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Settlement in the Early Bronze Age

2500-1500 BC

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During the Neolithic the local population had grown from hundreds to perhaps a few thousand people. This process gathered pace in the Bronze Age, which is named after the arrival of metal-workers in Britain, around 2500 BC. As the population grew it became necessary to divide-up the landscape into field systems; some of the earliest fields in England are found in Peterborough. Meanwhile North Sea levels were steadily rising and the nearby floodplain of the River Nene became permanent Fen. Animals were grazed on its lush summer pastures. Major sites of this time have been found at Fengate, Must Farm and Bradley Fen.





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Later Bronze Age Population

1500-800 BC

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By 1500 BC the lower Nene Valley and Fen-edge regions of Peterborough had become one of the most prosperous landscapes in prehistoric Britain, fertile and rich in resources. The local population was well into the thousands and there were tens of thousands of cattle and sheep grazing the elaborately arranged field systems around the Fen margins. Most of the farms and settlements were on the drier, flood-free margins of the wetlands, but a few were constructed over the water on wooden piles, such as the one at Must Farm.  





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The Iron Age

800 BC- 43AC

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The Iron Age is the last of the Three Ages of British later prehistory. It begins with the arrival of the new metal, iron, around 800 BC and ends with Roman troops landing on the shores of Kent, in AD 43. The Romans gave the British writing and with writing came recorded history – which is why prehistory is said to cease with their arrival. People in Iron Age Britain are sometimes described as Celts and they spoke Celtic languages, which survive today in Breton, Welsh, Gallic (Scotland) and Gaelic (Ireland). The working of iron requires greater control of very high temperatures which led to improvements in pottery firing and less regionalised pottery styles.  The Iron Age saw the  appearance of ditched enclosed farmstead-type settlements as at Itter Crescent, open settlements characterised by roundhouses and pits as at Fengate, and the building of the hillforts like the earthworks at Newborough. Societies were hierarchically organised in this period, having moved from the extended clan to the chiefdoms and the earliest named rulers. These are the tribes the Romans encountered when they came to Britain in the first century. The best known of these rulers was Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe/kingdom. She led a popular rebellion against Roman rule, in AD 60-1. Environmentally, the Iron Age sees increased flooding and higher groundwater levels in the fens.





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An Immense Icy Flood

1795

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In February 1795 a large flood affected many parts of the country, due to a combination of thawing snow, ice and torrential rains. Peterborough's story reads like something out of a Hollywood movie: "We learn from Peterborough that the flood in that neighbourhood is so immense as to threaten several villages. The ice had formed a complete bank across the coast, from the South bank to the North bank, and consequently stopped the current of water. A gentleman there, however, at the risk of his life, contrived to dispel the ice by gunpowder, contained in oilskin bags, in the execution of which he was assisted by two barges; but he had the misfortune to be left upon a large shoal of ice; the boats being driven away, it was impossible for any person to render him assistance, and in this dangerous situation, with the momentary apprehension of the ice separating, he floated down to Whittlesea bridge, and then jumped to one of the pillars, which was expected every minute to give way. From this situation he was released by some men who put off in a boat to save him. Soon after this the South bank gave way; and so terrific was the effect, from the shrieks of the multitude near it, and the explosion so tremendous, that the noise was heard by persons stationed four miles below the spot. The number of lives lost has not been ascertained: the damage exceeds calculation."1 Other information relating to the flood suggested that 30,000 acres of Deeping Fen were flooded and that many bridges had been damaged or destroyed, including those of Wansford and Northborough which 'blew up'! Peterborough's wooden bridge was saved.
  1. Northampton Mercury, Saturday 21st February 1795, p3, column 4






Must Farm

800 BC

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During the later Bronze age most of the farms and settlements in this area were on the drier, flood-free margins of the wetlands, though a few were constructed over the water on wooden piles. One of these small settlements (of some ten houses) has been found at Must Farm on the western edge of Whittlesey. Around 800 BC the houses caught fire very soon after they were built (whether the fires were accidental or deliberate is still under debate) and the entire platform collapsed into the waters below. Because of the fire and the waterlogged conditions the houses collapsed into, Must Farm is a beautifully preserved  archaeological site; it has been described as the Bronze Age Pompeii as the fantastic amount of finds ( including wood, pots, food, jewellery and even fabric)  have revealed a great deal about Bronze Age life and trade. Near to Must Farm, along the channel the River Nene took in antiquity, archaeologists discovered nine intact Bronze Age log  boats, all fashioned from hollowed-out tree trunks, which were sunk over a period of 600 years. These boats are currently undergoing conservation at Flag Fen, where they are on display.





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St. John the Baptist Rebuilt

1407

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The citizens of Medehamstede, lived to the east of the abbey and what is now the Cathedral, on the edge of the fenland. After the great fire of 1116, the inhabitants were moved to the west of the abbey where the land was drier. Unfortunately they did not move the church to the west, and for several centuries the inhabitants of the town had to walk round the vast abbey grounds to reach their isolated church. This was made more difficult by flooding from streams that ran in front of the church, making attendance problematic in the winter. A petition was made to move the church to the west of the abbey, which was granted by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1402. The new church was built using stone from the old one and the Becket Chapel, as well as oak from Abbot William Genge's park. He dedicated the church to St John the Baptist on 26th June 1407. It was originally built with a large leaded spire, which was conspicuous from some distance. Unfortunately, due to instability, it was removed in the 1820s, but it can be seen in John Speed's Map, A Prospect of Peterborough and an old photograph.





Britain Leaves Europe!

8000 BC

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Britain's split from Europe began more than 200,000 years ago during an ice age. At this time Britain was a peninsula of northwest Europe. Melting water from vast ice sheets filled a giant lake in the southern half of the North Sea. It was held back by a chalk ridge stretching from the southeast of England to the northwest of France.
A Lot of Water
Eventually this glacial lake filled up with so much water that the dam burst at the Strait of Dover, unleashing vast torrents of water in an enormous flood. The flood was so violent it ripped through the chalk ridge and gouged a deep valley from the Dover Straits to past the Isle of Wight. That valley became a new waterway, the Channel. It drained the rivers of northwest Europe into the Atlantic and severed Britain from the mainland.
Britain Becomes an Island
The final division from Europe was settled about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, when rising temperatures again melted ice sheets, sea levels rose and the plains (Doggerland) connecting Britain to Europe were flooded in what became the North Sea, while the Channel River became the Channel. Britain became an island separate from mainland Europe.





Death of Abbot Martin de Bec

1154

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Abbot Martin de Bec became abbot in 1135. He is the creator of Peterborough as we know it; he moved the town and its market from the east of the abbey, prone to flooding, to the west, he built the great West Gate of the abbey which stands today, and laid out the roads of the town in the pattern that still exists.  





Lolham Bridges Rebuilt

1642

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Lolham is a tiny hamlet close to Maxey and West Deeping. The few houses that exist sit close to King Street, a Roman road, which runs North to South through Lolham. King Street passes over Maxey Cut, The Welland and a few ditches at this point, which has meant several bridges were needed. Lolham Bridges are grade II* listed structures. There are five bridges in the listing, the earliest of which has the date 1642 on the Western side. An inscription reads: 'These several bridges were built at the general charge of the whole County of Northampton in the year 1652.' (1) However, the inscription might be slightly misleading because a record in Northamptonshire Archives references 'a trial about the responsibility to repair Lolham Bridge in 16668/9' (2). They were later restored in 1712 and 1916 (1), suggesting either flood damage or poor workmanship. Given that people would have been using that route for nearly 2,000 years it is not surprising that there are earlier references to bridges at Lolham. Indeed, one of the earliest references is in 1408 in a writ in which 'a meadow to the west of Lolham Bridge' was valued at 11s 8d (11 shillings and 8 pence) (3). Lolham Bridges are accessible from the north on a one-way road. However, there are no parking places close-by, or footpaths, so accessibility is challenging.
References
(1) Listing number 1365654, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1365654 (2) Northamptonshire Records Office QSR 1/52 http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/378e675e-7c49-4751-8f3c-3cf992aba85b (3) J. L. Kirby, 'Inquisitions Post Mortem, Henry IV, Entries 603-654', in Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem: Volume 19, Henry IV (London, 1992), pp. 215-234. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/inquis-post-mortem/vol19/pp215-234 [accessed 26 November 2018]. Photo credit: Stone bridge at Lolham, near Bourne, Lincolnshire cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Rex Needle - geograph.org.uk/p/4436905