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Soham History

The parish of Soham, with its 5,260 ha. (12,999 a.) the largest in Cambridgeshire outside the Isle of Ely, lies on the border between the Isle and the southern part of the county, at its north-eastern angle. Soham village stands five miles (8 km.) south-east of Ely and six miles (9.5 km.) north-west of Newmarket, and some twelve miles (19 km.) north-east of Cambridge. The parish, an irregular quadrilateral with curving sides, also including two northern projections, stretches westward to touch the lower Ouse; there it takes in the ancient hamlet of Barway, considered a part of Soham since the 13th century. Soham’s eastern and western boundaries largely follow existing or former curving fen watercourses, the former eventually reaching the north end of Isleham Lode. To the north Soham is divided from Ely parish by the Crooked Drain, so called by the late 19th century, which curves south to make a large indentation between the two projections. In the south-east the existing boundary with Fordham, whose northern part was still reckoned in the 1650s to lie within the jurisdiction of the main Soham manor, was only finally established in the mid 17th century when the hitherto intercommonable Soham and Fordham moors were allotted in severalty. Further west the modern southern boundary follows the division for tithe collection, which ran in places across shared open fields and even furlongs.

Most of Soham parish lies within the fens. It is virtually level at well below 10 m., lying in its far south-east upon the Lower Chalk, but mostly upon gault, with greensand and Ampthill clay in its far west around Barway. The gault is exposed south-west and north of the village, upon land later used as arable, but elsewhere is overlaid with gravels east of the village and with alluvium both to its north and to its west, where the former Soham Mere lay. Beyond an area of peat north-west of the Mere rises the ‘sugarloaf’ Henny Hill, a name in use by 1086 and perhaps derived from its position amidst wildfowl-haunted fens. Slightly higher, rolling ground in the south-east of the parish gave space for some open fields, while a rise to almost 10 m. further north provided a site, just north of a river crossing, for the medieval village, so named, like Barway, from its situation by or amidst the fenland waters.

The river, effectively the lower portion of the Snail running north from Fordham, from at least the 17th century followed a perhaps diverted course bending south-west at the north end of the modern Fordham moor. Its water then ran along a line curving west and then WNW. south of Soham village and eventually, after bending almost north-west near Barway hamlet, fell into the Ouse. Close to the village its flow turned west near the south end of the main street at the Brook dam, so styled from the 17th century. Then, and perhaps by 1400, the dam gave its name to that section of the stream, which probably ran there on an irregular ancient course. To the north-west of the village and in the south-east of the parish, where in the 17th and 18th centuries it was named locally the Clipsall river, its straighter lines were probably due to artificial improvements. By the 1660s, partly to assist navigation, the Bedford Level Commissioners had also made some improvements to the lower course of the river, sometimes styled c. 1700-30 the Soham river, but usually called Soham Lode from the 1720s. By 1760 a bridge provided access to Barway. The western part of the lode runs north-east of the large but shallow Soham Mere, recorded from the 11th century, whose 1,370 a. remained undrained throughout the Middle Ages. Its draining, first attempted c. 1670, was not finally effected until after 1750.

The fens further north, also subject to periodical inundation and reckoned in 1279 to extend for ten leagues by two, were devoted to common pasture, mainly of cattle, until their division in the 1660s. At that period there were set out both the main and the smaller straight drainage ditches which run through the fens, largely following property boundaries then laid down. Higher ground north and south of the village accommodated two groups of open fields, never formally enclosed, whose traditional triennial rotation gradually ceased from the late 18th century. In the late 20th century Soham became a centre for light industry.

Settlement and domestic buildings.

There is evidence of human activity since the Palaeolithic (Stone Age). The parish has yielded flint and bronze weapons and tools, pottery, including two Bronze Age urns found near an uncremated skeleton in Clipsall field. Early Iron Age remains are scantier, but Late Iron Age and early Roman pottery was found c.1980 south-east of the village, with three (destroyed) ring-ditches. Pottery and tesserae have been recovered from a probable Roman dwelling south of the village, while earthworks, possibly field boundaries, on New Fordey farm south of Barway suggest the existence of other habitations nearby. An Anglo Saxon village and burial ground were discovered in 2016 along Fordham Road, on what was locally known as Cutchey’s field opposite the cemetery. Yielding many fine items including a knife, another girdle hanger, coins, beads, shield bosses etc. A recent field walking event in May 2018, found a Bronze Age ring ditch, quantities of flints (Stone Age), pottery and metal items dating from the Palaeolithic (late Stone Age) to Medieval times, on land set between Qua and East Fen Commons (Eastern Gateway). In 2020 Bronze Age activity and some human remains were also found on land between Clipsalls Field and The Washes (Brook Street). Soham was certainly inhabited in Anglo Saxon times, its people being apparently buried in two separate cemeteries. One, on the site of the modern churchyard, which has produced cruciform brooches, perhaps mid 6th-century, the other as mentioned in Cutcheys field.

Excavations off Pratt Street c.1990 have revealed post-holes of dwellings with Saxo-Norman and later pottery from an apparently substantial settlement, besides cropmarks.

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