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Little Shelford historical memories

The M11 coming to Little Shelford

This account of the preparations for the M11 coming to Little Shelford was written by John Altham, the then Chairman of the Parish Council, in 1982.

THE M11 STORY by John Altham

It was in 1971 that we first heard a rumour that a Motorway was being thought of to run along the west side of the village when Jack Fordham told the Parish Council that some men had been taking borings on his farmland. Later we were informed officially and the boss of the Eastern Road Construction Unit, an offshoot of the Ministry, came to address an open meeting in the Village Hall. Immediately group of us was formed to fight the proposal and I was elected to lead this group.

Here I should mention what the purpose of this road was to be. First, it was intended to carry traffic from the North of Cambridge to the East side of London which at that time travelled down the old route through Bishops Stortford. Second, it would take the traffic out of Cambridge where it was passing down the Backs of the Colleges, and therefore it would act as a Cambridge Byepass.

In addition to this motorway it was planned to make a huge interchange West of Girton College so that traffic going East towards the East Coast ports would pass north of Cambridge or, if it needed to, could divert South down the M11. This interchange was to be a kind of four cross roads to cater for traffic wanting to go anywhere. It was to cater for local traffic as well as through traffic - all to be kept out of Cambridge.

As all these proposals would affect many villages in the “Cam Valley” and grab much farm land and cause much noise and disturbance near to it, opposition arose from literally ‘all along the line’ affected.

The Cambridge Preservation Society, who was interested in the surrounds as well as in the City itself, took charge of this opposition and called in Sir Colin Buchanan’s firm to oppose the road of their behalf, with each village contributing money towards his fees.

Following the growth of this opposition the Minister ordered a Public Enquiry to be held, as is usual in such cases. We all then set to to prepare our case, which job fell on me for our village.

Realising that the purpose of the new motorway to bypass Cambridge was clearly right the CPS agreed with Sir Colin Buchanan to propose an alternative route. Many were looked at, particularly a route to the East of Cambridge instead of to the West, but eventually it was decided to put forward a plan that the route should be further West and that the Royston to Huntingdon road should be developed (the A14). This was put forward at the Inquiry.

I now come to the Inquiry itself in 1972, a mammoth affair which lasted some six months and was held mostly in the County Council offices on Castle Hill. This was convenient for lunches at the Castle pub where the beer was good and many of us ate the landlady’s home-made shepherd’s pie at 17p a portion-or was it 17d - I forget). What sticks out in my mind firstly was the incredible fairness and patience of the Inspector of who conducted the Inquiry, Major General Edge, a retired Sapper. I think respect for the army and its products must have risen to new heights as a result. The number of witnesses was legion, and included many Q.C.s, quite private folk, an undergraduate appearing on his own to protect Madingley Wood, a young farmer’s wife appearing for her husband who was one of the very best witnesses as she spoke straight from the shoulder plain English. There were lawyers representing the Colleges whose land would be affected, and a very senior Q.C. representing the Radio Telescope’s interests who sat with the Director, Sir Martin Ryale (later to be the Astronomer Royal). Lastly, yours truly representing our little village - small fry compared to Cambridge.

Due to the way local government is organised the City of Cambridge were pro the Ministry’s plan, but the County Council were anti. And the Radio Telescope was anti because of the possible radiated electrical interferences which traffic might cause. Sir Martin Ryall made strong play of the possible use in the far future of the simple radar installations in lorries (particularly for use in fog for spacing out traffic, and that the frequencies which would be [used] were just those likely to interfere with the dishes which seek out signals from the stars. I well remember a highly technical argument in the ‘court’ between his QC and an expert physicist from the National Physical Laboratory brought in by the Ministry. Poor Major General Edge was writing notes (as he did all the time) about this. Sappers are highly trained, but not, I think, in the intricacies of Radar propagation. But he kept calm!

All kinds of details were discussed during those long months; where was the gravel to come from for the concrete, how former X get from one field to another across the motorway (answer -many little bridges had to be included); how much noise would be generated, which led to long discussions about decibels which few people understood; how much could tree planting stop noise (answer; admitted by the Ministry, it could not at all), and so on! At one stage of weeks were spent arguing about expected traffic figures, a key issue. Lawyers went home at night to do their homework trying to sort out their arguments for the next day on this subject, which at the best of times is only forecasting, which, almost by definition, is guesswork, and everyone guessed differently, according to which case they were presenting.

By 4 p.m. each Friday one went home with imaginary lorries buzzing in one’s ears from all directions; the possible threat of a Motorway Service Area at the foot of Maggots Mount (I fought hard against this threat); pictures of great holes in the ground all around the village where gravel had been extracted (we lie on gravel here). The lake of the Whittlesford road resulted from gravel extraction, and is now quite a bird sanctuary instead of a turnip field! And finally, in my case, blame being laid on me for my failure to stop this monster. (This did not happen!)

But at the end of it all, and many months later, the inspector came down in favour of the route proposed by the Ministry. Ah well, I thought, what will be our loss will anyway be Cambridge’s gain, and so it has turned out. We have the noise, but the Backs are now clear of lorries.

For me the Inquiry was a priceless experience of working of our Democracy. There was a raw, young, but earnest, undergraduate fighting Whitehall and being given a hearing; likewise a young farmer’s wife all on her own. There were eminent lawyers doing battle ‘in the ring’, and following their clients’ instructions to the letter, whatever their own doubts of the merits of the case, and some were very weak cases! There was money being paid out in many thousands of pounds per day simply to maintain the great democratic principles we believe it. Sometimes I found myself chuckling inside at some of the absurdity of it all but wholeheartedly approving every minute. Why do I say absurdity? Because I soon came to believe that we could not win because the ministry’s case was too strong. But we HAD to fight them stop

John Altham Ivy Cottage

March 1982



Church Street in 1881

Taking our walk down Church Street starting at the Church we can see today what our village would have looked like a hundred years ago. There were many more spaces in between houses with many fields, orchards and gardens. “Church House” is divided from the Churchyard by a high brick wall that replaced the thick privet hedge of former times. A Dr. Oakes lived here with a family; he was the father of the Provost of King’s College, who lived to extreme old age. The Provost had two golden-haired daughters who drove about in a magnificent yellow coach.

Next, past the grass field and orchard, comes Providence Place”, so named by a Herb doctor who once lived there. It consists of two cottages sideways on to the street; Charles Jennings bought it eventually. “Primrose Villa”, now “Corner Beeches”, where Edward Godfrey had his wheelwright’s yard, was built by John Riches after he had bought the land from the Willis family.

“Rose Cottage” (No 17) originally built by Wybro the carpenter, was subsequently burnt down and re-built by Thomas Austin to make a home for Charles Gee. It had a large garden well stocked with fruit trees by the second Mrs. Gee. Mr. Gee built a stable and a loft at the end of the garden, and put a porch over the door. The Chequers Ale House next door was burnt down at the same time, and re-built by Thomas Austin who then put up a new sign. Since this time it has been called the “Chequers” Public House. Henry Mansfield managed it for many years. But after his death the licence was taken away because there was insufficient custom. Where the “Long House” now stands there were originally two cottages with a garden between them, and two smaller thatched cottages as well, sideways onto the road. These were black-tarred and fronted on to the yard of the Checkers. End on to the road was a quite narrow garden. Mrs. Payne lived in this cottage and next door there lived a Mr. and Mrs. Wibdy. This ‘nice old gurl’ as she was called, had a tea stall on her doorstep; she was always most attractively dressed in a white muslin mob cap with a black ribbon round her head, together with a print dress and checked apron. There was a well of good water in the little garden in front of her house.

There were three similar cottages on the other side of the ale house, one occupied by a shoemaker, the next by a man Johnson who kept donkeys which were stabled in the big barn over the road. It is said that one of these donkeys bit him, so he always had his face bandaged. The last cottage was lived in by Viels whose door was below the level of the road. Also behind the Checkers, Mrs. William Gall’s mother, Mrs. Northfield, lived in a small cottage where she had a school for children and an oven for baking bread.

The next house we come to would be an attractive house thatched and with gable ends standing on the edge of the footpath, the rest of the building at right angles to the gable standing back from the road with a narrow garden. This garden is full of Lilies of the Valley and various trees overhang the house. Low black slat fencing divides these gardens from the road.


In line with the gable is the entrance to Gall’s yard which is paved with cobble stones and has many outhouses where ropes and sacks are stored, for the Galls are rope-makers. The rope-walk runs parallel with the main street and next to ploughed fields belonging to Manor Farm. William Gall used to make asphalt & disinfecting fluids as well; he built a very tall chimney for this purpose, but the smoke and the odours created caused such distress to the whole parish that he subsequently had to set up business in Stapleford, leaving just the rope-walk business in Shelford in his brother’s charge.

Cayuga Cottage (No 3) was built by Edward Whybro the carpenter who was the first person to live in it. His yard was behind the cottage, and the entrance was under a wooden building which touched the black barn of the “Prince Regent” Public House.


The “Prince Regent” was owned by Messrs Phillips at this time & run by Edward Walker, and later William Odell. This would seem to have been a popular Ale House, and most of the festivities connected with the annual village feast were held around the “Prince Regent”, booths being set up on either side of Church Street. These feasts were the remains of very large fairs which were held all over the country before the railways came. At these fairs village people bought most of their clothes and the household necessities for the whole year. Everyone attended & there was dancing in the public houses in the evening, and some sort of theatrical performance was in evidence.


On the opposite side of the road next to the row of cottages where William Wisbey lived and worked, stood “Benoni” or “Ingleside” – “The Square House” – which was built by a Mr. King. It was a square block of white bricks with a slate roof, with two stories of good, square rooms. It has always been a cold, dark house as all its best rooms face North, and the square garden at the back is full of tall trees and lilacs; therefore very little sun penetrates the house. Only the kitchen faces South! The garden is fenced off from Camping Close on the South side, and on the West by a high wall from William Wisbey’s yard. The kitchen garden is opposite the house across Church Street between Caguga Cottage and the Gall’s house. The Finches lived here for many years.

Next to “Ingleside” stood the cottage which housed the P. Office (No 6) which had a thatched roof. The Post Mistress was the daughter of John Everitt the Sexton – a Mrs. Alice Wisbey. John Everitt had also been the postman at the time when letters were collected and delivered four times a day. The Post Office was also a General Store and Grocer’s shop.

Next to the General Store and P.O. were some old barns which were used for stabling. The carts which were pulled from these stables carried the stones that were used to surface THE ROADS. In 1881 “Cintra Lodge” was owned by Mr. and Mrs. George Dawson. His widow later sold it to Mr. Whitechurch.


Where No 16 now stands The Three Horse Shoes Public House stood on slightly raised ground, run at this time by David Wedd. The tenants never did very well there as there were five other pubs in the village, all competing for custom. Once, at a feast time, roundabouts were lodged in the garden of the Three Horseshoes and as grown-ups and children whirled around on the wooden horses and ostriches of the roundabout, violently loud music kept the neighbours awake! Wooden stalls at which sweet and coconuts were sold stood near the garden wall dividing the property from Cintra Lodge. At the back was a large yard with stables and shed which were separated from Camping Close by a low wooden fence. Next to the road and touching the fence of Cintra Lodge was a small, one-storey building used variously by a butcher, a sculptor and a bicycle-maker.

Fern Cottage (No. 24) was probably occupied by a Mrs. and Miss Waltham at this time. The long garden is enclosed behind brick walling on the road side and a high paling on the Camping Close side. A good stable built of tarred wood with a tiled roof stands under a group of Elm trees in the Camping Close.


 Where Gregory Close now stands, anciently called Angel Close, was the beginning of the fields opposite the Church. This had been the site of a Mausoleum where members of the Wale family were buried until 1845 when all the coffins were moved to the North side of the Church, for the protection of the bodies against body-snatchers!


One can see that life in our village in 1881 was very different from what it is to-day. The pace was slower. Large houses had more space around them, while cottagers often lived cheek by jowl with their neighbours, where little cottages were squeezed in behind road-fronting property, and clustered round cobbled yards. Unmade roads would contain pot holes and cavities. Very different from the reasonably smooth tarmac of today. Horse-drawn carts & carriages provided the main means of transport, hence the large number of barns and stabling facilities.

The population was a little over 500 (to-day rather less than 900). Life was certainly harder for most of the inhabitants one hundred years ago, but life seemed colourful and lively. There would have been more people moving about the village during the day attending to their tasks on the spot instead of working away from the village as is frequently the case today.

Written by Barbara Andrews. Transcribed by Avril Pedley.

Life in Little Shelford in 1880

EXHIBITION OF LIFE IN 1880 and before

The County Archivist, Mr. Michael Farrar, has kindly written a few introductory paragraphs to our Exhibition on life in Little Shelford in 1880.


Little Shelford has changed much in the last hundred years. In 1880, the village was considerably smaller with a population of 516. The Rev. James Edward Law had been Rector for 26 years and was to continue for another 12 years. Unlike some incumbents of that era he lived in the parish and performed all the duties in person. The restoration of the church, begun in 1878, was nearing completion. The Congregational Chapel had been founded in 1823.

The Rector was also Lord of the Manor, still an important factor in the land ownership of the village, and holding courts, though mainly for formal business. The manor was, however, about to be sold to Charles John Clay of Newnham, University Printer.

The parish had been inclosed and common rights extinguished in 1815, and as a result Sainfoins and Rectory Farm had been established in the old open fields south of the village. At Shelford Hall was Colonel Robert Gregory Wale, Colonel Commanding the Cambridgeshire Militia, and the Rev. E.A. Smedley, retired Vicar of Chesterton, lived at the Manor House.

In addition to the three present public houses there were three beer retailers and a brewer (at the West End Brewery). The village was comparatively self-contained since it possessed a wheelwright, a plumber, a blacksmith, a carpenter, two boot-makers, three shopkeepers (two of them also bakers, and one also a draper), a florist, two carriers and a fly-proprietor. There was also local industry in the form of a small factory making waterproof canvas and distilling tar, as well as the ropewalk behind the houses in Church Street.

J. M. Farrar

County Archivist

Life in 1880
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