A Brief History of Northchurch
Northchurch has always been a good place in which to live. The construction of the Northchurch bypass revealed that around 2000 BC, stone age people settled on the hillside above the present Cow Roast site. At that time, the floor of the Bulbourne valley would have been filled by a broad, slow-flowing, but shallow river which provided both fish and, in the vast reed beds fringing the river, plentiful wild fowl. The dense woodland that covered the hilltops provided timber, and within the forest, deer and wild pigs could be hunted. They had only to scrape the hillside to find the flint from which they made their tools and weapons.
In 43 AD, the Romans invaded Britain. They left a permanent reminder of their stay in the form of Northchurch High Street which follows the line of the Roman Road known as Akeman Street from St. Albans to Cirencester. But the Romans didn’t just pass through Northchurch, and beneath the homes of the present occupants of the Springwood estate lie the remains of a substantial Roman Villa that first occupied this desirable site for over 300 years. Further along the valley, just behind the Cow Roast pub, lie the even more extensive remains of a small Roman settlement.
When the Roman army finally departed in 410 AD, Saxon tribes from what is now northwest Germany began arriving, at first to plunder but then to settle in this rich and pleasant land. We have no indication where Saxon Northchurch was, but most likely it lay between Bell Lane and Darrs Lane. The Saxons were pagans, but in 793 AD King Offa of Mercia, within whose kingdom Northchurch lay, converted to Christianity. So it is probable that within a few years of that date, a church was built on what most likely had been a place of pagan worship. The Saxons built in wood, so the church would have been wooden-framed with wattle and daub in-filling and a thatched roof.
However, during the next hundred years, another invader, the dreaded Norsemen, began settling in the area. Under the Treaty of Wedmore that King Alfred signed with King Guthrum of the Danes, that part of the kingdom of Mercia north of the Roman Road known as Watling Street, was ceded to Danelaw. That brought Northchurch some unstable neighbours, and it probably prompted the rebuilding of the church in masonry, not just for worship but also for the security of the community. This church had a tower at the west end where the only door was located, a simple nave of present day dimensions and a semi-circular east end.
Pictured above, St Mary’s Church, Northchurch (1935)
It was still in existence when the Normans arrived in 1066 and they duly recorded it in the Doomsday book in 1086. But it wasn’t known as St. Mary’s Northchurch but as Berkhamsted St. Mary, and with it came the vast parish of Berkhamsted St. Mary, and what a parish! It stretched from Tring in the north to Boxmoor in the south, and from Hawridge in the west to Little Gaddesden in the east.
The Normans made their mark on the area with a castle built further down the valley to the south of Northchurch. As it grew in importance, it attracted artisans and merchants who created a new settlement. In 1222 a new church was built for this settlement and a new parish of Berkhamsted St. Peter was formed out of the centre of Berkhamsted St. Mary.
Independence has always been the hallmark of Northchurch. In the period just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, the Crown tried on a number of occasions to enclose the Northchurch Common as part of the Crown Estates. These moves were opposed by the people of Northchurch led by William Edlyn of Norcott, the manor that lies on the hillside just above Dudswell. Later, his son John Edlyn donated the Almshouses to the Parish to house the poor and disabled. Later still in 1864, one of his descendents, John Loxley of Norcott, together with Earl Brownlow of Ashridge, founded our village school.
Originally, the Lord of the Manor would hold courts to manage his lands and the employment of the inhabitants. As the manor courts declined and the Church increasingly acquired control of more land, the inhabitants began to meet together for administrative purposes under the parson’s directions. Such meetings were often held in the church vestry. From 1601 until 1894, the parish vestry was a significant element of local administration. Monthly meetings were held, chaired now by the church wardens and open to all regardless of religious persuasion. Here, care of the poor – the subject of many local charities still in existence – law and order, repair of the highway, and the levying of local taxes were discussed. But from 1894, the administration of the parish passed from the Church to a Civil authority. With this came additional responsibilities such as the provision of allotments and playing fields. As a result of its Parish Council, Northchurch retains its long cherished independence, and long may it continue.
The Almshouses, Northchurch High Street (1950)
In 1979, the Government decided that the Boundary Commission would invite Parish and Town Councils to review their boundaries. Northchurch Parish Council made the decision to review its boundaries and gave up certain areas near Nettleden which went to Nettleden and Potten End Parish Council. They gave up Hall Park to Berkhamsted Town Council and decided that they would seek to incorporate the main village of Northchurch which was looked after by Berkhamsted Town Council and add it to the rural area that the then Northchurch Parish Council controlled. Berkhamsted Town Council decided that they would seek to encompass all of the existing Parish of Northchurch and that Northchurch Parish Council should then cease to exist as a local authority. The Councillors of Northchurch decided that they would seek the views of every member of the existing Parish and indeed the new Parish and, of the 1,200 homes, 400 votes were cast in favour of Northchurch retaining its independence and acquiring a new area with just four people voting against. This information was fed to the Local Government Boundary Commission who ruled in favour of Northchurch Parish Council with one exception, that exception being that the organisation decided that Northchurch was incapable of running allotments – a rather bizarre decision. Northchurch appealed to the Ombudsman to have this decision reversed and the Ombudsman sided with Northchurch and agreed that Northchurch, if it was capable of running an administration, was certainly capable of running two sets of allotments. The allotments were, in fact, placed under the control and ownership of Northchurch Parish Council.
(If you would like to know more about the history of Northchurch, buy or borrow a copy of “Hedgehog’s Northchurch” by Bert Hosier.)