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Ware: A river runs through it

PUBLISHED: 08:35 26 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:46 20 February 2013

The river has been important throughout the ages

The river has been important throughout the ages

The pretty market town of Ware has a long history of being a great place to live, socialise and shop. Richard Young looks back at the events that have shaped it

In the east of Hertfordshire, 20 miles upriver from London, sits one of the countys historical jewels the truly ancient town of Ware.
Wander through this pretty market town straddling the River Lea and you travel back in time, treading in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims, Saxon traders and Roman centurions.
But the towns beginnings can be found even earlier than this. During excavations on the GlaxoSmithKline site near Ware Lock, evidence has been found of a permanent Mesolithic settlement.
Mesolithic people were hunter-gatherers and moved camp with the seasons, so a permanent base site is a rare find. This indicates that the area was rich in game and resources enabling year-round occupation.
Thus the beginning of Ware can therefore be traced back to at least 6,000 BC, and the key, as curator of Ware Museum, Lis Barratt, says is the Lea: The river is the reason we are here.

The river is key
The importance of the river is evident in the Iron Age when the site had grown to become what archaeologists think was a trading post connecting the settlement at nearby Braughing to those downriver. It is thought traders would bring their wares by boat to the point on the river where it was crossed by a prehistoric trackway leading north towards Braughing.
This trackway would later be paved by the Romans to become one of the major roads of Roman Britain Ermine Street.
So Wares position on two
highways of ancient England a major tributary of the Thames and one of its most important roads was crucial to its development.
Ermine Street extended from the walls of London to York, and with the movement of armies and traders Ware grew into a thriving Roman town. Evidence of this was uncovered during excavations at Glaxo and continues to be unearthed at a fresh dig there.
After the retreat of the Romans, Anglo-Saxon Ware became a frontier town between the opposing powers of Viking Danelaw and Saxon rule, with the river the dividing line.
The nature of the conflict is revealed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which records the sinking of Viking longships at Ware by King Alfred in 895 after they had come up the Lea from the Thames. Alfred built weirs to stop the Vikings sailing back south and the name of the town may come from these.
Anglo-Saxon Warras was centred around modern day Baldock Street and Crib Street, where some of the towns oldest buildings remain.

Bringing in the money
Norman records in the Domesday Book show a wealthy settlement in the ownership of a French lord, with five mills and a sizeable population, worth more in taxes than nearby Hertford.
A Benedictine Priory was founded in the town during this period near to where St Marys Church now stands. Nothing of the priory remains, although some of its stonework is thought to have been reused to rebuild the Franciscan Friary south of the High Street.
Known today as The Priory, the former friary sits in seven acres of gardens stretching to the river. It once held an important library and was a stopping off point for royalty until Henry VIIIs dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century.
Medieval pilgrims also stopped off in Ware on their journey from London to the shrine of St Mary at Walsingham in Norfolk, following the already ancient route of Ermine Street, the Old North Road of medieval England.
The nearness of Ware to London, a days ride away, was responsible for the growth of inns in the town, which were at one time said to number as many as one for every seven men in Ware. The great timber-framed coaching houses on the High Street, which Lis Barratt describes as a beautiful example of the medieval development, are a testament to the importance of the town as a place for travellers to rest, recuperate or revel. Particularly noted for its aid to revelry was the internationally acclaimed Great Bed of Ware, crafted in Elizabethan times for use in a variety of the Inns in Wares High Street.
As Lis adds, Weve always been on the route to somewhere else and benefited from that.

Raise a glass
From the 17th century beer came to dominate the town, as maltings sprang up along the river. The dark malt they produced was made from barley grown in the fields of Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and was a central ingredient of London porter, the dark ale named for its popularity with the porters of the markets in London.
The Lea is still navigable downstream to Limehouse in the East End of London, and although is now only used for pleasure craft, it once carried heavy traffic to the capital as barges delivered their loads to the London breweries.
The history of Ware runs deep, etched in its architecture, its layout and its archaeology. To walk its streets or navigate the river is to be part of 8,000 years of occupation.
It is a place rich enough to have supported a pre-farming population, strategic enough to be a trading post, defensive enough as a bulwark to invasion, and convenient enough to be a stopping off point for the pious, the royal and the bawdy a town truly at the crossroads of English life.

Pay a visit

Ware Museum
Priory Lodge, 89 High Street
Ware SG12 9AZ 01920 487848
Opening times
Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 11am to 5pm; Sunday 2 to 5pm

Scotts Grotto
Scotts Road, Ware SG12 9JQ
01920 464131
Open Saturdays and Bank Holiday Mondays 2 4.30pm.
Dont forget your torch!


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