Bedwell Hey
"How To Find A Lost Village"
by Brian Watson

BEDWELL HEY - all the things I got wrong!! by Brian Watson.

Not long after I sent the Bedwell Hey article in to Ely Online and the pictures we took on the follow-up walk were added, the complete article was put up on the website.

Soon afterwards I got an e-mail from John Parish, who now owns Bedwell Hey Farm and the area I had claimed was the village of Bedwell Hey. He pointed out (very nicely!) that I'd got several facts wrong in my report of my walk of discovery and offered me the opportunity to speak to him at the farm to put things right. I phoned him and we arranged to meet at Bedwell Hey Farm.

I was made very welcome, even the guard geese didn't make a fuss, and we sat down to talk in the family kitchen.

John's father farmed Bedwell Hey Farm before him and both have taken a great interest in the history and archaeology of the place.

Apparently, my biggest mistake was to assume there actually was a village of Bedwell Hey - there wasn't. Not as far as anyone has been able to prove, anyway, though a wealth of Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British finds have been made there. In fact, the farm is what is marked on the old maps as "Bedwell Hey/Bedwellhuy/Bidewelle" (and a few other alternative spellings) just because it was an important place in its own right.

But first things first.


The origin of the name Bedwell Hey is probably Saxon for "the enclosure by the spring in the hollow" according to The Place-names Of Cambridgeshire by PH Reaney (1943). From the same source, Braham Farm (which wasn't a village either, by the way) on the other side of the A10 Cambridge to Ely Road possibly meant Bramble Ham (where ham is a hamlet) and it is mentioned in 1086 as Bramewere, a fishery of the monks of Ely.


WM Palmer wrote a paper called "Enclosures at Ely, Downham and Littleport in 1548" and it was transcribed by the Cambs and Hunts Archaeological Society Vol 5 (1936). In that, Dr Palmer describes one of the largest enclosures as that held by Robert Hargase. It is called Bedwellhaye and the farmstead is said to have been established in the early medieval period on the fen edge.
It probably always had some enclosed fields around it, he says.

The document of 1548 records that 120 acres of land near the farmstead had been enclosed in the reign of Henry VIII by John Bulweyer (do you notice a similarity in his name to the farm's? Shortened from Bedwell Hey-er, perhaps?) Prior to that it was probably part of the common fields of Ely.

John Parish has a very expensive collection of maps and books on the area and the publications of the Cambridge Historical Society carry reports of various excavations on the site, and Ely Fields Farm which is next to it.

One report, by Gordon Fowler FSA, says that an American engineer driving a bulldozer to level the land for the construction of the airfield had crashed into a mass of skeletons. The way they were found lying - in no discernable regular pattern - suggested that they may all have been massacred. Through the skull of one of them was a dagger.

A couple of odd things happened to the bulldozer driver as he remounted his vehicle so he hastily reburied the items he had found! They were later salvaged, and John Parish has many of them to this day. A very fine collection they are, and I got quite a thrill handling the sort of objects I had hitherto only seen through the glass of a display case in a museum.
There are beads, buckles and belt fittings and pot shards and coins and even, from a later period, tiny thimbles. Why thimbles, and why tiny?
Because they were used to protect the fingertips of the children who worked in the fields from an early age.

John Parish's particular interest is flints and flint tools and he has a remarkable collection of cutting and scraping tools, arrowheads, and a particularly well made and well preserved axe head. So well preserved, in fact, that it appears never to have been used and so may instead of being a working tool have been carried as a mark of high status until it was dropped and lost in the drainage ditch at the bottom of the hill.

Most of the finds are from an area behind the field towards which I am so confidently pointing in a couple of the photographs.

When Gordon Fowler went looking for Cratendune in the area of Bedwell Hey and Ely Fields, he and his partner Dr Margaret Murray found nothing conclusive though Dr Murray found some pagan Anglo-Saxon grave goods just to the north of Ely Fields Farm.

Bedwell Hey Farm, Ely Fields Farm, and their surrounding districts still have many buried secrets of their past yet to be found and, unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this article to fully report on all of them.

What started as a curiosity fired by a casual mention on an old map has led me further than I had ever expected to go and, while my interest is greater than when I started now I know more about the site, regrettably I don't have the time to report it in as much depth as I would like. Perhaps one of the local schools might be persuaded to adopt it as a research project? I hope so.


In passing, I mentioned in the main article a Dragon Rapide that flew over while I was walking to Bedwell Hey. John Parish put me right on that one too!

The plane is not, after all, the last Dragon Rapide as I had thought based on an article I had once read; it's not even the last one in flying order.
And, in fact, it has been known to land on an airstrip at the Farm - an airstrip that until relatively recently was also used by crop-duster aircraft.


There is much more to be read about the area and I refer those interested in doing so to the various sources I quoted before.

This article is just a summary of some of the key facts gleaned during quite a long talk with John and his family. I would like to thank him very much for his time and hospitality and the access he very kindly gave me to his phenomenal archive of Bedwell Hey material.