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Thorn Spring moated site and associated woodbanks

A Scheduled Monument in Houghton Regis, Central Bedfordshire

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Latitude: 51.9143 / 51°54'51"N

Longitude: -0.5418 / 0°32'30"W

OS Eastings: 500390.7876

OS Northings: 224982.5872

OS Grid: TL003249

Mapcode National: GBR G4L.V4T

Mapcode Global: VHFRC.K4DT

Entry Name: Thorn Spring moated site and associated woodbanks

Scheduled Date: 11 January 1996

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1013519

English Heritage Legacy ID: 27110

County: Central Bedfordshire

Civil Parish: Houghton Regis

Traditional County: Bedfordshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Bedfordshire

Church of England Parish: Houghton Regis

Church of England Diocese: St.Albans


The monument lies within an area of woodland known as Thorn Spring and is
protected within two areas: a medieval moated site located some 60m to the
north east of Oakwell Park (an early 20th century country house), and an
associated boundary earthwork which flanks the north side of Thorn Road, some
190m to the south east.

The moat has three straight arms enclosing an island which is roughly
rectangular in plan, measuring c.29m north east to south west by 40m north
west to south east. The fourth arm, to the south east, curves away from the
centre of the island forming an arc. The ditch varies between 2.8m and 6m in
width, widest in the north east and north west arms, and between 1m and 1.5m
in depth. The western half of the south eastern arm has been partially
infilled in recent years leaving a narrow channel; and the eastern half,
together with part of the north eastern arm, has been partially dredged and
now contains shallow standing water. This operation has not, however, removed
the earlier deposits of waterlogged silt from the base of the ditch, which
continue around the complete circuit to a depth of at least 0.8m. Traces of an
external bank, 3m wide and 0.4m high, survive along the outer edge of the
north eastern arm, continuing for a short distance around the northern corner.
The moat is thought, as the placename suggests, to derive water from springs
below it. There are, however, two infilled leats which enter the moat at the
highest point of the circuit, and are considered to have provided an
additional supply. The first, visible as a slight depression, 2.5m wide and
0.2m deep, runs for approximately 90m to the north west from the centre of the
north western arm, and is particularly noticeable where it is crossed by a
grass pathway flanking the moat. The second buried channel is similar in
appearance and extends for c.50m to the north east of the northern corner of
the moat. A sample of each channel, 10m in length, is included in the
scheduling in order to provide protection for their archaeological
relationships with the moat. The narrow outflow channel is a relatively modern
feature which connects the southern corner of the moat to the eastern end of
an ornamental pond located in the gardens to the east of Oakwell Park. It is
not included in the scheduling.

The surface of the island retains slight traces of two raised platforms
positioned within the angles of the northern corners, which are thought to
mark the locations of former buildings. Each measures about 15m by 10m, and
about 0.3m high, separated by a shallow hollow, c.8m in width. A low bank,
c.1.8m wide and up to 0.4m high, skirts the edge of the island indicating the
position of a palisade or wall. Access to the island is currently provided by
a wooden footbridge across the south western arm, approached by a footpath
from the house. A slight broadening of the internal bank in the centre of the
south eastern arm of the moat is thought to indicate the location of the
original bridge.

The earthworks adjacent to Thorn Road to the south are thought to represent
the enclosure and management of woodland within the estate of the moated site.
The boundary, or woodbank, survives in two sections. The longer, southern,
section runs parallel to the road near the south eastern edge of the present
wood. The bank is c.120m in length, averaging 4.5m wide and between 0.4m and
0.8m high. It is flanked on the southern side by a largely infilled ditch, 3m
wide and 0.2m deep, which lies between 4m and 6m to the north of a modern
ditch marking the edge of the road. The western end of the woodbank has been
truncated by a later boundary ditch which provides the outflow from the
ornamental pond to the north. At about 50m from this end, the earthworks are
broken by a 3m wide gap, which is considered to be an original entrance way,
perhaps aligned with the original entrance to the moated island. Two further
gaps in the bank to the east appear to be later alterations since the
accompanying ditch is continuous. The southern section of the woodbank
terminates by the eastern edge of the present wood, separated from the
southern end of the second section by a narrow ditch. The bank here is similar
in appearance, and can be traced northwards along the eastern side of the wood
for approximately 40m. The external ditch along this section, however, has
been recut to form a modern drainage channel.
The moated site was first identified in 1916 by the antiquarian, F G Gurney.
It is thought to have been one of several residences constructed in the 12th
or early 13th century as a consequence of disputes over the lordship of
Houghton. Houghton was a royal manor at the time of the Domesday Survey in
1086, and remained crown property until the early 12th century when it was
granted to Hugh de Gurney by Henry I. Henry, however, also granted lands and
rights-in-common in Houghton to his newly founded priory at Dunstable and this
resulted in a protracted series of disputes between the priors and the Lords
of Houghton Manor, who each sought to defend their respective rights.
A later Hugh de Gurney fell from royal favour during the reign of John
(1199-1216), possibly as a result of the strained allegiances caused by the
French wars. The Prior of Dunstable is believed to have taken this opportunity
to acquire the original Houghton Manor (which is thought to have been located
to the north of the parish church). Hugh was subsequently restored to his
property, intensifying the dispute which led to the demolition of the existing
manor, and the construction of a new residence for the de Gurney family. Thorn
Spring is the most probable location for this new manor. The priory
subsequently founded a separate holding at nearby Calcutt's Farm.

The moated site is depicted on a map of the Duke of Bedford's estate dated
1762, at which time Thorn Spring was in the possession of William Fossey.
The wooden footbridge serving the island and the series of wooden path edges
in the interior are excluded from the scheduling, together with the brick
pedestal and concrete bird bath located in the southern corner of the moat
ditch, although the ground beneath these features is included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features,
considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

Around 6,000 moated sites are known in England. They consist of wide ditches,
often or seasonally water-filled, partly or completely enclosing one or more
islands of dry ground on which stood domestic or religious buildings. In some
cases the islands were used for horticulture. The majority of moated sites
served as prestigious aristocratic and seigneurial residences with the
provision of a moat intended as a status symbol rather than a practical
military defence. The peak period during which moated sites were built was
between about 1250 and 1350 and by far the greatest concentration lies in
central and eastern parts of England. However, moated sites were built
throughout the medieval period, are widely scattered throughout England and
exhibit a high level of diversity in their forms and sizes. They form a
significant class of medieval monument and are important for the understanding
of the distribution of wealth and status in the countryside. Many examples
provide conditions favourable to the survival of organic remains.

The moated site at Thorn Spring is a very well preserved example of the small,
single island type. The island has remained largely undisturbed and will
retain buried evidence for structures and other features related to the period
of occupation. The buried ditches to the north and east of the site provide
evidence for the water-management system, and the waterlogged silts within the
moat will contain both artefacts and environmental evidence illustrating the
function of the site and the landscape in which it was set. The monument lies
within an area in which moated sites are comparatively numerous, allowing
comparisons which will provide insights into the development of such
residences in the region. The medieval woodbanks are of particular interest,
illustrating part of that development.

Woodbanks were constructed to define the boundaries of woodland, which was an
extremely valuable and intensively managed resource during the medieval
period. The bank and ditch prevented encroachment by neighbours and, aided by
either hedges or fences on top of the bank, excluded livestock which would
otherwise have damaged the young trees and understorey. Most large woodbanks
were already in existence by c.1270, although some have been dated to the
previous century. Later woodland boundaries, particularly those of the 19th
century, tend to be slighter and straighter, often retaining the hawthorn
hedgerows which were planted on the banks.

The protected length of woodbank at Thorn Springs, although only part of a
larger circuit, survives as a well preserved length of earthwork and includes
an original entrance. The banks will preserve evidence of former land use on
the buried ground surface, and the infilled ditches may contain artefacts from
the periods of construction and subsequent use.

The woodbank illustrates the longevity of the woodland area surrounding the
moated site, and provides rare and valuable evidence concerning the management
of its immediate surroundings.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Lea, H S F , The Victoria History of the County of Bedfordshire, (1912), 390
Lovering, P, Royal Houghton, (1986), 26-7
Rackham, O, The Illustrated History of the Countryside, (1994), 53
Conversation with the gardener, Clearing the moat at Thorn Springs, (1994)
copied from a map of 1762, CRO B553: Estate Map (Duke of Bedford), (1766)
Notebook, Gurney, F G, CRO X325/58, (1916)
O.S. revision card, NKB, Antiquity No. TL 02 SW 20: Enclosure - Doubtful Homestead Moat, (1973)
Sketch map and field notes, Simco, A, 140 Thorn Moat, Houghton Regis, (1986)
Title: CRO B553 Estate Map - Duke of Bedford
Source Date: 1766
copied from map of 1766

Source: Historic England

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