A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
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The hamlet of Reach, about five miles (8 km.) west of Newmarket and nine (15 km.) north-east of Cambridge, stands mainly along a green where the Devil's Ditch meets the south-east end of Reach Lode. It derived its name and effectively its existence as a settlement from that strip (rece) of land, (fn. 1) used by the 12th century for loading merchandise. Until the 20th century Reach was divided civilly and ecclesiastically between the ancient parishes of Swaffham Prior, in which most of its inhabitants lived, and of Burwell. Only in 1954 were 698 a. detached from Swaffham Prior and 436 a. from Burwell to form a separate civil parish, covering later 459 ha. from 1971. (fn. 2) The boundaries of the modern parish, which largely follow early modern fen droves and drainage channels, and further south run along roads, (fn. 3) are substantially parallel to the lode and the Ditch, widening somewhat towards the south-east. Although Reach had chapels of its own in the late Middle Ages and from 1860, (fn. 4) it remains dependent ecclesiastically upon its neighbours.
The hamlet stands by the rounded northern edge of a ridge of chalk projecting towards the fen and dropping suddenly from 15 m. just south of the settlement, where Church Hill is scored by old clunchpits. Probably in Roman times the original Reach Lode (fn. 5) was cut as part of a system for fen drainage and navigation, beginning just beyond that drop and running north-west for three miles towards the river Cam. A Roman villa on a corridor plan was discovered in 1892-3, ¾ mile to the south-east, just within the modern parish boundary. (fn. 6) Reach Lode presumably existed by the 1070s when William I posted troops to guard, not altogether successfully, the dyke (fovea) of Reach against Hereward's Saxons besieged in the Isle of Ely. (fn. 7) The lode probably throughout the Middle Ages followed its present course, turning more westerly after almost three quarters of its length to follow a somewhat curving line till it entered the Cam. In the mid 17th century (fn. 8) the Bedford Level Commissioners cut a new Reach Lode leading straight to Upware along an alignment to the south-west, cutting off the angle. It was not always kept well scoured in the 18th century. (fn. 9) After the Swaffham Fen Drainage Commission was set up in 1767 they chose, perhaps in the 1780s, (fn. 10) to recut the 'old lode', also making a high embankment along its south-west side to protect Swaffham fen against flooding from the then undrained Burwell fen. The existing Lode, largely following the earlier course though adjusted slightly southwards at its northwest end, is fed by catchwater channels running along the southern edges of the Swaffham and Burwell fens. It widens from 30 ft. near Reach hamlet to 40 ft. where it bends towards Upware. In the 1970s it was not being regularly scoured. (fn. 11)
Storage pits found, filled with mainly cattle bones, besides Late Iron Age pottery, on the gentler south-eastern slope of Church Hill, suggest habitation even before the lode was made. (fn. 12) Medieval settlement was certainly established by the mid 12th century, when a man of Reach was mentioned. (fn. 13) Between 1600 and 1800 the parts of the hamlet in Swaffham Prior and Burwell were occasionally distinguished as West (fn. 14) and East Reach. (fn. 15) From the Middle Ages onwards the largest concentration of population was usually on the Swaffham side of the hamlet, where 10-15 messuages and plots (placeae) were recorded c. 1300. (fn. 16) In the 1750s c. 20 landholders paid land tax under Swaffham Prior for property at Reach, (fn. 17) where c. 12 ratepayers were recorded in the 1790s (fn. 18) and 25-30 between 1810 and 1830. (fn. 19) By contrast there were only 21 dwellings, 15 along Reach green, on the Burwell side, compared with 67 on the Swaffham side even in 1841, when 301 out of 416 inhabitants lived in Swaffham Prior parish. (fn. 20) That proportion was 357 out of 504 in 1851, when Reach hamlet had its highest recorded population. Numbers shrank faster on the Burwell side thereafter; that part contained only 83 out of 435 residents, in a fifth of Reach's 94 houses, in 1871, and 65 out of 330 people in 1881, when 18 of Reach's 92 houses were unoccupied. (fn. 21) In 1859 eleven cottages had been destroyed by fire, in 1868 five more. (fn. 22) Reach had not grown by the 1960s: numbers within the new parish actually fell from c. 300 to 269 in the 1950s and stood at only c. 250, occupying c. 90 dwellings, in the 1970s. Even in 1991 the population had risen only to 300 again. (fn. 23)
In the Middle Ages building probably lay mainly along each side of the long, narrow green used for markets and fairs, probably created by wearing down the extreme north-west end of the Devil's Ditch: in 1279 the 'commune' of Reach was reported for breaking down part of it. (fn. 24) The green may once have stretched up to Reach hythe, but an island of dwellings, perhaps sites of stalls made permanent, came by the 18th century at latest to occupy the north-western half of that green. (fn. 25) About 1570 one plot in Reach market was granted for building a shop. (fn. 26) To the south-west of that island lay a small network of lanes, from which housing extended a little way along the road leading towards Swaffham Prior village; that road, called in the 14th century Baston lane, was inhabited by 1300 (fn. 27) and had a bridge by 1800. (fn. 28) That area, backing onto a channel, perhaps artificially widened, was called the Delf by 1330, (fn. 29) Delf (Delph) End by the 1510s, when houses and cottages stood there, (fn. 30) and later Delver End. (fn. 31)
Few surviving houses at Reach date from before 1700. (fn. 32) The most substantial earlier house is that, standing at the north-western end on the Burwell side, styled the manor house. It was probably the house belonging to the nominal manor of 'East Reach place', to which barely 10 a., apart from quitrents, belonged. It was styled a manor between 1600 (fn. 33) and 1725, when Samuel Shepherd bought it. The property, then including a brewery and three stables, may have been used as an inn. (fn. 34) The main three-bayed range contains a probably 16th-century hall below a chamber. Its eastern cross wing was extended after 1600 to make a new kitchen. After 1700 the main block was cased in red brick, the cross wing in limestone. A 17th-century stair turret in the angle between them contains an 18th-century stair. Another smaller, timberframed house, west of the island of houses, retains a 16th-century main block with a hall under a chamber; its jettied south front is partly covered by a later two-storeyed porch, leading to a reset late medieval clunch archway. Along the south-west side of the green extends a line of plain 18th- and early 19th-century houses, a few possibly incorporating earlier structures: those dating from before 1800 sometimes combine side and rear walls in local clunch with brick façades; those from later are in white brick throughout. At Delver End one or two older houses, including one of 1713 demolished since the 1960s, may have incorporated timber framing. In the late 20th century a scattering of small farmhouses and bungalows appeared along the road east towards Burwell, and one close was developed off the southern end of the green. In the mid 19th century Reach was well supplied with public houses, (fn. 35) including the Ship and the (Black) Swan. The latter, established by 1800, (fn. 36) was much used by watermen. (fn. 37) A lodge of Ancient Shepherds, recorded 1850-90, sometimes met there. (fn. 38) That inn was still open in the 1930s in an originally 17th-century building at the green's north-west end, with extensive late 18th-century stabling, and partly refronted in five symmetrical bays in the 19th century. The White Horse, in an 18th-century brick house a little to its south, (fn. 39) which was the last survivor of supposedly seven public houses, closed in 1967. A new one, opened in 1975, had failed by 1984, another opening in 1985. (fn. 40)