The word ‘bourn’ has two main meanings: it is either a brook (cf. northern and Scots ‘burn’) or it is a destination, limit, or boundary (as in ‘… That undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns’). As a consequence, it forms part of hundreds of place-names all over Britain: Eastbourne, Westbourne, Southbourne, Bournemouth, Fishbourne (both the Sussex and the Isle of Wight varieties), Bournville, all the Winterbournes in Dorset, the two Nutbournes in West Sussex, the completely artificial Cambourne in Cambridgeshire (the Camborne in Cornwall has a different etymology altogether), Bourne in Lincolnshire, Melbourn, Cambs. (without an ‘e’, as opposed to all the places in Australia named after Queen Victoria’s beloved Lord M., whose title came from Melbourne in Derbyshire), and of course Selborne in Hampshire …
And there are hundreds of River Bourns and Bourn Brooks, in whose names the word ‘river’ or ‘brook’ is actually tautological, as it is in the River Ouse, or indeed the River Avon. But today I’m focusing on one Bourn, one of the dozens of nearby places which I had never visited, but which I can now strike from my to-do list.
Bourn in Cambridgeshire is world-famous today as the home of the Bourn Hall Infertility Clinic. The house was purchased in 1979 by Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards (who had achieved the birth of the world’s first so-called ‘test-tube baby’, Louise Brown, in 1978), and it and the stables were linked by inoffensive new buildings to contain the treatment centre and laboratories. If you have cause to visit, you will find the old hall, with its panelling, decorated ceilings, and wide fireplaces, all beautifully maintained, with the comfortable café overlooking the garden and the park beyond.
However, all is not as it seems. The history of Bourn Hall and its park, sketched in two useful pieces on the English Heritage website, and in the excellent online history of the parish, is one of rebuilding, demolition, refurbishing and restoring, so that the building today is a remarkable patchwork of trends in architecture across four hundred years.
Bourn was the site of a wooden castle, erected by Picot de Cambridge (who perhaps did crochet in his leisure hours?), the first Norman sheriff of Cambridgeshire. The outlines of the ringwork and bailey can be seen on the map here. The castle was burned down during the Peasants’ Revolt, and a timber-framed house built in the centre of the ringwork early in the sixteenth century. This structure was enlarged into a small, three-sided house round a courtyard in 1602, for John Hagar and his wife Frances Peyton. (Hagar’s will of 1617 is in the National Archives.)
The hall was bought by an East India merchant, Baltzar Lyell, in 1733 (he seems to have bought the manors of Shadworth, in Harston, Cambs., and Haslington at the same time). Lyell was of Scottish descent but had settled in Sweden. On his death he left his estates to his wife Elizabeth, and they then passed to his nephew, Henry Lyell, who by now had sold his Swedish property and was living at Bourn.
When Henry died in 1803, Bourn passed to the De La Warr family, his daughter Catherine (d. 1826) having married John Richard 1758-95), the younger son of the 2nd Earl De La Warr, who became 4th Earl on his older brother’s death.
John and Catherine’s son George John (1791–1869) the 5th Earl, in 1813 married Elizabeth Sackville, daughter of the third duke of Dorset (fanatical cricketer, incompetent diplomat, and patron of Sir Joshua Reynolds): thirty years later, he acquired a royal licence to join his name with that of his wife, as Sackville-West. Between 1817 and 1819, George and Elizabeth called in John Aday Repton, son of the more famous Humphry, to make over the house. Their manor at Haslingfield was demolished at the same time, and some of its feature pieces, including two fireplaces and a sixteenth-century staircase, were relocated to Bourn, which Repton transformed into a Tudor-style house, adding a new range to enclose the original courtyard. The park and garden were also restyled at this time, with a characteristic sweeping carriage drive replacing the original straight avenue, and it is not impossible that Repton senior advised on this.
The Sackville-Wests later let the hall to tenants, until it was sold off in 1883 to John James Briscoe (1835–1919), who gave it another makeover under the architect Norman Shaw (1831-1912), enthusiast for all things Gothic, who followed Philip Webb (friend and colleague of William Morris, and partner in ‘The Shop‘) as chief assistant to George Edmund Street. Shaw is believed to have enclosed the central courtyard, and was probably responsible for bringing in the terrific William de Morgan tiles which now adorn the (ex-Haslingfield) fireplaces. (De Morgan was a ceramicist who specialised in tiles, and a minor novelist: he was another friend of Morris, and of Rossetti; his parents were the mathematician Augustus and the social reformer and spiritualist Sophia.)
The house changed hands several times in the course of the twentieth century, until it underwent its last transmogrification (so far) into a world centre of medical excellence.
The parish church, dedicated to St Helena (mother of Constantine, and founder of the True Cross) and St Mary, has changed rather less (except of course for the stripping of the altars during the Reformation) than the Hall. When Picot de Cambridge arrived, the village church had two priests and 120 acres of land. It was subject to Ramsey Abbey, but Picot gave it to Barnwell Priory just outside Cambridge.
The present building was begun in the twelfth century; the external staircase up the tower, and its crenellations, were added in the fourteenth, and the church was lucky enough to escape too much violent ‘restoration’ in the nineteenth. One of its most curious features is the short, lead-clad twisted spire (as though Chesterfield spire had been squashed downwards). The church is surrounded by a large graveyard, still in use.
The interior is a huge space, in which I hoped to find a monument to Erasmus Ferrar, the brother of Nicholas, of Little Gidding, friend and editor of George Herbert. (Their sister Susanna had married a Bourn farmer, John Collett, and the Ferrars apparently spent time in Bourn while escaping the plague.) I couldn’t locate it, but perhaps it is under the carpet in one of the aisles?
The east window was presumably installed by Christ’s College, now patron of the church and responsible for its upkeep. It shows the risen Christ flanked by St Mary and St Helena, with the arms of Lady Margaret Beaufort (the founder of Christ’s and St John’s colleges), and of her chaplain (St) John Fisher, later beheaded by her grandson Henry VIII.
The size of the church suggests that the population of the village was considerable in the medieval period: the online village history gives a number of about 900 in the thirteenth century, before the arrival of the Black Death, which reduced it to under 300. (The modern population is about 1,000.) One thing I didn’t see on this visit was the windmill, now maintained by the preservation charity Cambridge Past, Present and Future. There’s an open day coming up, which will be a good reason to have a further mooch round this ancient and most attractive village.