Orwell Clunch Pit

By Clive Pickton

Orwell Clunch Pit

Orwell Clunch Pit is a site of some 4.4 acres located on the northern edge of the village in an area also known as Toot Hill. It is accessed via Quarry Lane from the High Street and consists of a central hollow carved into the south-facing hillside, with footpaths on more elevated sections on the surrounding sides leading to a flat plateau area at the northernmost edge. From the top of the Clunch Pit there are commanding views to the south over the low-lying farmland across to Royston and beyond.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Orwell Clunch Pit' page

Initially a bare quarry, then open grassland which was grazed by cattle,  during the nineteen-sixties and seventies the Clunch Pit became severely overgrown by shrubs. These have since been cleared (except around the perimeter areas) to restore the open chalk grassland with its distinctive flora which is now only to be found in a few sites in South Cambridgeshire. Because the site has never been ploughed, it has retained this chalk grassland flora that has vanished from much of the surrounding area due to intensive farming.

‘Clunch’, was once quarried for building stone.

Orwell Clunch Pit is one of several such excavations which are dotted along the west-east trending chalk ridge. Particular levels within the chalk, known as ‘clunch’, were once quarried for building stone. The ‘clunch’ is also known as Totternhoe Stone or Burwell Rock in neighbouring counties.  Indeed it appears that  some of the properties in Orwell originally built from clunch retain the right to extract material from Orwell Clunch Pit for repair work, but if such rights do exist, it is a long time since anyone has exercised them.

The clunch which is extracted can be readily cut or tooled, but it is not particularly resistant to weathering. However, in the absence of much other local building stone in this part of England, it has been widely used in both village properties and even parts of several Cambridge colleges, although there does not appear to be any suggestion that Orwell Clunch Pit ever provided stone for anything other than local dwellings and probably the church. Certainly a significant volume of rock has been excavated, entirely by hand, over many years.

A Site of Special Scientific Interest and a valued village amenity

The Clunch Pit has not seen any active quarrying now since the nineteen-thirties, and is currently designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to the rich chalk grassland flora and associated butterflies, moths and other insects. It is a significant village amenity which is used both by villagers and visitors for leisure activities.

Photo:The beacon at the top of the Clunch Pit  was built and donated by Marshall's Aerospace for the Millennium celebrations, and is the property of South Cambridgeshire District Council.

The beacon at the top of the Clunch Pit was built and donated by Marshall's Aerospace for the Millennium celebrations, and is the property of South Cambridgeshire District Council.

The site is managed by the Clunch Pit Management Trust (CPMT), a voluntary body which reports to Orwell Parish Council who own the site. Membership of the CPMT is open to representatives from any village organisation and anyone willing to devote time to preserving the site under a management plan agreed with Natural England (previously English Nature and the body responsible for the site under its SSSI designation).

The site is marked as Quarriehill Furlong on the map of 1680, so it seems that quarrying was already established by that time. It is probable that the quarrying originates with the building of the original village church in the thirteenth century, but there are no records known from that time. It seems that clunch in Bedfordshire was already being quarried in Roman times, so it is quite likely that excavations on some scale commenced very early on in the history of Orwell too.  Under an Enclosure Act of 1837 the Pit was awarded to the Parish of Orwell, giving residents the right to take stone for building and for the maintenance of the village roads.  Certainly many village properties built before the 20th century contain at least some clunch construction, and there is even a thatched wall in the High Street which is constructed of clunch.

In 1977 the Parish Council secured the ownership of the Pit 'for the benefit of all villagers.'

The most recent history of the site is well-documented, so we do know that in 1977 the Parish Council established a trust deed with the then owner, a Mr Whiskin, whose company Village Properties owned the freehold of the Clunch Pit as well as the site of Quarry Farm on the High Street (which was demolished to make way for six new properties in the nineteen-eighties). Subsequently two Parish Councillors, Mr Brown and Mr Miller, purchased the freehold, which they then donated to the Parish Council who now own the land.

Photo:Norfolk Horn sheep introduced as part of the management plan to maintain open chalk grassland through summer grazing.

Norfolk Horn sheep introduced as part of the management plan to maintain open chalk grassland through summer grazing.

From 1978 a village organisation (the CPMT) was established to manage the site ‘for the benefit of all villagers’, and from 1985/86, when the site was designated a SSSI, the CPMT has worked in conjunction with firstly English Nature and then Natural England to keep the site in the best possible condition.

Orwell Clunch Pit is today a recreational area which supports a rare flora, yet it has clearly been used over hundreds of years as a source of local building stone until the use of brick in residential properties became widespread.

Photo:Footprints in winter testify to the continued attraction of this leisure area to the villagers of Orwell

Footprints in winter testify to the continued attraction of this leisure area to the villagers of Orwell

If anyone reading this article is in a position to provide any more detail on the history of the Clunch Pit over that long period of time, then your help in fleshing out the history of this site would be much appreciated.

Clive Pickton September 2012.

 

 

This page was added by Sue Miller on 29/09/2012.

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