Exning and Newmarket's rare and ancient chalk streams and the saints and history with which they are entwined
Tracing a lucid web of mottled white, silken strands of our region’s chalk stream network have riven the soil of Exning, and the south-east of England for thousands of years.
Their pale gravel beds are often framed and carpeted by the busy cycles of plant and animal life, meaning that the untrained eye could easily pass them by, entirely unaware that a mere 210 of these waterways exist in the world today.
The chalk stream which passes through Exning, called New River, was created by its sources at Seven Springs, St Wendred’s Well and Favins Head and is home to a bounteous array of flora and fauna, including water voles, grey herons, kingfishers, little egrets and stickleback, but the habitat is under constant threat of drying up due to water demands from housing and climate change.
Only through the Environment Agency’s Lodes-Granta Groundwater Scheme supporting its flow by pumping water from a borehole in Snailwell, does this remarkable river and its inhabitants endure.
Awash with rarity and purity, it should come as little surprise that the meandering threads of our chalk streams are entangled with a story of saints.
The names and deeds of those who lived as and ruled the East Angles people almost 1,400 years ago have since been largely lost to time, existing only in drier, darker threads, the inky courses of which once flowed on to the pages of books written long ago.
Just as our chalk streams have collected a verdant sheen of life through the centuries, many of these books have since gathered their own sheen of lifeless dust, although the richness of life remains scrawled upon both their courses, all the same.
One name which stands out in the history of the East Angles is St Etheldreda, daughter of the Saxon, King Anna.
The source of St Etheldreda’s story can be found, quite fittingly, at the chalk spring of St Wendred’s Well, in Exning.
St Etheldreda’s sister, St Wendreda, would give her name to the spring after being made a saint for her life’s work of medicine, love and care.
St Wendreda founded a Benedictine nunnery while healing the sick in the fens at March and stayed there for the rest of her life.
She became just as famous as her three sisters, who all married kings, because of her gift of healing and the belief that she could perform miracles.
With the royal family having embraced Christianity after being converted by the apostle St Felix of Tours in around 650AD, the King and Queen’s eldest daughter Etheldreda was baptised by St Felix at the chalk spring which would later take her sister’s name.
The baptism had taken place under the cloud of an approaching Mercian army led by the pagan, King Penda, and so Etheldreda was first married to a prince to secure a political alliance, before being married to King Egrith of Northumbria.
With the first marriage having not been consummated before the prince’s untimely death, the pious Etheldreda only agreed to the second match on the condition that she could remain a virgin.
She steadfastly held true to her principles and several years later, the marriage broke down and the King’s daughter joined a nunnery.
One year later she chose to forge her own path and founded her own nunnery on an island in the marshes.
Due to the abundance of eels in the area, the new island settlement was given the name Ely, and in place of a nunnery and a handful of dishevelled houses, a cathedral has risen as the centrepiece of a city.
After her death, some 40 years after her baptism at the chalk spring in Exning, Etheldreda died, leaving instructions that she be buried in a simple wooden coffin.
Sixteen years later, her sister Sexburg, former Queen of Kent, decided that her bones should be exhumed and reburied in a marble coffin, but when the exhumation was carried out, accounts from the time stated that they found Etheldreda’s body completely untouched and intact as though sleeping, with the linen around her body as fresh as the day she had been wrapped in it.
Etheldreda, the devout daughter of King Anna was made a saint, and now has churches in Ely and Newmarket bearing her name.
In the centuries since, Etheldreda, the spring and the streams it feeds have become synonymous with purity, to the extent that many believed them to have special healing properties.
As recently as within the last 100 years, horse trainers in Newmarket had been known to regularly take their horses to drink from a chalk stream before a big race or to walk their horse through them so the water could strengthen and heal its legs.
Science, as it so often does, has disproved any notion magical properties, but the waters running through chalk streams are among the cleanest and most nutrient-rich in the country.
This is partly due to the way in which chalk streams work, with the porous chalk filtering rain waters, which flow through to subterranean aquifers which fill during the winter and replenish the streams in the summer.
Although, increases in water abstraction continue to deplete the springs’ water stores, the borehole and pump were set up in the 1990s to artificially divert water back in to the system.
In 2018, six local residents set up Exning New River Group to help monitor New River, clear litter from the water course and help protect this rare and biodiverse habitat.
Jenny Ricketts and Mike Robinson are two members of the Exning group which helps coordinate the maintenance of the river with the riparian owners and council authorities to safeguard the habitat.
Jenny said: “In an ideal world we could help preserve the river with more rainfall and less abstraction, but in reality we are reliant on more practical things such as the pump and using plants and reed beds to narrow the flow, which will then become deeper.
Mike added: “We remove litter and keep an eye on the river flow and wildlife and we like to keep an eye on it because the chalk stream makes Exning. I think there is a growing number of local people who can appreciate that, as well.”