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Villagers: 750 Years Of Life In An English Village



Saxon Hall

Reconstruction paintings

Avenel’s watermill, Gamlingay, c1200


Though there is no written evidence of a watermill in Gamlingay, the village had one nonetheless, before it was replaced by the introduction of windmills in the thirteenth century.

  It belonged to Avenel’s manor, which stood in Dutter End. The black and white photo from 1956 shows the site. On the left hand edge of it, beside the brook, you can see the U-shaped ‘moat’ which was there until it was ploughed out about thirty years ago. Obviously, this was not a defensive moat. In the left hand corner of the site was something that Thomas Langdon called on his 1602 maps of the village ‘Gamlingay Head’.

  Gamlingay brook today is fairly sluggish and shallow but archaeologists believe it was deeper and wider in the past. Even so, to use it to drive a mill you would have to build up a head of water that could be released when needed. Hence ‘Gamlingay Head’.

  The ’moat’ was used to store the water. The simplified diagrams show how it would have worked.

 In the first diagram, the brook is dammed to divert the flow into the moat.

In the second, the moat is full. In the third the water is being released to drive the mill.  

  Other than the earthworks of the moat, now destroyed, and the name Gamlingay Head, there is also the significant name of the bridge that still stands just downstream of the mill site: Block Bridge. The brook itself, where it runs past the moat, seems to have been artificially straightened and deepened.

  In addition, Merton's medieval manorial records mention a pasture called 'le Milnedam' and 'Milledam', which must have been close to the watermill. The earliest mention of it dates from 1322.

  This evidence, coupled with the fact that the village needed to have some means of grinding corn on a relatively large scale before the coming of the windmills, is circumstantial but strong. And hence my painting of what the watermill may have looked like around the year 1200.

Avenel's Manor 25 July 1956 Gamlingay watermill c1200 Merton windmill c1300 Watermill illustration Gamlingay Park c1740

Merton windmill, Gamlingay, c1300


Conversely, there is plenty of evidence for Gamlingay’s windmills. The early medieval ones were post mills – that is, the revolving body of the mill was fixed on a huge vertical oak post that was rammed into the ground and supported by struts. The mill-post and struts were partially-covered with earth to form a mill-mound.

  Early windmills were small and unstable, with vertically-mounted sailyards, and often blew down or simply fell over. Later ones had their mill-posts and struts mounted on a trestle, and eventually people learned that if the sails were raked back the mill itself was much more stable.

  The Hundred Rolls of 1279 list three windmills in Gamlingay: one belonging to Avenel’s manor (and thus making their watermill redundant); one belonging to Merton manor; and one belonging to the Abbot of Sawtry.  

  There was another mill, probably a little later in date, that stood on Woodbury manor. It’s existence only came to light in 2012 when the cropmark it left was spotted on an aerial view.  

  Merton College’s bailiff’s accounts for their Gamlingay manor, which are fairly complete for the period 1279 to the early 1360s, contain the costs of repairing and renewing their windmill each year, often in minute detail.

  Based on the evidence from the bailiff’s accounts and on research into post mills over many years, this is my reconstruction painting of what it might have looked like around the year 1300.

Gamlingay Park c1740


There is only one tiny sketch of Sir George Downing’s house at Gamlingay Park in existence, and that’s on a plan of the Downing estate made a quarter of a century after the house was demolished. Gamlingay Park was built around 1711-1712 and flattened in 1776.

  Evidence used in the reconstruction comes from the earthworks (slowly disappearing), both on plans of them and from aerial views, the catalogue of the sale of the materials in 1776, and from other extant houses of the same period.

  This view of it is from the Heath Road. The two wings were single-storied, while the main house had three storeys.

  The post-chaise, bearing the Downing coat of arms, is of the period. The sunken lawn was only about a foot deep, and the classical statue standing on it seems a reasonable guess on my part, since Downing had other classical statues scattered around the grounds of the estate.


Brook flowing normally

Brook diverted into moat

Water released from moat to drive mill

Merton Manor c1340


Merton College in Oxford owned this manor in Gamlingay from the middle of the thirteenth century, on the site of what is now Manor Farm, off Station Road. The bailiffs' accounts, which survive from 1279 to the 1360s, give a good idea of the buildings and equipment it possessed.

  The small house to the left was where the manorial workers, known as the famuli, lived; the larger house to the right is the manor house; the tiled buldings by it are the kitchen, dairy and bakehouse. Behind the manor house is a large kitchen garden.

  At the top right is the manorial fishpond. The large tiled building between the manor house and the house of the famuli is the granary, standing on brick piers. The even larger tiled building to the left is for storing sheaves of corn prior to threshing.

  In the foreground are various barns, stables, ox houses, pig pens and so forth. Behind and to the right of the gatehouse is a dovecote. The manor was surrounded by a thatched wall.

Merton Manor c1340

Saxon Hall


During 1997 archaeologists uncovered an Early and Middle Saxon farmstead dating roughly from the fifth to the eighth century, and a Middle Saxon Christian cemetery. Altogether the cemetery contained 118 burials. The site was beside modern Station Road.


One of the buildings uncovered on the site was identified as a Saxon hall, which may have looked something like this.

This page features an on-going series of paintings of buildings in Gamlingay that no longer exist, and for which there is no photographic evidence.