Under Our Feet – The Story of the Greensand Ridge

Greensand Ridge

The recent floods in the UK have probably made most of the village glad that we live up on the Greensand Ridge. It affects everything about the village, from its long, linear layout, to its name and to the things that grow here.

We are not experts in geology or history, and most of this was new to us. As we learned, we found out that the Greensand Ridge under our feet affects everything around us: the names of roads, the shape of the village, the trees, the farms, the economy and the history of Maulden Village.

We even found out why it is called “green”…

The Ridge

The Greensand Ridge locally lies just across a little clay vale from the end of the chalky Chiltern Hills.

GreensandRidge resized

The ridge sands lie over two sorts of clay, which explains why our neighbours to the North have quite different farming and lots of old brickworks. (In fact, for a while, Stewartby was the largest brickworks in the world!)

The whole ridge actually stretches from Norfolk to the Isle of Wight, and is a very complex pattern of sands laid down in shallow sea water and estuaries. A good explanation is given in the Bedfordshire and Luton RIGS guidebook.

The local part runs from Woburn to Potton.

The Ridge used to be called The Lower Greensand, and is now called The Woburn Sands Formation, and it is quite a lot older than the chalk of the Chilterns. The sands formed in a shallow sea during the Cretaceous period, around 125 to 110 million years ago when sudden global warming rapidly washed sands down into the sea and caused sea levels to rise by tens of metres.

It is hard to imagine, but, around that time, Bedfordshire lay at approximately the latitude of the Bahamas and much of it was a balmy shallow sea.

(animation here)

The Gault Clay (you can see this on the Church Meadow SSSI) formed a cap over the sand before the land was pushed up, then erosion cut valleys and “breaches” into it.

The Green Sand

The sand itself is not normally green. The green comes from a soft mineral rich in highly reduced Iron called glauconite that formed where there was no oxygen in those shallow seas. You can see really green Greensand where it has been used to build the church in Husbourne Crawley. The green, pasty, glauconite is also used to make an old green pigment in church paintings. More importantly in historic times, the mineral was used to deliver Potassium as a fertilizer to farmers.

Most often, as water has carried oxygen and dissolved iron down into the sandy rocks, the sandstone has coloured to a series of rich and pleasant browns and ochres. You can see the stone in Maulden Village Church and in many surrounding walls. Although the stone is quite soft, and eroded by acidic rains, it can be very long lasting if it is protected by cap stones and roofs. The Bothy is a clear example of the local stone used in construction. It may well be that the “pit” in Church meadow was a site from which stone was extracted for building.

The sandy soil that forms as the stone weathers is very free draining and quite poor in minerals and low in fertility. Most of the ridge remains wooded, as it was too poor to farm economically until more modern farming practices and new crops could be found to suit it. This lack of arable farming for much of history has enabled the preservation of really ancient woodlands, such as The Kings Wood and Maulden Woods to retain their essential characters and species despite some active forestry.

Farming the Sands

As the new techniques and crops took hold, market gardening became the major occupation of those on the greensands (also known as “Redish land”) – they could grow leeks, onions, carrots, beans, cucumbers, peas and early turnips, alongside smaller crops of barley and wheat where the soil was a little more fertile. The sand had one large advantage – it drained and warmed very quickly. This meant that crops could be planted early, and the local farmers had a real commercial advantage in being able to sell early produce to London (and across a 60 mile range).

Maulden Village market gardening

Market gardening grew quickly after 1706, reaching its heyday around 1830 and continuing to be very strong until 1939, after which foreign imports and international shipping quickly eroded the markets in London. Local parish records show that the occupation of “gardener” occupied a very large proportion of local men entitled to vote. The spread of market gardening shows as the records have the proportion of people employed in it quadrupled from 16% to 61% from 1780 to 1830.

Many farmers were employed on land owned by the Duke of Bedford and the Bedford Estates, but a large amount of that land previously owned by them in and around Maulden passed into private hands between 1901 and 1911 and even more after 1945.

The Duke at the time was considered very forward thinking, and put into place many schemes to improve the area:

“In 1911 the Duke of Bedford introduced his own small-holding scheme, experimental in scale and rival in principle. It aimed to show that in the use of public funds to aid land settlement ‘smallholders should be small owners and not small tenants,’ and ‘that small ownership may be set up on business principles.’ A 371- acre farm at Maulden was divided into single-plot holdings averaging 21 acres each. Purchase of the holding, including erection of a house and buildings, was provided for by a I00 per cent mortgage with repayment over thirty-five years ‘at rates slightly above that being paid to rent county council holdings.’ There was marked stability of occupancy and ‘most of the mortgages were repaid within the period.’ This plan, with growers recruited from Biggleswade, was a significant factor in the development of market gardening on the Western Greensand. But the scheme was not extended.”

 p42 of http://www.bahs.org.uk/AGHR/ARTICLES/23n1a2.pdf

The land was clearly not easy to farm, but, for some, was very important. While the men “gardened”, the wives worked hard as well – with “straw plaiter” being a very common profession; using wheat and barley straw to weave hats for the major market at Luton.

Impact on the Village

You can see the echos of this past in the thatched roofs, the naming of streets after local professions ( Gardeners’ Close ), and the naming of streets after local farmers ( Cobbit’s Road ), the names that reflect land use ( Wheatlands Close, Harrow Piece ), the names that reflect the underlying sand itself: Green End, Sandy Acres, and Redhills Close, and finally the names that reflect the watercourses that flowed off the sand and caused valleys (or “breaches” in The Brache ) and water table lands ( Water End ).

The Greensand that lies under our feet has had a huge impact on the village, and everything in it.

Preservation

The Greensand Ridge is nationally recognised for the wonderful preservation of land use and buildings in the area:

The Greensand has the highest surviving percentage of historic parkland of any national character area (e.g. Woburn, Southill, Haynes). Estates have strongly influenced the architecture of individual late 18th and 19th century farmsteads (e.g. Duke of Bedford’s estates) and entire villages and towns (e.g. Woburn, Old Warden, Southill).

The local environment of the Greensand Ridge area is managed by the Greensand Trust who work closely with local landowners and the Forestry Commission to maintain the ecological value of the ridge. They have a clear mission to maintain the area, as is set out in their booklet

To work in partnership with local communities and landowners to conserve, and enhance, the distinctive characteristics of the Greensand Ridge, its attractive landscape, diverse wildlife and rich historical heritage, whilst increasing and improving opportunities for local people and visitors to enjoy and understand their environment.

There was also a local action group: The Greensand Ridge Action Group

Together with other local volunteers, Central Bedfordshire Council, and national organisations like BCN, The Greensand Trust directly manages areas in and around the village including:

These are wonderful and precious areas, and, if you get down close there is an astonishing variety of life in these little places.

The Walk

The Greensand Ridge is also commemorated in a major footpath: The Greensand Ridge Walk. The path itself from Linslade to Northill is about 37 miles long, but there is an extension to Gamlingay that makes it nearly 42 miles long.

Waymark: Letters GRW and deer emblem

Attributes:          Downland/Wolds

  1. Start:     SP915251 – Linslade, Leighton Buzzard, Beds
  2. Finish:  TL226533 – Gamlingay, Cambs

Route Profile:

Greensand Ridge Walk Profile
Greensand Ridge Walk Profile
  • 66.4 Km (41.3 miles)
  • 750 m (2,461 ft) ascent
  • 158 m (518 ft)  maximum height

The walk is split into sections, and Maulden Village is more or less in the middle

  • Leighton Buzzard to Woburn      13km
  • Woburn to Ampthill                       15.5km
  • Ampthill to Haynes                       13.5km
  • Haynes to Sandy                              11.5km
  • Sandy to Gamlingay                        8.5km

It is, just about, possible to walk the entire length in 24 hours, starting at Linslade at bout 6pm and ending at The Crown, Northill around 4pm the following day for a refreshing pint or two. Several village residents (including myself) have done this recently.

You can also do it in shorter sections, which is just as nice and causes fewer blisters, as Pete’s Diary records.

I really enjoyed walking the Greensand Ridge Walk. I think it was definitely the best of the shorter long-distance walks I have done in my local area, better than any of the routes I have done in Buckinghamshire. It was more up-and-down, although it tried to stick closely to the actual greensand ridge.

The more adventurous run the whole ridge, usually as teams as part of the Greensand Ridge Relay Race.

The Greensand Ridge Relays were first run in 1987 based on a straight race from Northill Church to Waterside Park, Leighton Buzzard. In 1999 the Route was reversed to finish close to the Crown Inn in Northill

This is a Handicap Relay Race for teams of six people who run on foot consecutive legs from Waterside Park, Leighton Buzzard to Northill Church. The “way-marked” long distance footpath known as the Greensand Ridge Walk governs the majority of the route. Leaflets are available from Bedfordshire County Council Leisure Services. Please refer to the details in the Route Description for where the course differs slightly from the way-marked route.

However you look at it, and however you chose to enjoy it, the Greensand Ridge is where we live, and it has a huge effect on the life of the village.

Sitting here now, dry and safe, we can thank those who chose to found a little village around a cross on the hill.

 

 

 

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