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The History of Lambourn and the Downs: the early millennia

In November, Dr Bob Brewer gave a talk in Lambourn Library on his research on the early history of the Downs around Lambourn. Here is a summary of his talk.

Lambourn and the Downs have a history going back six millennia. For the first 4000 years, from about 3600BC, the Downs were heavily populated but there is little evidence of settlement in what is now the village. Settlement in the village started in the Late Roman and Early Saxon periods, around 400AD. At the same time time the Downs became depopulated; something fundamental changed.

Those first four millennia cover the Neolithic, when farming first arrived from the Middle East, but before metal working was known and tools were made from flint; the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and the height of the Imperial Roman period. From these periods we may find, on the Downs north of the village, Neolithic long barrows (burial mounds), such as Wayland’s Smithy, and from the Early Bronze age the round barrow burial mounds, where only those of high status were buried. At Seven Barrows there are in fact around 40 barrows, and many more are everywhere on the Downs. From Crow Down, just outside the village, we have a spectacular hoard of gold torcs made with Irish gold. In the Iron Age, perhaps a more violent time, there were a string of Hill Forts along the Ridgeway and one nearer the village at Ashdown House. After the Roman conquest, the Downs became a part of the bread-basket of the Empire, feeding the army, and there was an arc of four villas on the slopes of the Downs above Lambourn, built with the wealth coming from the land.

Image 1: Wayland’s Smithy: Neolithic, c.3600BC, not long after farming started on the Downs

Image 2: Everywhere on the Downs there is archaeological evidence of people.

Why were the Downs so rich? After the last ice age, the Downs were left with a layer, typically 40cm deep, of periglacial loess soil (also known as brickearth). This is wind-blown dried glacial mud, left behind by the glaciers which stopped just north of the Downs. It is a very fine and very fertile soil, but which starts blowing away as soon as it is ploughed. This was the basis of the Downs’ ancient great wealth and large population. Cultivation ceased piecemeal over a long period; thin coverings in exposed and heavily cultivated areas were exhausted by the middle of the Roman period, whilst some sheltered areas with thick drifts of loess were ploughed into the Medieval before abandonment. However, the evidence suggests that the population on the Downs collapsed around the end of the Imperial Roman period and never recovered.

Ancient Lambourn was also well-connected. In the prehistoric, the Ridgeway was a major trade route across Britain. Later, what is now the A338 from Frilford to Wantage was a Roman road which originally continued over the Downs and closely past Lambourn (through Bockhampton) to link with other major roads. The Lambourn Downs were very much on the map.

The history of Lambourn itself begins around 400AD; whilst the villas on the exhausted Downs were abandoned, a Romano-British villa was built somewhere in Oxford Street, near Oaksey House, where a very early Saxon settlement also began. Possibly the villa was a strong point against the encroachments of the Saxon settlers, defended by mercenary Saxon bodyguards. If so, at some point the Saxon bodyguards simply took possession of the land for themselves. In the Middle and Later Saxon periods, the 8th-11th Centuries, Lambourn became a significant Christian religious centre, with royal ownership and patronage. This was perhaps Lambourn’s finest period.

Christianity arrived for the second time in England around 650AD (Christianity had previously been the official religion in the Late Roman period), and by the 8thC it was again the established religion. At this time there were no parishes, each with its church and priest; that was the later Medieval system. Instead there were minsters: loose communities of monks, nuns and several priests, living in a protective enclosure, who served a large area now typically divided up into many parishes. Lambourn was one such minster, and the oval area now enclosing the church, bounded by Big Lane, the Broadway, Oxford Street and Parsonage Lane, was the minster enclosure. Big Lane runs in the in-filled ditch, and the remnants of the defensive bank can be seen on the side towards the church. The west end of Three Post Lane passes through the remnants of the rampart and west gate. To the south and east, the circuit of rampart and ditch are now levelled by the Medieval reorganization of the town. The village was owned by Alfred the Great and later Cnut (King Canute).

After the Norman conquest, Lambourn was given to a supporter of the Normans; around 1150, a new Medieval planned town with a new Norman style church was built; this history was still very clear in the street plan a hundred years ago, and still visible now despite becoming buried in modern development.

Image 3: Red shows the Roman and very early Saxon settlement (400AD); Blue is the Saxon Minster (8th to 11thC); Green is the Medieval redevelopment (c. 1150AD).Black marks the Minster ramparts.

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