Therfield Heath is situated to the west of Royston, and extends for almost 2½ miles, covering an area of some 420 acres. Although it once belonged to the Church the Heath is now owned by the Therfield Regulation Trust, and is managed on behalf of the Trust by the Conservators of Therfield Heath and Greens, a locally elected body established by Act of Parliament in 1888.
The Heath’s status as common land has protected it from urban and agricultural development, thus preserving the important historic site and a valuable wildlife haven. It now provides a fascinating area for study, and one of the best sites for informal recreation in Hertfordshire.
Although Royston is the closest settlement, most of the Heath lies in the parish of the much older village of Therfield. The name Therfield comes from the Old English words for dry place, reflecting the freely draining nature of the underlying chalk.
The Heath was once much more extensive than it is today, stretching as far as Therfield, Kelshall and Odsey. Most of the original area was cultivated following the Enclosure Act of 1849, but other small fragments, such as Rush Green near Therfield, still retain their status as common land.
The chalk rock beneath the Heath was laid down around one hundred million years ago when this area lay beneath a warm sea. The remains of tiny animals fell to the sea bed and were compressed over millions of years to form a band of chalk up to 90 metres thick.
Twenty million years ago the same earth movements which formed the Alps caused the chalk to dip towards the south east. Over the last million years successive ice ages formed the dry valleys. The last ice sheet retreated from here about twelve thousand years ago, only a few thousand years before the first humans settled.
A continuous record of human involvement can be traced here since the Stone Age. After the last ice sheet retreated most of the lowland England was covered in deciduous forest. Six thousand years ago, when Neolithic farmers first started to clear land for the agriculture, they chose the drier soils of the chalk hills in preference to the densely forested clay lowlands. The Long Barrow is evidence both of their presence here and of the economic prosperity at that time.
Looking north from the Long Barrow you can see the route of the Icknield Way, one of the oldest roads in England. Originally a trade route connecting the Norfolk coast with South West England, today the Icknield Way is being developed as a regional trail for use by walkers and horse riders. Part of the modern walkers’ route crosses the Heath along the line of the old Rifle Range.
The Heath’s prominent position was also chosen by Bronze Age settlers for their burial mounds or tumili, as seen at One Hill, Two Hills and Five Hills. Excavation for Money Hill, levelled in 1861 revealed some finger-length-copper bars, thought to have been used as currency. These can now be seen in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology.
The features known as the Mile Ditches are Iron Age, and were probably constructed by a local tribe to serve as a territorial boundary and to control traffic along the Icknield Way. Their age, second century B.C., was confirmed by radio carbon dating an animal bone found at the bottom of the western ditch. The ditches are one of a series of constructions spanning the chalk, providing man-made barriers between what would have been the natural obstacles of the fens to the north and to the densely wooded country further south. When constructed the banks and ditches would have been substantial earthworks, but they were flattened when it became necessary to farm this part of the Heath during the Second World War. Now they are visible only as three dark green stripes of grass
Ermine Street, the Roman Road which connected London with York, ran past the eastern edge of the Heath. Some Roman pottery found beneath the site of the present cricket pitch can be seen in Royston Museum. All of the Heath’s ancient sites have been extensively examined, initially by two amateur Victorian archaeologists, J. Beldam and E.B. Nunn. However, their eager approach to excavation unfortunately led to much evidence being destroyed. Ironically, Nunn blamed a tobogganing accident on the Heath for his subsequent ill health prior to his death. In 1933 the Long Barrow was re-examined by C.W. Phillips, who found evidence of a secondary Saxon burial.
Therfield is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and the remains of a Norman Castle still exist at Therfield Village.
In 1189 Richard I granted grazing rights for the heathland adjacent to the Icknield Way to the new monastery at Roys Cross, around which the town of Royston eventually grew. A medieval loom weight was found buried at The Devil’s Hopscotch, indicating that the area was formerly used as sheep pens.
The Heath was the venue for much medieval pageantry. In the thirteenth century John of Brabant, son-in-law of Edward I, came here to take part in one of the Grand Tournaments.
The Knights Templar would have crossed the Heath on their way from their base at Baldock, either to Royston Market or possibly to Royston Cave.
An army of three thousand was gathered on the Heath in 1455 by Richard Duke of York and the Earl of Warwick, prior to the first battle of the War of the Roses at St. Albans.
In the seventeenth century King James I, who maintained a house off Kneesworth Street in Royston, regularly visited the area to race horses and hunt the Great Bustard. His son, Charles I, maintained these traditions until 10th June 1647, he passed this way as a prisoner of Cromwell.
Over the last two centuries the Heath has frequently been used for military purposes. Early in the nineteenth century Royston and Barkway volunteers prepared here to repel Napoleon. From 1855 Herts Militia used the Heath as the venue for their training camps, at which time they built the Rifle Range (closed 1982)
Between 1941-48 the area around the present Sporting Club was used as a Prisoner of War Camp for both Italian and German Prisoners.
For many years people have come to the Heath to enjoy the open space, large crowds often gathering to witness various spectacles ranging from tournaments in the thirteenth Century to present day kite festivals.
Racing has long links with the Heath, a tradition maintained since at least the time of the Stuart Kings. In the nineteenth century thousands of people gathered here for the reopening of the local course. Today, no racing takes place, the only horses allowed being those trained by the stables at King’s Ride. In recent years winners of the Derby, Grand National and Cesarewitch have all been trained on the Heath.
Cricket has been played on the Heath for over two hundred years. Royston Cricket Club is only three years younger than the MCC. The Club’s most famous player was Keith Fletcher, capped 59 times for England between 1968 -1982.
Sadly cricket is no longer played on Therfield Heath. Royston Cricket Club now play in Therfield!