Over the last 18 months or so, Covid allowing, I’ve scoured bookshops in Cambridge, Norwich, Lewes, and probably other places for interesting books to extract information from for Capturing Cambridge. It was in St Edward’s Passage, I think, that I found four slim volumes by W M Palmer, written between 1913 and 1927. The volumes were guided tours to different Cambridge villages, published first in the Cambridge Chronicle.
William Palmer was born in 1866 to Sarah (of the wealthy Meldreth-based Mortlock family) and George Palmer, a Meldreth farmer. William grew up in ‘Elmcroft’, now ‘Whitegates’ in Meldreth High Street. He wanted to be a chemist and for this reason was apprenticed for a while to Sidney Campkin in Rose Crescent. He eventually qualified as a GP and settled in Linton in 1900 for his professional life where he retired in 1925 and died in 1939. But throughout all his life he had one great passion: history.
Dan Jackson of the Cambridge News reviewed his life several years ago. Palmer’s writing covered people and places all over South Cambridgeshire and further afield. One interesting anecdote concerned a bundle of papers given to him by a grateful elderly patient. It was five years before Palmer got round to examining them and then he discovered they were a ‘Code of Laws for Massachusetts’ printed in 1648. He sold them for £2,500, which was the occasion for a limerick to be written by George Wherry, another Cambridge surgeon:
There was a good doctor of Linton
Who bought a few pages with print on
By this bargain he made
Two thousand in trade
But still he put bandage and lint on.
The tours of villages he wrote are still usable today. In 1913 he led an excursion of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society to Linton. I recently followed the route and was astonished at how packed this small town is with ancient buildings; few places can have such a concentration of ‘listed’ buildings as Linton, many of them with documentation going back hundreds of years. By the sounds of it, in two and a half hours, William Palmer had completely exhausted his party of seventy who retired for ‘home-made cake and bread and butter’ to the beautiful garden of the 17th century house at 64 High Street. There, to an audience that now numbered about ninety, he continued his lecture about the medieval origins of the town and the succession of people who had occupied the house.
In 1923 he gave a lecture to the Young People’s Guild in the Old Chapel, Melbourn. The lecture was entitled The Neighbourhood of Melbourn and Meldreth. You might think from this title that the tour would cover a route of a few miles – nowadays either side of the A10. But no, the irrepressible Palmer takes his audience off from Melbourn to Fowlmere, west to Royston, north to Kneesworth, west to Bassingbourn and Litlington, north to Abington Piggotts, west to Whaddon, and finally back to Meldreth. I calculate the circuit to be not much short of 30 kilometers and one wonders how familiar an audience of young people in 1923 might have been with so many places, even if local, in those days. No matter what, today it would make an ambitious hike but perhaps a more manageable cycle ride.
In 1925 Palmer revisited his description of Melbourn in more detail and in 1927, as no.2 in a series on Cambridgeshire villages that he was writing, he wrote a lengthy description of Caxton. There are many other such booklets, but these have yet to come into my hands.
Visiting these villages, armed with Palmer’s guides, what strikes me is how easy it is to drive through them without noticing much, or to even miss them completely because of the modern road system. Many of these villages lay historically on some of the main trunk roads such as Ermine Street which ran north from London. Caxton and Kneesworth would have indeed been busy places, with stagecoaches and mail bags whizzing around until the arrival of the railways in the middle of the 19th century when they must have become still backwaters very quickly.
It is a similar case with Fowlmere, as this would have been on the main route from London to Cambridge. So important was this road that in the early 18th century William Warren provided for, in his will, a series of milestones to cover the route which still survive to this day. Palmer loves to muse in his accounts of the people who would have passed by some of the old buildings. Of the Chequers Inn in Fowlmere he writes:
At this inn must have stopped long haired archers and minstrels, to ask for a cup of wine or ale and give the latest news of Perkin Warbeck; and under the carved cornice which you still see, mine host must have obsequiously met the rich merchant or fully accoutred knight, papal nuncio or king’s pursuivant. In March 12th, 1485, King Henry VII passed by it, and in 1520 Cardinal Wolsey came this way. This was only the passing life of the Chequers but when two centuries later the Parliamentary Army was encamped on Thriplow Heath, it was in the middle of the action …. Here a little later Samuel Pepys stayed one night, having ridden hither from London, his horse ‘almost tired’ and left in the chill February dawn next day.
So, bypassed by the development of the 19th and 20th centuries it is not surprising how much of these villages and small towns have survived. Some have changed significantly with the growth of new suburbs in the last few decades, but others, such as Caxton, seem, at least until now, to have retained much of their old character and charm.
If a 30 kilometer hike is a bit beyond you, then these routes can all be followed on Capturing Cambridge where I have tried to provide photographs of all the buildings Palmer refers to, plus other listed buildings, and as much commentary as I can find. It is a work in progress so any contributions of photos and useful commentary would be welcome.
This post was written by Roger L., Trustee at the Museum of Cambridge