A Quarter of a Million Years Ago

in one of the warmer periods of the Ice Ages, woolly mammoths roamed the Stort valley. Evidence of this fact came to light in 1900 when a tooth and a tusk of such a beast was discovered during excavations at Potter Street in the heart of Bishop’s Stortford.

The earliest human fossil remains found in Britain also date back a quarter of a million years, conclusive evidence that a ‘primitive’ people had ventured northwards into Europe during one of the warmer interglacial phases. The earliest evidence of Stone Age mans activity in the Bishop’s Stortford area comes from two hand axes of that period, made of flint and discovered accidentally during drain digging near to the Red White and Blue public house at Hazel End. Flint arrowheads have also been found in nearby Birchanger Woods.

When the Ice Ages finally came to an end ten thousand years ago, rising temperatures and adjustments in land and sea levels began to form the English Channel, and around 6,500 BC Britain was severed from the continent.

This was the Middle Stone Age period. The melting ice soon gave way to dense forests and Mesolithic man began to live in tribal communities, adapting his hunting methods to live on small animals, fish, birds and plants. His existence in this area came to light in 1962 at Silver Leys (Hadham Road), when the levelling of land for a playing field revealed several worked flints consisting of sections of long blades, dated between 8,000 and 2,000 BC.

The discovery of a primitive wood cutting axe on the Meads, close to the river Stort, revealed occupation by a different kind of Mesolithic man known as Maglemosian. Living near water and relying on fish for food, these people are thought to have originated in Denmark and are named as such after a peat bog there where their remains were first discovered.

During the Neolithic period, which began around 3,500 BC, Britain saw the arrival of the first farming people who brought with them cattle, sheep and pigs. Farming changed everything, including the landscape where forests were cleared for grazing and the cultivation of a primitive wheat and barley.

Metal was first introduced to Britain around 1900 BC by the Beaker people, who learned the use of bronze in Spain. No evidence of their early occupation has ever been found here, but several items from the late Bronze Age period (800 BC) were discovered at Thorley – including a socketed axe, a socketed gouge and the broken end of an axe. The fact that these items were made from moulds demonstrates the advanced technology involved by this time. Further discoveries from the same period were found at Haymeads near to the hospital, including a socketed spearhead with part of its original wooden shaft still in place.

The Bronze Age came to an end between 800 and 500 BC when a new metal was discovered in Persia and Assyria: iron. More plentiful than copper and its alloys, its use spread rapidly and came to Britain with the invasion of southern England by the Celts.

Also a farming race, they quickly established themselves in the south and east, and evidence of an Iron Age settlement in the Stort Valley comes from pottery discovered in an old gravel pit at what is now the junction of London Road and Thorley Lane. The skeleton of an Iron Age horse was also found at Maple Avenue.

Iron Age man is perhaps best known for his hill forts, and Wallbury camp at nearby Spellbrook is a fine example. Built around 400 BC it was one of thirty or more hill forts constructed between Dorset and Essex to defend tribal territories. Between 300 and 200 BC Wallbury fort was modified to include double banks that enclosed an area of around 31 acres.

England was again invaded in the first century BC, this time by the Belgae – a Celtic people from Belgium and France whose battle tactics included large scale use of horses and chariots. The largest and most aggressive Belgic kingdom was that of Catuvellauni originally centred on modern Hertfordshire, but they also settled in the Stort valley, rebuilding Wallbury fort to a high standard for defence purposes.

But any ideas they may have had about further expansion to the east and west was briefly curtailed by Julius Caeser’s punitive expedition to these shores in 54 BC. The principal British King, Cassivellaunus, is supposed to have bowed to Rome at the kingdom’s capital, Wheathampstead, but there is a suggestion that the site of his capitulation could well have been at Wallbury, which, being one third the size of Wheathampstead would have been much easier to defend.

The Belgae cleared the valley forests to plant corn, the surplus of which, ironically, was often traded with Roman Gaul. But a full-scale invasion by the Romans in 43 AD saw the Belgae defeated once again and their towns at St Albans and Colchester taken. Both became legion headquarters and a road, based on an old Belgic track, was built between the two. This was the road along which the Romans entered the Stort Valley and which today we call Stane Street (A120). Its former route crossed present day Bishop’s Stortford in a straight line from the Dunmow Road to Braughing, the area around Cannons Close becoming an Imperial posting station where legionnaires marching between St Albans and Colchester could rest. A small Romano-British settlement eventually grew up around the post but, so far as we know, was never given a name.

When the Romans left Britain early in the 5th century to defend Rome against barbarian tribes, this area had already been a settlement for over a thousand years. But it was the invading Saxons arriving here in 449 AD, who established a settlement in the area we now call Bishop’s Stortford. They no doubt entered the Stort valley via the Roman road, but ignored the existing Roman settlement and chose instead to settle high above the flood plain in the area that is now North Street. They built the first church of timber and thatch and possibly created the first fortification that would later become Waytemore Castle’s foundation.

By the 11th century the manor was known as Esterteferd and owned by the Saxon woman Eddeva Pulchrima – more popularly known as Edith the Fair or Edith Swan-neck – who sold it around 1060 to William, Bishop of London (1051–1075). Thereafter the manor became the property of the See of London and continued as such after the Norman Conquest, eventually being granted by King William to his chaplain and chancellor, Maurice, who he made Bishop of London in 1087. Two years previous to that, when the threat of Danish invasion had finally passed, King William ordered that his new kingdom should be assessed, the result of which was Domesday Book.

It seems incomprehensible now but in 1086 his commissioners valued the Manor of Stortford, in total, at £8.


copyright© Paul Ailey 2004