…an old house that stands back and then a little house by the side of the road…
Bill Wing – Memories of a Meldreth Man 1993
This is one of a series of pages on our site on Orchard Cottage, neighbouring Sheene Cottage and some of their inhabitants.
In the year King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, sold Dunkirk to the French and introduced the Hearth Tax, so did a carpenter carve 1662 into a wooden beam in Orchard Cottage.
Awarded Grade II Listed Building status, Orchard Cottage is one of several post-Medieval three-bay hall houses in Meldreth and is, perhaps, the least altered retaining much of its original design with few significant internal or external changes.
Built to accommodate the family of a yeoman of the village, with its half-hipped thatched roof, the building in both method of construction and age is strikingly similar to Applecote Cottage on the High Street.
The 1662 inscription may commemorate the year the building was erected or it may have been added to commemorate later works when, for example, the brick fireplace was added. A small house fire in 1959 generated a local newspaper report referring to this piece of timber as a beam through the old chimney and there is no more definitive a description. Damaged by the fire it was removed and now resides in a local museum’s storeroom.
Whilst Orchard Cottage is undoubtedly of great age the available occupancy records date to no earlier than 1820. Even so, untangling the records of subsequent ownership and occupation is not always an easy or wholly conclusive task; nor is defining the property’s precise relationship with its nearest neighbour, the once larger Sheene Cottage standing on the roadside.
The Internal Layout
Typically constructed as open internally from wall to wall and floor to roof, half-timbered hall houses were subsequently divided by their occupiers into three more convenient sections or bays. The “lower end” housed the service storerooms, a central communal hall contained an open hearth, and the “upper end” functioned as the occupier’s private quarters. Between the lower end and the hall was a corridor – the screens passage – which would, originally, have had an entrance door at both ends.
When brick as a building material and coal as a fuel both became more widely available and economic through the late 1600s and early 1700s, home owners frequently took advantage and replaced their sooty open hearths with a brick-built fireplace and chimney stack. Sacrificing access for comfort, the new fireplace and chimney were most often placed within, or adjacent to, the screens passage.
Orchard Cottage follows this three-bay template exactly. The lower end was originally situated to the left and the internal partitions in this part of the cottage are believed to be original. The front door marks the position of the screens passage and the hall and upper end are located to its right.
Behind the front door lies the vestiges of the screens passage, now a small lobby entrance, and the later substantial brick fireplace blocks access to the now absent rear doorway.
A wooden staircase, again believed to be original, abuts the chimney stack giving access to the upper floor. It is not possible to be certain as to when an upper floor was added as some may be original, or added to in stages, or all added later.
Almost impossible to decipher, a ceiling beam is faintly inscribed with what appears to be the date 1721 and the initials I W and I M.
The half-hipped roof construction is not uncommon amongst the older village properties though the original purpose of this more complex building method is lost. Its use does continue into present-day architecture wherein the reduced surface area of the gable end offers greater structural stability in high winds when compared to a vertical gable end. This same reasoning may have been applied to older cottages, too.
To the left side of the cottage is a thatched extension believed to date from the early 1800s. Its original function is unknown but it may have served as a workshop, a store room, or accommodation. Older maps of the village also show a second thatched extension to the cottage’s right. No longer present it is just visible in the earliest known photograph.
Installed to meet a former occupant’s requirements, a second entrance door has been added to the far right of the frontage; its presence may also indicate the cottage historically being subdivided into two dwellings. The small change in both roof and dormer window height either side of the chimney stack may also reflect a period of shared occupation albeit all available records, with one possible exception, strongly suggest only single-family occupation.
It can be difficult to trace the occupants of a particular building. However, we have traced the following occupiers of Orchard Cottage:
- Joseph Pryor and his wife Sarah occupied the cottage in 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871.
- By 1881, William Dodkin and his family had become the next recorded occupants.
- Alfred Coningsby occupied the cottage after the Dodkin family
- Reginald Thomas Coningsby, Alfred’s son, lived there from 1916.
- George and Elsie Pullen were the occupants in the 1920s and 1930s
- Joseph Andrew Pepper and his family occupied the cottage from 1938 to 1982
- Eric and Daphne King occupied the cottage from 1982 onwards (see below)
Fire and Flood … and the Sanitary Inspector Calls
The small fire in 1959 had necessitated an insurance claim to repair the damaged fabric of the building but prior to that the threat of repeated flooding of the roadway caused by blocked drainage ditches was the more worrying issue. The picture of Sheene Cottage in the 1950s shows the road completely under water and a hapless pedestrian balanced on the grass verge whilst trying to avoid the wake from the passing bus. Referred to as Councillor Joseph Pepper in some newspaper reports, he and other villagers entered into a protracted and largely unresolved dispute with the Rural District Council regarding where and with whom responsibility lay for the maintenance and clearing of the River Mel and its tributaries.
In early 1952 it was reported:
“Part of the River Mel has flooded Orchard Cottage at Station Road, Meldreth and South Cambridgeshire’s RDC ought to do something about it because the river belongs to them,” said Mr Pepper. “The lower half-mile of the river where it discharged into the Rhee had been taken over by the Council. The state of the river had gone from bad to worse. Some time ago it broke its banks and they plugged the breach, but this only dammed the water until it reached a higher level where it broke through the banks again.” But the chairman said: “It must not go out that this Council is the drainage authority and will clean out peoples’ ditches.”
(Courtesy of Mike Petty, Cambridgeshire Scrapbook)
Later that same year:
South Cambridgeshire’s RDC decided they were not responsible for cleaning out the River Mel near Sheene Farm and refused a request from Meldreth parish council to take action which would prevent the flooding of the road. Councillor Pepper said: “It is common knowledge that houses are flooded and drainage floats about the gardens, roads are flooded and travel becomes dangerous. The responsibility lies fairly and squarely upon this council.” But Councillor Murfitt said the Council was not responsible for flooding.
(Courtesy of Mike Petty, Cambridgeshire Scrapbook)
Still without mains water or sewerage, in 1968 Joseph Pepper and the Kings applied to the local council for any required planning permissions to install both a bathroom and mains sewer but misunderstandings between the respective parties soon arose. In a local newspaper report a frustrated Joan King is quoted:
The sanitary inspector visited our home and told us more or less that it would be a waste of money, because the council could put a closure order on (Orchard Cottage) at any time because of the height of the rooms. The rooms are about six feet high. It hasn’t bothered us for the past thirty years we have lived here. We were going to drop the floor but not to the extent they wanted…. They also wanted a damp course in the new floor. It involves doors and everything.
Within a week the council had responded:
The Meldreth couple may have misunderstood… Because of the lowness of the ceilings, the property did not warrant a discretionary grant. There was certainly no mention of a closure order or a demolition order being made.
Joan fired straight back stating a discretionary grant was neither required nor requested. She said:
We are prepared to pay for it ourselves.
The following year the mortgage was redeemed and through a Deed of Gift Joseph Pepper released his share of Orchard Cottage to Sidney and Joan …in consideration of his affection for… Sidney Walter King and of his natural love and affection for his daughter … Joan Hilda King.
Joseph passed away in 1973.
In 1982, also through Deed of Gift, Walter and Joan granted part ownership of Orchard Cottage to Joan’s surviving brother Eric and his wife Daphne Iris Plumb.
They’ve Just Ruined It … the Melbourn Bypass
Joan King found herself making more headline news in the local newspaper in 1987 when the A10 Melbourn bypass was driven across Station Road, through the fields behind her home, and connected via a new link road to Cowslip Corner. The article read:
Pensioner Mrs Joan King faces the prospect of losing her view of trees and fields from her thatched cottage on Station Road, Meldreth. “They’ve just ruined it,” she said. “I’ve lived here for 47 years and it’s very upsetting. Roads are going to be all around and we are almost on an island. It’s going to be a job crossing the road to get to Melbourn.”
It still is….
The Obscurity of Ownership – the Mystery of the Moat
Yet one more dispute arose in 1989 with an unspecified neighbour of Orchard Cottage. Unresolved until 2000, three years after Joan’s death, this matter rested on who had legal title to the boundary ditch, or moat as it was also referred to, that surrounded the land-holding. The Planning Department at South Cambridgeshire District Council could offer no information to support Joan’s claim of ownership so, instead, she provided written evidence from herself and Sidney, and from a previous occupier of Orchard Cottage.
Joan Field MBE, a niece of George and Elsie Pullen, stated she was born in Orchard Cottage in 1923 and lived there with her mother between 1925 and 1937. In her sworn testament she states the six feet wide and six feet deep dry ditch or moat was always part of the land belonging to Orchard Cottage and at no time did her then neighbours ever lay claim. Joan and Sidney swore the exact same and added that both Leonard and Harold Dodkin had also previously confirmed the same to them.
A six-feet-wide and six-feet-deep boundary ditch is clearly an impressive construct but dug by whom and for what purpose other than, perhaps, flood defence and drainage is long forgotten.
Visible from the footpath today, the shallow depression along the boundary to the left of the cottage was once a dry ditch but the better view to be had is to the right of Sheene Cottage. Hinted at on the 1820 Enclosure Map and partially re-routed following the construction of the T-junction, the 1910 Land Values Map shows a channel running along the right-hand side boundary towards the roadside before turning sharply to join the drainage ditch running along the field boundary where once lay a Medieval manor house’s actual moat.
Remaining unresolved, no further clarity of ownership was offered in 1998 when the cottage was sold until finally, in 2000, the Land Registry made their ruling. With a certain degree of inevitability, it was decided the boundary between the neighbouring properties was ad medium filum aquae – literally the middle of the stream.
This the Land Registry considered …to be an equitable solution… particularly in circumstances where acts of maintenance and ownership are so obscure.
With grateful thanks to Leesa Sewell and Joan Gane for their help and assistance in preparing this article.