The Medieval house at Whomerley – Stevenage’s very own ‘cabin in the woods’
- Credit: Archant
In the latest in our series of articles investigating North Hertfordshire’s hidden history, freelance writer Philip Wadner focuses on an unassuming slice of woodland in Stevenage which was the site of an intriguing medieval house.
Life in the English countryside was tough in the 13th century. The peasants who lived in the countless villages and hamlets across the county enjoyed security through safety in numbers, but in an age when there was no police force, lone homesteads were exposed to bandits, thieves and robbers.
It may seem hard to imagine these days – no matter how annoying your neighbours – but some home owners took matters into their own hands and dug moats around their homes to stop the criminals from trashing their homes. This seems to have been the motivation for one family which lived in what must have been the isolated located of Whomerley Wood.
This area of ancient woodland sits two and a half kilometres due south of St Nicholas Church which was at the heart of the small Saxon settlement that would later become Stevenage.
The wood probably took its name from the Saxon ham and leah – loosely meaning ‘house in the clearing’.
Historical maps show a footpath from the direction of Stevenage Old Town disappearing into the wood. This path may well follow the same route as it did in the thirteenth century or even earlier, perhaps as far back as Roman times. As you walk about 200 metres along this path, there is a small causeway on the left with a deep ditch roughly four metres wide falling away on each side. If the edge of this ditch is followed around, it soon becomes apparent that it was dug in a roughly square shape, some eighty metres along each of its sides, in the form of a moat.
No-one knows why the Whomerley Wood moat was constructed – perhaps it was to protect the occupants of the island from thieves, marauders or from civil disturbances, to offer some defence against an invading army, or provide sanctuary from disease. Equally it may have helped to keep out wild animals, or keep in domestic ones, or less excitingly, it may simply have provided drainage for the island.
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Like many such features in the landscape, the moat did not escape the attentions of inquisitive archaeologists. In 1925, archaeologist Margaret Murray from the University of London supervised an excavation team which discovered items of medieval household pottery at the site and in 1953, Heinz Bosowitz, a bricklayer with an interest in archaeology, unearthed some 1,000 fragments ranging from crude tools to floor tiles while he was working on building part of the New Town.
Finds as far back as Roman times have also been discovered there, which marks the site as possibly the oldest of its kind in North Herts to have been occupied by humans.
Historians think the moat was the location of a thirteenth century homestead belonging to the de Homeley family. Documents show Ivo de Homeley held 140 acres of land in the manor of Stevenage in 1275, and Ralph de Homeley is recorded in the Lay Subsidy Rolls for Hertfordshire in 1293.
The de Homeley residence is referred to in the literature as a homestead, farmstead, manor, manor house, and even ‘moated and fortified manor house’. The area enclosed by the moat is about one and a half acres, so there would have been plenty of space for more than a single building. Visitors to Stevenage Museum can see a model of the moated enclosure. It gives an idea of what the house would once have looked like with a large wooden cruck-framed house, almost a hall, with what might be wattle and daub walls, and a thatched roof with a central hole blackened by smoke from the fire. But little else is known about the ‘cabin in the woods’. Margaret Murray said in 1926 at a talk to Stevenage residents, that more is known about the time of Moses than about the people of Stevenage in medieval times. At least that means we can imagine the rest for ourselves.
• This article is a taster from Philip Wadner’s book Whomerley Wood Moat, Stevenage – The House in the Clearing.
Philip retired early in 2006 from a long career in satellite engineering to indulge his love of literature and creative writing. He has written articles on a wide range of topics, from aerospace to electronics systems, and pet dogs to old cars.
His Whomerley Wood book is widely available online or direct from the author at www.cadebooks.co.uk. Alternatively it can be purchased at Stevenage Museum.