The Burwell Home Page

Burwell is a large village of about 5000 people, situated in the County of Cambridgeshire, about 10 miles to the north east of Cambridge itself.

Geographically, it occupies an interesting position, straddling the border between the dry, chalky lands to the south, and the low-lying Fens, formerly wet marshland, now drained and put to agriculture. Agriculture, in fact, dominates the landscape on both sides, but their character - and the character of the different parts of the village, therefore - is quite different.

The parish of Burwell is a large one - though not quite as large as it was before the 1950's, when it included half the neighbouring village of Reach, and before the 1990's, when a large area in the south was taken away - and reflects this diversity of land and people. In the north lies Adventurer's Fen, not entirely drained and planted until the 1940's; to the east and west the broad expanses of cornfields; and to the south the flat grasslands of Newmarket Heath. The county boundary between Cambridgeshire and Suffolk is immediately to the south of the village.

The main road through the village is the B1102, following the fen edge from Stow-cum-Quy to the south-west, to Mildenhall to the north-east. The B1103 leaves the centre of the village at Pound Hill towards Exning and Newmarket.

The inhabited part of the parish grew up in at least three parts: High Town in the south, centred around the church and the High Street; North Street, close by the fen, its attention turned more towards the river; and Newnham, between the two. Looking at a detailed map of the village, this division can be discerned, and only over a long period have the three parts become one, stretching for some two miles along a single main street. According to one writer, the village was, for this reason, often referred to as 'Long Burwell'.1

There were certainly small Roman settlements in the area. Near the site of one, on a 'low hill overlooking a spring'2 - around St Mary's church - a Saxon village grew up which was probably protected by some kind of fortification . A few hundred metres away to the north another Roman settlement developed into a 'long linear Saxon street village' - the High Street.

North Street, 'a mile away across the fields and close to the fens' was certainly in existence by the early 14th century when it was first recorded, but is probably much older; it has 'a curious sinuous street' which lies parallel to and has the same shape as the headlands of the mediaeval common fields to the east. It seems to have developed within the existing common fields and used a headland between the strips as its main street. It is therefore unlikely to have been an early settlement and may have grown up relatively late in the mediaeval period as a result of increasing population.3

With the development of Ness Road - the main road out of the village to the north-east - and the area between it and North Street, the village has, perhaps, taken on more of a B-shape, which seems quite appropriate. In fact, there has been continuous and widespread housing development here since the Second World War, and a lot of flesh has been put on the thin skeleton that the village plan resembled in the earlier part of the 20th century.

The name 'Burwell' derives from two Anglo-Saxon roots: burh, meaning castle or fort, and wielle, a spring.4 Indeed, the remains of a castle can be found, by a spring, close to the ancient centre of High Town, just to the west of the church. This castle, though, was Norman, built in the 12th century, some 80 years after the last Saxon king, Harold II, was deposed by William the Conqueror in 1066: presumably an earlier fortification existed in the vicinity, although it has not so far been identified. Christopher Taylor places it on the raised area around the church, observing that 'the line of the encircling defences is partly preserved by the curving line of modern streets round the hill.'5

This combination of fort and spring would seem so common that there must be many villages around the country with the name Burwell: in fact, there is just one other, a 'pleasant village'6 and former market town on the A16, a few miles south of Louth in Lincolnshire. Welbury in North Yorkshire, which may seem to be 'Burwell' the other way round, is derived from wielle, spring, and berg, the hill on which it stands.7

1 Dr Charles Lucas, The Fenman's World
2 Christopher Taylor, The Cambridgeshire Landscape
3 Taylor, op. cit.
4 The Place Names of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, P.H. Reaney
5 op. cit.
6 Arthur Mee, The King's England - Lincolnshire
7 The Place Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire, A.H. Smith

This article and all the illustrations above are from Part One of the
Illustrated Tour of Burwell


To see more pictures of Burwell, go to the
Picture Gallery Page

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