Going up to Wardshurst farm or going down to the Coombe, either way it was tricky for the Thursday volunteers carrying out much needed restoration work to the Coombe steps. – new step boards, infilling, with posts and rails. This was probably the hardest task set by the Trust in years and was a new location for the volunteers, deep down on the side of the valley on part of the Boundary Trail. The Coombe is a deep short valley without a watercourse, blocked at one end making it difficult to enter with vehicles or even on foot. The path in question gave access to the inhabitants of the lost hamlet of Wards, when travelling to Ringshall and Little Gaddesden, clearly shown on the Estate map of 1762.
The word “hurst” has Anglo-Saxon origins referring to a wooded hillside, and it seems that the Coombe has been part wooded since at least 1656. Artefacts that have been discovered suggest that it has seen human activity since the Bronze age some two thousand years ago. A Roman cemetery, a lost hamlet, brick making, quarrying, and rabbit rearing have all featured in it’s history. Being part of the common of Ivinghoe Aston it would have had grazing livestock, with wood pasture for cattle and pigs in season.
The earliest reference to the lost “hamblet” of Wards was in 1578 when it was referred to as a “tything”. This was an Anglo-Saxon legal concept being a group of ten households or families who swore a pledge to the King for good behaviour. The responsibility for keeping the peace within the community lay with an elected tithing – man. Squatters encroaching on common land for the purpose of habitation, were often accepted by the manorial lord as a source of revenue, especially where it could lead to a settlement for trade. Today the only surviving evidence of the hamlet is an ancient well.
An interesting insight into customary rights on the common comes from an agreement of 1656, drawn up between John 2nd earl of Bridgewater, Lord of the Manor, and a group of his tenants.
It emphasises the importance of common rights held by both the Earl’s tenants and those owning land in the Wards Hurst hamlet. Of particular interest is the mention of John South of Wardshurst farm having the right to enclose one acre of waste ground so long as he allows passage of animals from the hamlet to the pond.
The 1656 agreement provides the first reference to the existence of a rabbit warren within the Coombe, referring to “Box Warren”. In England the number of rabbit warrens had increased steadily in the later 14th and the 15th centuries. Commons were often used as they represented marginal or waste land. A grant of free warren permitted manorial lords to establish colonies of rabbits, or conies as they were then known, regardless of the impact it might have on the commoners’ grazing. For the Ivinghoe Aston commoners it appears that the rabbit population was out of control and damaging the resources of the common. The solution seems to have been to fence the area of the warren and to allow the commoners to catch rabbits outside of it’s boundaries. As part of the plan, box, which is native to the area was planted in rows to create hedges to provide cover for the rabbits. Despite being coppiced over the centuries, the hedges still remain to this day. Rabbits were reared for their fur and meat, but by the mid 1700’s the market had declined, so the ever resourceful Bridgewaters took to the felling of the box trees. The timber became very desirable for printing blocks and musical instruments, and it was shipped off to the London wood turners.
The volunteers will be back to finish the job!