CAMBRIDGESHIRE VILLAGE SIGNS by Ken Savage
A survey of a countys signs will provide a great deal of information about its history, topography and industry. Villages that elect to erect a sign will include in the design features relevant to the place and collectively a pattern will emerge which will give a good overall view of the character of the county as a whole.
So it is with Cambridgeshire. We can deduce from several signs, including those at Benwick, the signs at Offord Cluny and Offord DArcy and Waterbeach, that it is largely a low-lying county containing several rivers. The signs in question depict the rivers Nene, Great Ouse and Cam flowing through a flat landscape. The county is particularly flat in the north and east, where the signs at Manea and Pymoor capture well the atmosphere of the fens which surround the two villages. Parts of the county are, however, more undulating. The Gogmagog Hills stretch from the Chilterns into East Anglia, crossing south Cambridgeshire in the process. The chalk hills have long been a source of raw materials, as the sign at Orwell illustrates. To the west of Peterborough, in the area which was once part of Northamptonshire, the land is more undulating and for centuries produced the stone from around Barnack which was used to construct churches and other buildings in the surrounding area, well illustrated on the village sign, which shows both the church and the quarry which was the source of the material.
In the past, windmills were used as a source of power, both to grind corn for the village and, in the fens, to drain the land. A number of examples survive in the county and are depicted on the appropriate village sign. Particularly noteworthy are those at Great Chishill, built in 1819 using timbers from an earlier mill, and Great Gransden, with the date of construction of 1614 carved on its beams. Both mills are well depicted on the signs of the two villages.
The nature of the countryside meant that during World War II many airfields were built in the county, mostly as bases for the bombers of the RAF and USAAF to mount their aerial bombardment of Nazi Germany. The fields at Graveley and Oakington were bases for the Pathfinder squadrons which used Lancasters to drop flares to guide the following aircraft to their targets, a dangerous practice which resulted in the loss of many planes and their crews. The field at Steeple Morden was a base for P51 Mustang fighters which protected the American bombers against German fighters during their hazardous daylight missions. Most of the airfields have now reverted to agricultural use, but the heroism of the men who flew missions from them is remembered on several village signs, including those above.
The rural nature of the county is apparent from many of its signs which depict some aspect of farming or agriculture. These include the sheep so important to the region in the Middle Ages depicted on the sign at Hardwick, the town crier at Eye who called out the villagers to help in pea picking in earlier times, a cornucopia of agricultural produce at Parson Drove, horse-drawn ploughs at Pampisford and Werrington amongst others, and fruit growing at Wisbech St Mary. In the north of the county, around Peterborough, brick making has long been an important industry and the tall chimneys which characterise it are depicted on the signs at Farcet, Gorefield and Yaxley. Perhaps not considered as an industry, but nevertheless employing significant numbers of people is horseracing which is centred around Newmarket in Suffolk. Many of the stud farms are in the surrounding Cambridgeshire villages, including Cheveley and Horseheath, the latter sign featuring the 1834 Derby winner Plenipotentiary, which was bred in the area. A more recent champion was Golden Miller, which is featured on the sign at Longstowe.
Industry, of course, requires the means to transport its produce to consumers. For many centuries the regions rivers provided the arteries by which goods were brought to and from the towns and villages. Flat-bottomed boats sailed from the coast to the heart of the county and the Romans were the first to extend navigation by digging canals. An example of this was Reach Lode, which gave access from the sea, via the river Cam, to a quay in the village of Reach, from where goods were transported by road to places in the hinterland. A typical sailing craft is shown on the village sign. More ambitious canalisation schemes were carried out during the 18th-century, including parts of the river Cam. The structures at Baits Lock are depicted on the sign at Milton, although nowadays these see only pleasure craft.
During the 18th-century some improvements were made to the countrys roads, which were then used by coaching services which conveyed passengers and mails between major centres of population. The Great North Road ran through the west of the county and coaching inns, for example at Buckden and Stilton, provided horses and accommodation for travellers heading to or from London. Typical stagecoaches of the period are depicted on the village signs.
Transport was revolutionised in the early 19th-century with the arrival of the railways, which quickly put both the stagecoaches and the canal boats out of business. The Great Northern Railway Companys main line from London to the north ran more or less parallel with the Great North Road through the county and one of the locomotives built by the companys successor, the London & North Eastern Railway, is depicted on the sign at Offord Cluny. The railway passes only a few yards away and engines of the type depicted hauled the principal expresses from the 1930s until the end of steam traction in the 1960s. The main line, now electrified, is still busy with traffic, unlike most of the branch lines in the county which were axed during the 1960s. Two of these passed through the village of Murrow, crossing each other over one of only two diamond crossings in the country. Both lines fell victim to the rationalisations and now nothing remains, but they are remembered on the village sign, which depicts locomotives of the two companies and the level crossing.
Transport history is not the only kind depicted on the countys signs. Cambridgeshire has been the home of several important figures in British history and these have been remembered by the towns and villages where they lived. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, lived at Brampton, where he had a cottage which still stands. Oliver Cromwell was born in nearby Huntingdon. Both attended the grammar school which stands in the town centre, although not at the same time! Cromwell is depicted standing on the mediaeval bridge which joins Huntingdon with Godmanchester on the south bank of the Great Ouse. Much earlier in time was Hereward the Wake, who is depicted on the sign at Eye, although the historical evidence for his inclusion is somewhat tenuous. On firmer ground is Helpston, which has included on its sign John Clare, the so-called Northamptonshire Peasant Poet who was born in the village in 1793, when the area was part of Northamptonshire. Finally, the sign at Great Stukeley includes in its spandrels a picture of the door of No.10 Downing Street, a reference to the fact that the former Prime Minister, John Major, lives in the village.
There are now well over 200 signs in the county, which contain much more information about the county, its history and its people than it is possible to describe in this brief survey. Full details and pictures of all the signs in the county can be found in various publications by Society members; which are described elsewhere on this website.