The Old Boundaries of Wheathampstead and Harpenden

This article first appeared in Newsletter no.4, December 1974

With the help of clues from the seventeenth century boundary perambulation of Harpenden parish, we have been able to interpret the boundary described in Edward the Confessor’s Charter, granting the territory of Wheathampstead to Westminster Abbey.

The first part of the boundary is straightforward. From Marford, i.e. the boundary ford, to the high ditch, Devil’s Dyke, then along the hedge that brings it to Lippelane, the “leaping lane” from Hatching Green to Redbourn. – (N.B. not “and the long hedge” as the published reading has it.) From Lippelane to Secgham, the sedgy meadow near the present Friar’s Wash – for this stretch the boundary could have followed either Watling Street, as it did in the seventeenth century, or it could have followed the River Ver, as suggested by the name of Northfield Common, which lies between the road and the river and is north of Redbourn, rather than any part of Harpenden or Wheathampstead. From Secgham to “pobbenaetoce”, which we can associate with Poplars, Popletts, Popnalls, all names used at various times for fields near Poplars Farm. The meaning of the name is uncertain, but we have three feasible suggestions:

  • Pobba’s Ash Stump – Ash trees are used at various parts of the boundary and one is mentioned in this area in the seventeenth century perambulation,
  • Pobba’s Nattock – Nattock is a common foiled name, meaning either a type of grass or a mound surrouinded by marshy ground. This area is, in fact, on a hill above “Secgham”, the sedgy meadow.
  • Pobben-at-the-Oak – Oak trees are specifically marked as boundary points on the Flamstead tithe map in this area and one existing oak has the fragmented remains of a puddingstone boulder round its root. If such a boulder could have been a “pobben”, we have pobben-at-the-oak,

The boundary continues to herpedene, probably the “valley of the Roman road” (herepath dene) or possible “harp valley”, according to some authorities, but not “Nightingale Valley”, as Cussens has it.

To the Ash at Thatch Ford (N.B. not “the ash at the ford”) = the crossing over the Lea just above Hyde Mill. To “Plumstigale”, the rising ground leading up to Little and Great Plummers Farms. To “hole beam”, the hollow tree which gave its name to Holcroft, the area north of Holcroft Spring. To “Gilmere”, the golden pond, as distinct from “Black Mere” which gave its name to Blackmore End. Near the pub which bears the Cross Keys badge of Westminster as its sign, the twin ponds remain as dried up depressions under the trees. From “Gilmere” to Ealderman’s Mere and along the Mere-dene or boundary valley back to Matford.

Here topography questions history because although, according to the records, the parish boundary as it existed in the nineteenth century was laid down at a very early date, and the Manor of Bride Hall was owned by St Albans Abbey, the double hedgerow which follows the line from “Plumstigale” past the “hole beam” and “Gilmere” continues beyond the parish boundary past a pond near Ayot St Lawrence (ideally situated to be called Ealderman’s Mere, as it is sited where three hundreds meet) and continues to Waterend. The “boundary valley” leading back to Marford would then be the valley of the River Lea, which in fact formed an earlier boundary, that of the Danelaw territory. If we reject this line and assume the old boundary followed the same line as the parish boundary, then the “boundary valley” could be the little valley now filled in by Black Bridge rubbish tip, but Ealderman’s Mere would then remain a problem and we would have to ignore the continuity of the double hedgerow.

This last point may not be critical, as the double hedgerow also continues away from Wheathampstead at its northern end, past Chiltern Green towards Dane Street Farm. From this farm an ancient track ran across the north of Luton in the direction of Leagrave. Could these two lines have once formed one continuous track linking the iron Age settlement at Wheathampstead with that at Leagrave?

On a different topic, the seventeenth century perambulation gives us the probable name of the fourth century Domesday Water Mill. Three mills have survived until comparatively recent times – Wheathampstead, Batford and Pickford. The fourth is often assumed to be Hyde Mill but there is evidence that this was in Luton at the time of the Domesday survey. The fourth Wheathampstead mill is therefore, probably, the “Bungey Mill” referred to in the seventeenth century perambulation, which must have survived until just before that date, as it is described there as “nowe tacken downe”.

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