Much has changed since the days when West Street was a cul de sac, terminating at what was known as the Common fields, to the introduction of gas lighting in the late 19th C, and a well-remembered character Mr Thackray who kept the street clean with his hand cart. Because the pace of change is now quicker than ever, we wanted to record a flavour of some of the history and recent past. We are therefore, particularly grateful to friends and neighbours and others for their contribution.
West Street runs parallel to the River Ouse and the old mill race until it meets The Causeway (originally a continuation of Post Street) at right angles. It then follows the small man made harbour" constructed, it is thought, by the Danes in 879. Originally, West Street was probably a Danish trading area with supplies being brought up the river and where riverside house boundaries still run down to the water with the risk of flooding during really wet weather. Although Godmanchester had previously been home to a Roman garrison, the usual layout of an East-West route did not then follow the present West Street layout exactly. Together with Post Street and Ermine Street it is certainly one of the earliest passages through the town. Although it is impossible to trace all the changes that have taken place in West Street, a look at more recent developments gives an idea of how quickly an area can change. It is still well within living memory that West Street was a quiet thoroughfare with the occasional automobile, farm vehicle or earlier cattle droves to watch out for. (It is told that the houses with shutters on the ground floor had them to stop the cattle putting their heads through the windows!). Now though it is a busy thoroughfare serving the Offords, St Neots, Buckden and the A1. During peak traffic times venturing out from the roadside can be quite a feat; doubtless traffic will continue to increase with the proposed expansion of new homes in Cambridgeshire. But this is not really new, and it has been the case in Godmanchester for many years, from the expansion of the town and West St in the 14thC right up to the 1950s when the first council and private estates were built.
Let us start our little tour of the recent history of West St at Fairy's Corner", the triangular island of houses, including View House and The Forge, at the junction with Old Court Hall. The "Bake House" was here, and opposite it the grocery shop run by Mr George Ward who moved to the street from St Ann's Lane. He sold a wide variety of produce and he kept his delivery van at the end of the junction of West St and Old Court Hall where the flats now stand. Continuing down the right hand side of the street towards The Offords you come to a large house, (No. 42) which used to be known as River Lea. Now housing offices, and once referred to locally as being owned by the "gentry", it has had a variety of uses over the years including as a children's home during the WW 2. With grounds sweeping down to the river it isn't difficult to imagine a way of life in the days when local people were employed to work the large houses and be at the beck and call of their employers. Next door is "The Chestnuts" which has been extended and altered since the day when Sir Wm. Prescott owned the house and his head gardener, Mr Sexton lived in the Head Gardeners House at number 39. Moving on you come to Oak Tree Court built in the grounds of The Chestnuts about seventeen years ago, with great care being taken in its construction so as to match the street scene. The view from the road across the grounds to the river before Oak Tree Court was built must have been stunning, and even more so before the two old copper beeches had to be felled in 2000 because of disease. Both buildings now offer retirement accommodation with splendid views and access to the river.
Moving on down the river side, West Street, like some other areas of Godmanchester, is very fortunate to still have several thatched cottages with pretty gardens, They avoid the chocolate box image because they are obviously lived in and loved; some have been extended and altered over the years, or perhaps "knocked through" to provide larger accommodation and all probably have a story to tell. At the far end of West St is the brook and little bridge which has recently been reconstructed to avoid the regular flooding. As locals know much of the area is classified as flood plain and in recent years this has been much in evidence. Across the bridge there used to be another house but this has been demolished and there is no trace of it now.
Turning round and returning up the other side of the street towards the town you come to "Shepherds Holt", once the home of Wing Commander Spence, whose brother designed the new Coventry Cathedral after the original had been firebombed during WW2. Continuing along you arrive at what is probably one of Godmanchester's largest houses, Farm Hall. Rebuilt in 1746, and the creation of Charles Clarke, Recorder for Huntingdon, it has a circuit of reception rooms at first floor level, often a feature of town houses. It is thought possible that Island Hall was altered to emulate the changes to Farm Hall. The barn belonging to the farm has recently been converted as living accommodation, and the former servants quarters are now the offices of John Martin Associates. Farm Hall also features in stories of undercover scientific research into atomic energy during WW2, and also held an annual Flower and Vegetable show organised by Mr Kisby. The grounds were opened up and everyone looked forward to entertainment such as the slippery pole game and the baby show. In the evening a dance was held which must have been the event of the year in the social calendar of Godmanchester. It also meant a great increase in business for the then thatched public house at No 21, the Lord Nelson", which closed in about 1960. The pub must have hoped for a fine evening so that more ale could be sold straight from the barrels housed in its tiny cellar. I'm told it was a really friendly little pub, with attractions for the whole family as there was also a small sweet shop, which sold walnuts picked from a tree in the grounds: a great improvement on the crisps and salted peanuts of present day pubs.
Continuing up towards Godmanchester, you pass a variety newer and 17th C houses where once old cottages stood: the charming house known locally as "The Stone House" constructed from Norfolk stone, then another cottage before you reach Corpus Christie House. This area was previously known as West Farm and is now the offices of a research business. The farm and land was previously ecclesiastical land and this possibly explains why it has remained as grazing land and not been developed. Indeed, one of the farm sheds used to house the grain drier for the street and it was constructed to a modern design so as not to be too noisy and keep residents awake.
Apart from the alterations and additions to the housing along the street, there have been other events which imperceptibly alter the street scene. The arrival of gas street lighting in 1870 would have been a major innovation, as was the arrival of a proper drainage system which eradicated the need for open drains and the outside lavatory which every dwelling would have boasted, the pavements and road surface have been improved, telephone poles, Cable and Satellite communication dishes all give testimony to the march of progress". The noise of the A14 and the distant blast from West Coast mainline high speed train's whistle have intruded into the quietness, but every so often the delightful old steam engine rumbles past shaking the foundations of our little house and bringing you to back to earth with a jolt.
This article is not intended to be a complete or historically accurate reflection of West St, space and time would not allow for it. It is but a series of recollections and recorded history. If you would like to add to the history of the street, or Godmanchester, perhaps by providing the history of your home or area, then the Community Association would like to hear from you. Alternatively, visit the constantly developing website at www.godmanchester.net. I do hope that some of you can add to this article and perhaps we can include a more detailed walking tour of this or other streets in next year's magazine.
Ted and Lindy Malone