman.


Back in the 1960s, a myth was propounded that Haverhill was founded by a Saxon called Hafor who sailed up the Stour Brook and settled on a hill. This was entirely fictional, particularly as the large lake called Stour Mere, of which almost nothing is now left around the aptly-named Water Hall in Sturmer, would have been the terminus for sizeable boats coming up the River Stour.


There was also a theory that Haverhill High Street was part of the Roman road from Chester to Colchester, called the Via Devana, and which you can still walk along from Horseheath to Cambridge and then drive along to Huntingdon on the A14.


This idea was supposedly exploded more recently as the road apparently petered out around Withersfield.


And that was where things stood until they started those little investigations of the field at Hanchet End in preparation for the research park. I have to say that, although I am no Stewart Ainsworth (he’s the landscape archaeologist on Time Team, for those who don’t follow that fascinating series), it always seemed a likely spot to me for people to have lived because it commands such a view of the valley.


The early indications are that there is evidence there for both Roman and Iron Age occupation and so a big dig will be taking place this summer to find out more. It looks as if there may be useful clues there to both ends of the Roman occupation – when they arrived and took control of the Iron Age tribes here, and also that mysterious period after they left.


What a delightful irony that Haverhill’s unfolding history, reaching back probably as far as any town in the county, should begin a new chapter thanks to the most recent development in its fast-moving present.


People like me, who find the story of our links with the past compelling, can only hope our headlong rush into the future will also allow space to honour and promote these historical connections.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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