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Anthony Jennings: Medieval Bourne and beyond

Bourne Preservation Society EMN-151201-165757001
Bourne Preservation Society EMN-151201-165757001

In past columns we looked at some of the lost buildings of Bourne pictured in Dr McGregor’s book Historic Pictures of Bourne.

Those photos invite a further thought. What would Bourne town centre have been like even longer ago, before buildings could be recorded by photography?

Today, hardly any buildings in Bourne go back earlier than the 17th century. The oldest ones we see now, and even the ones we looked at in those articles which no longer exist, were replacements for earlier buildings. The history of buildings is a history of change. For one thing, fire was a constant danger and we know that there were two big fires in Bourne in the early 17th century. Medieval Bourne would have looked very different.

When we talk about the Medieval period, we normally mean the period between the 12th century, after the Norman settlement, and the late 15th or early 16th centuries, when the Tudors had taken over and a more modern era was dawning. In Bourne, only the church and a couple of stone houses now survive from those times, even those in nothing like their original form, and for example there are no surviving timbered houses at all.

Going right back to Roman and then Saxon times, we know that the early area of settlement was around the site of Bourne Castle and its moats sourced from Bourne Eau. Bourne began because of its water. The site for the market place must have been chosen because it was thought suitably located because of that early development.

One or two old sources give us some clues about Bourne’s early streetscape. We know that four streets radiated from Market Place, as the town developed. Those are the North Street, South Street, West Street and Abbey Road of today. By the time we get to the 14th century, an inventory of 1380 refers to seven streets, namely Northgate, Southgate, Water Gang Street, West Street, East Street, Manor Street and Potter Street. ‘Gate’ was the Viking name for Street, Water Gang Street was South Street, and Manor Street was the present Manor Lane at the top of West Street. Later, Camden, writing in his famous ‘Britannia’ in 1586, after the Middle Ages, observed that ‘Bourne has four streets, and out-streets from these’. It is therefore fairly clear that the extent of the town from earliest times right up to the 16th century changed relatively little, and was more or less the same as that of the centre of town now, a mere fraction of the present Bourne. It roughly equated to the present conservation area, except that most of Abbey Road and Eastgate are outside it. In all that time there had been little need for the town to expand very much because they did not have the huge population problems which face us now.

Since, as I say, the oldest existing buildings of central Bourne date back only to the 17th century or little earlier, it follows that they are on the plots of an entirely different set of more ancient buildings, themselves replacements for even older ones in their turn. It is tantalising but useless to speculate about exactly what Bourne would have looked like at any particular time before the 17th century. There is little doubt, though, that almost all of these early buildings were timber framed and thatched, many of them mud and stud. It is true that Bourne is close to the fine Jurassic Limestone belt that comes up from the Cotswolds, but even so, stone needed to be transported, and this was a very difficult matter even in places where roads existed, and there were very few, so no-one except a rich foundation like the abbey could have afforded it.

The town centre houses would have been of high density. Bourne would almost certainly have had typical ‘burgage plots’, long strips with narrow street frontages, the jettied gable ends of the houses facing the street in serried ranks, rather than parallel to it, like the ones that can still be seen in parts of the better preserved medieval places like York now. A good example of these long plots is seen in the garden that still exists at the back of Smiths in North Street. Plots like this would have been occupied by commercial premises as well as houses. The more temporary shops, the ‘shambles’ as they are known, would have been dotted around the town hall in the market place.

I mentioned Cuckoo Bush Cottage in my last column about the lost buildings of Bourne, and I illustrated its location in North Road. It stood isolated, some way to the north of Burghley Street, which was roughly where developed Bourne ended. The more detailed photo of this cottage in Birkbeck’s History of Bourne shows that it was a vernacular house of a kind that is difficult to date precisely, but it does gives us a little insight into how Bourne would have looked before the 17th century. Small detached houses with a little land, of which Cuckoo Bush Cottage is a good example, modest though it was, would have been outside the town. This was true of this particular cottage even as late as 1825, a reminder that the huge rate of population growth only began as recently as the early 19th century. North Road was effectively open country throughout medieval times and beyond.

As far as I know, we have no contemporary or early illustrations of those medieval houses.

It was only in the early to mid-19th century that topographical prints with views of buildings became popular, and these only show the buildings as they were at the time – I have not seen any attempt to portray medieval Bourne’s lost buildings in prints. There are only a few well-known prints of Bourne anyway, for example there is one of the Abbey Church dating from about 1820, which is of interest in showing the fabric of the west front and the west window before the alterations made in Victorian times when the window was torn out and replaced with three lancets. It also gives a tantalising glimpse of the early buildings that stood to the north of the church, now sadly gone at great loss to the town.

Another 19th century print is that of the Market Place showing the Ostler Fountain shortly after it was erected in 1860. More recent inventions like photographic records are also no help for the study of medieval Bourne of course, though, as we saw in earlier articles, they do show that even in the short period since the invention of photography, enormous changes have taken place.

For example, one of the photos in Birkbeck’s history shows the windmill that still stood at the junction of North Road and Mill Drove, looking south towards the town, with no other development but the toll keeper’s cottage in sight.

With acknowledgments to Jasper Jennings.

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