It has been some time since we started our journey down the Neolithic M1. You may recall that we started at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, and travelled down the Peddars Way to Knettishall Heath near Thetford. We then continued on the Icknield Way through Suffolk and Cambridgeshire to the borders of Hertfordshire at Royston.
So we pick up our journey again in the centre of Royston, by the glacial erratic that gives the town its name. The Royse Stone once held a cross erected by a Lady Roisia. Royston sits at the junction of the Icknield Way and Ermine Street, the latter being one of the most important Roman roads in the country, leading from London to York. Not far from the stone is the entrance to Royston Cave, an enigmatic opening carved into the solid chalk below, discovered in 1742 when a shaft covered by a millstone was uncovered. The cave walls are covered in medieval (and possibly earlier) carvings, and are well worth a visit!
A short distance west from the town is Therfield Heath which contains a barrow cemetery consisting of a long barrow, and several smaller round barrows.
The modern Icknield Way Trail diverts south here, following the high ground through the villages of Therfield, Sandon and Wallington toward Baldock. But north of the trail, there are several scattered tumuli, roughly following the course of the modern A505 road. This suggests that maybe the prehistoric way followed the lower ground at this point. The scant remains of a hillfort can be found at Arbury Banks, just outside Ashwell, one of 6 such hillforts spread along the northern Chilterns.
From Baldock, the Icknield Way continues west through Letchworth Garden City, crossing the River Hiz at Ickleford. The modern trail once again diverts from the old path and continues to Pirton, which has a motte and bailey construct. There is a current project, run by Reading University, to investigate whether certain mottes could have had earlier origins as Neolithic mounds, is the motte at Pirton a candidate, I wonder?
South-west of Pirton, the Knocking Knoll long barrow can be found. Although now damaged by ploughing activity, this was excavated by Ransom in 1856. Some 100 years later, in the mid-1950s farm labourers uncovered a chalk cist containing a crouched burial, which was presumed to have its origins in the ploughed E half of the barrow.
Rejoining the old path and continuing south-west past the Pegsdon Hills nature reserve, Ravensburgh Castle can be seen to the north. Finally, the trail passes the Galley Hill barrow cemetery before getting lost in the urban sprawl of Luton.
We’ll pause for a while once again here, and continue our journey anon.