The History of Holywell-cum-Needingworth in Cambridgeshire

Historical notes about the town of Holywell-cum-Needingworth in Cambridgehsire.

The Village of Holywell

People have been living on the site of the village of Holywell from prehistoric times, through the Roman period, to the present day. This fact is evidenced by numerous artefacts that have been recovered as a result of building works or archaeological surveys in the area. To understand why we have to consider a time when there were no paved roads and what tracks and paths that did exist were more often than not impassable quagmires. This was a time when the river was used by the populace like we use motorways today. However access to a transport system was not enough and Holywell owes its foundation to the existence not only of the river but also to the fresh water spring that gave the village its name.

The earliest houses in the village face the river along a lane called Holywell Front that runs roughly to the west-north-west from the location of the former ferry crossing over the River Great Ouse towards the Holy Well and the Church of St John the Baptist. The crossing point over the River Great Ouse to Fen Drayton and Swavesey has been in use since ancient times with some references to there being a Roman ferry here too but whatever evidence of that remains is now lies beneath the Ferryboat Inn. There is documentary evidence that an Inn has stood on the site since at least 560AD and the experts think the foundations date back a further 100 years which would make the Ferryboat Inn the oldest pub in the country. The Ouse Valley Way public footpath runs along the common ground beside Holywell Front on its 26 mile journey between Eaton Socon (St Neots) to Earith.

Many of the houses along Holywell Front are medieval thatched cottages each positioned at the southern end of strip of land of about 600 feet by 100 feet running SSW-NNE. Another road called Back Lane runs along the northern property boundary where more dwellings have been built at the northern end of each plot. The random north-south division of the plots would indicate that these were not a planned development but ones that occurred independently over time. The formation of Holywell Front and Back Lane, the main roads of the village, with a strip settlement in the middle gives Holywell the classic structure associated with a Saxon Ring Village. Back Lane runs approximately parallel to Holywell Front to which it joins at each end but halfway along its length is the lane, Mill Way, which runs to the NNE towards Needingworth. There is another example of a Saxon Ring Village at Woodhurst a few miles from Holywell. Many of the dwellings in Holywell are of historical note and architectural merit especially those along Holywell Front, this fact has been acknowledged as most of Holywell is now a Conservation Zone.

The name of the lane, Mill Way, gives us a clue that the Manorial Windmill once stood close by. Nothing of the mill building remains other than some ground level disturbance in the field to the NW of the junction of Back Lane and Mill Way which marks its former location however some of the old mill's grinding stones were purchased by the late Cyril Asplin and presented to the village. These mill stones now stand in Mill Way near the Millfields Sports Facility. As Mill Way enters Needingworth by the Primary School the lane becomes known as Church Street.

The Manor of Holywell was gifted to the Monks of Ramsey Abbey by Alfwara who died in 1007 and was subsequently buried at Ramsey. The Manor was to remain property of Ramsey Abbey until the Dissolution. Further lands were transferred to the Abbey by Berengar le Moyne formerly of Moyne's Hall, Holywell, in 1286.

Moyne's Hall was later acquired by William Chaderton, Bishop of Chester and later Bishop of Lincoln, who was also rector of Holywell from 1570 to 1579 and upon his death Moyne's Hall passed to his grand-daughter Elizabeth Joceline (nee Sandes) when it became part of the Joceline estates of Southoe.

The Village of Needingworth

Church Street continues to the NNE to its junction with High Street, on the way it passes Hawks Lane and at that junction there used to exist a village pond, now sadly filled in and built upon.

The High Street through Needingworth used to be the main road between St Ives and Earith both of which lie on the River Great Ouse. It was the switch from goods being carried by river to being transported by road that changed the focus of the parish from Holywell to Needingworth. In recent times even Needingworth has been relieved of the traffic that created it due to the construction of a bypass to the north taking the A1123 around the village rather than through it. One wonders if in the future, as we run out of fossil fuels, if the fortunes of the two villages will swap once more if we switch back to river-borne trade?

In its early days there was at least one Chapel in Needingworth dedicated to St James, this is recorded in 1252 and it was still in use during the 16th Century. No trace of it remains but a possible candidate for its location is the vicinity of Chapel Close, off Overcote Lane. There is also mention of Our Lady's Chapel in Needingworth in wills dated 1540 and in 1570 but to what or where these refer we do not know as nothing of these remain either.

At the junction of Church Street (Mill Way) and the High Street stands the only remaining thatched house in Needingworth. There is a reason for this oddity as most of the village was destroyed in a terrible fire on 16th September 1847, a few of the 17th and 18th Century cottages survived but not any of their thatched roofs. The long Fire Hooks still hang on a wall at the north end of the High Street; they were used in a vain attempt to pull down the burning thatch before the roof timbers caught alight. Being a windy day the villagers of Needingworth did not stand a chance as sparks and burning thatch blew onto the surrounding building spreading the fire. Another fire was to ravage Needingworth on 12th April 1855 causing over £6oo in damage. Needingworth continued to grow as evidenced by the fact that at one point it had in addition to the Queen's Head at least two more public houses, the Three Horseshoes and the White Horse.

The Manor of Needingworth is claimed to have been bought by St Oswald from King Edgar around 969AD as a gift for Ramsey Abbey, however he seems to have exchanged the property for lands closer to the abbey. Eventually the Manor of Needingworth was purchased by Abbot William de Godmanchester in 1276 on behalf of Ramsey Abbey, so by the end of the 13th Century both manors owned by Ramsey Abbey where they were to remain until the Dissolution in 1539.

Holywell-cum-Needingworth

Both manors were purchased from the Crown in 1628 by Henry, Earl of Manchester and remained with his descendants until 1877. The manors were purchased by Robert Sandifer and then passed into the care of the Watts family well into the 20th Century.