Introduction: The Mel Over Time

As the ice last melted about ten thousand years ago, the water rushed towards the sea, cutting pathways through the landscape and developing its special patterns and routes depending on the nature of the underlying rock. Where it hit chalk a special kind of aquifer, spring and stream system developed, providing us with our glorious chalk stream with its unique character and wildlife. The waters washed down gravel, which now lies on the base of the river nurturing the wildlife with its minerals and keeping the flow fast and clean, if the channels are maintained. As chalk streams settled on floodplains they have never had sufficient energy to change their direction much, so the course of the Mel over time has probably been similar for thousands of years (apart from interference by humans).

Dark and light. Photo of the river Mel by Bruce Huett
Dark and light
Credit: Bruce Huett

Early settlements

The hunter-gatherers who were around when the rivers formed would have probably found rich pickings in the rather swampy terrain surrounding the river. There is no evidence for these peoples locally until the Middle Stone Age, around 10,000 BCE.

Nothing is known about when this area of England first supported farming but the hamlets that eventually formed Meldreth and Melbourn, clustered around the Mel, probably farmed and grazed the slightly higher areas to the North and South West after these had been cleared of trees. First settlement probably happened around 3,000 BCE. Flint tool production may also have been a local activity as an unusual amount of worked flint has been found in archaeological fieldwork near Chiswick End in Meldreth. Bronze age items were found in archaeological test pits in Meldreth.

As the site of the springs, the Bury was probably an important ‘spiritual’ centre from very early times. There is other evidence of the importance of this site from the large numbers of ancient burial mounds in the vicinity, local significant meeting places and the large number of very ancient tracks that pass close by. It may even have been a Boudica camp. A recent track finding, the Avenell Way, probably crossed the Mel near to where the British Queen is now.

When the Romans lived around Meldreth and Melbourn they probably built a system of drainage/ irrigation ditches to deal with marshy areas locally. The villages are close to the river so this might have been in a deeper channel with the marshier areas around Fenny Lane and Black Peak.

By the time of the Norman invasion the Mel was already important for the local economy. The Domesday book lists 9.5 mills on the Mel, of which one was in Melbourn (Sheene, which is now on the boundary). Interestingly, the Domesday book counts half mills — although we don’t actually know what that means. Possibly it was because the ‘mill’ was shared, or somehow only taxable on part of it. It’s likely that a mill referred to the machine, rather than the building itself — so a single building containing multiple sets of millstones would have been recorded as several mills.

The Middle Ages

As we move into the Middle Ages, the manors (the Bury, Trayles, Sheene, Flambards, Topcliffe and Veseys) dominate the scene. The Topcliffe manorial court records have many examples of local citizens being fined for not maintaining their watercourses, damming them up or causing flooding. Mills feature significantly in these accounts.

It is quite probable that with the increase in population, the importance of the mills and the change in agricultural practices the route of the Mel will have been changed by human intervention. Large mills needed a series of water systems to ensure a fast flow to the wheel and effective flow of the water after the mill. There is evidence of extensive interconnected irrigation or drainage ditches linking to the Mel and these will probably have had their courses changed over time as lands passed from one person to another and fields got larger and larger. 

Flambards. Photo of the river Mel by Bruce Huett
Credit: Bruce Huett

Modern times

The Mel forms a significant part of the boundary between the villages of Melbourn and Meldreth from the Bury to the A10 bridge. There is an account of the ‘beating of the bounds’ of Melbourn on the 4th of June 1789 with crosses being placed at appropriate points.

In 1820 the land through which the river runs was enclosed and there are detailed descriptions of how watercourses must be maintained by the land owners.

The view of the lake at the Bury is particularly beautiful as one comes along the drive towards the house. It has been captured in several paintings, some of which are held by the previous owners of the house, the Hopkinsons. 

In a more recent period the river was obviously considered of strategic importance for the Germans, as in December 1938 there was panic when mines were reported in the Mel. In fact they were two sacks of corn that had fallen off a lorry!

In the twenty-first century the nature of the river has changed dramatically. With the closure of the mills and the loss of the osier beds and the water meadows the river became a sluggish, clogged up entity. With poor maintenance of the banks there were repeated complaints of flooding and waterlogging recorded since the 1930s. Now, however, due to the efforts of the Mel River Restoration Group over 10 years, we now have a very attractive, fast flowing river with all the characteristics of a typical chalk stream. 

Boat race, 2003. Photograph of the river Mel by Tim Gane
Boat race, 2003
Photograph: Tim Gane

Long may it stay that way! 

Next page: Magical Waters