The History of Barkway

The village of Barkway lies on the eastern extension of the chalky Chiltern Hills. In prehistoric times, it was the site of a major crossroads, the east-west trading route taking advantage of the dry highlands of the scarp and the north-south track linking London with Cambridge.

There is much evidence of man’s early existence close to the cross roads and slightly to the east, on the banks of the river Quin, where deposits of flint flakes and half finished tools suggest a sophisticated settlement and trading station. To the west of the London-Cambridge road lies Periwinkle Hill. This ancient and now almost lost mound was probably the base of a strong point and lookout tower giving fine views across the plains of Cambridge as far as the settlement of Ely.

The conquest of Britain by the Romans left its mark on the surrounding landscape. Barkway, however, was left untouched save only for one small cache of Roman silver found at the edge of nearby Rookey Wood, during the 18th century.

The Norman Invasion brought a new culture and light to England. The Chiltern Edge was probably used by William the Conqueror as a springboard for his troops as they prepared to suppress the uprising of Hereward and his companions in the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. William, a true bureaucrat and undisputed head of the Norman civil service, decreed that he should know the full extent of the wealth of the land and have an exact record of Crown property. In 1086 he commissioned the Domesday Survey.

As a result, Barkway was examined in detail and, for the first time, appeared in an official document. Apart from farming commitments, the village supported a “holy man”. He was probably one of the few villagers capable of reading and writing, so was elevated to a position of authority. His church was probably no more than a simple wooden structure – just sufficient to support him and his farm animals-and the community only partially supported him. Barkway flourished. It was granted a market so became an important trading point and a place for social gathering. Despite being ravaged by major fires in the 15th and 18th centuries, it became one of the major stopping points on the coaching route from London to the North East. The inhabitants became wealthy and complacent and were unconcerned about the gradual decline of the coach trade in the mid 1800’s. A railway was proposed with a station part way between Barkway and Reed, – the engineer was Robert Stephenson. However it failed to materialise and Barkway soon became a backwater.

By the turn of the 20th century Barkway was, like so many other Hertfordshire villages, away from the main roads and therefore from the attention of the County authorities. Slipping further into decline, the population slumped as people sought their fortunes in Royston and sometimes in London.

The Second World War brought a resurgence of importance with the building of the airfield at nearby Nuthampstead, but when peace came, the decline returned with renewed vigour. Today, all of Barkway’s 15 shops have gone. Its twenty or so pubs and beer houses reduced to just one. The school retains a reduced number of pupils – in the 1800’s it had over a hundred pupils.

Barkway is a village with a past, but it is not without a future. Even to this day, its market history is brought to life each year, with the famous Barkway Street Market. For one day a year, visitors flood to the village as we celebrate our history and our sense of community spirit we look to the future.

History made Barkway the beautiful village it has become. Away from the major roads, and away from the meddling bureaucrats, it remains mainly unspoilt and untouched by modern expansionism – a peaceful tranquil village, but for certain, not a backwater.

Extracted from an original work (C) Tom Doig and adapted with his permission