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On the 'Hereward Trail'

On the Hereward Trail

Bourne – South Lincolnshire

‘In times like these it is helpful to remember there have always been times like these’

(Paul Harvey – U.S. Broadcaster)

Where do you go and what do you do in times like these? With English Heritage’s countrywide ‘Heritage Open Days’ activities now behind us and as the Summer sun fades into the Autumnal lull, you put on your hiking boots and anorak, strap your rucksack on your back and head to the south Lincolnshire Fenlands and begin your adventure ‘on the Hereward Trail’, that’s what you do!

‘But wait a minute, who or what is this ‘Hereward Trail’, how do you pronounce that name and what the heck are ‘Fenlands’, I hear many of you say? Hereward is not the present-tense adverb, or the stationary position of the actions to go ‘forward’ or ‘backward’, it is the name of a person and the name is pronounced locally as ‘herry-wood’, though the more correct pronunciation is ‘herra-wud’.

My grandmother first told me about Hereward back in the mid-60’s when the Hereward the Wake Tv series starring Alfred Lynch was about to air. Then in 2004 after returning from Scandinavia after several years and hearing hundreds of Viking tales I began to search for Hereward across the Fenlands, but there was nothing there. After years of research I began to act upon it and in 2013 I began the WakeHereward Project, ‘to raise the profile of Hereward the Wake across his native Fenlands and beyond.’

The popular narrative is that Hereward is a rebel who roamed the Fenlands with his Band of Men fighting against the might of William ‘the Conqueror’ in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. His story is steeped in mystery, folklore and legend and his heroic actions as a resistance leader, whether fact of fiction, give a sense of pride and dignity at the most cataclysmic moment in the history of the English folk, for Hereward’s is a tale of ‘1066 and all that…’

The Fens

The Fenlands are a vast arable plain in the east of England that cover North Cambridgeshire, South Lincolnshire and West Norfolk as well as a slither of North-West Suffolk. Today this farmland area with its wonderful ‘arch of heaven’ vistas produces between one third and one half of England’s wheat and root vegetable crops, but in Hereward’s time before the drainage began in the 17th century it was a morass of waterways, meres, islands, swamps and saltmarsh that engulfed the great bay that separates East Anglia from Lincolnshire, known as The Wash. Soaring high above the flat Fenlands were the great Benedictine Monasteries at Peterborough, Crowland, Thorney, Ramsey and Ely. At Bourne there was a Minster of some importance.


On the northwestern edge of the ‘Great Fen’, as it is also known, situated where the Kesteven uplands rise into the East Midlands, is the small market town of Bourne, which has a population of around 15,000 people and is often overshadowed as a tourist attraction by its more illustrious neighbouring towns of Stamford, Spalding and Peterborough. It is here where you can begin on the Hereward trail and discover this most enigmatic of English folklore heroes.

Located sixteen miles north of Peterborough on the A15 road to Lincoln this unassuming fen-edge town is a treasure-trove for exploring the Hereward legend, yet as a visitor you would hardly know it because the town does little promote their unique selling point, for here, according to the early 12th century chronicler Richard of Ely is the hometown of Hereward ‘the Outlaw’. Parking in the town is not too difficult and the first stop you should make is to Baldock’s Mill Heritage Centre, situated on South Street on the edge of the Wellhead Park.

Baldock’s Mill

When Jim and Brenda Jones came to Bourne from Liverpool at the height of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ Baldock’s Mill was a ruin and Jim, an engineer, had a dream to rebuild the mill and get it all working again. Remarkably, with much hard work over many years they achieved their dream. Two delightful people to meet, Brenda is the head of Bourne Civic Society, they open the mill at weekends to visitors and you can be met by any number of informed volunteers that can guide you around the mill and its treasures. As the big wheel of the mill grinds, Jim will regale the tales of how he rebuilt it and got it functioning and the challenges they both faced, and Brenda can take you up the wooden stairs where you will discover an awesome collection of high-end handmade nineteenth century Paris fashion of Haute Couture gowns and dresses, designed by Charles Worth, a son of Bourne. Further along the second floor is an amazing collection of Grand Prix motor racing trophies won by the likes of Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Juan Manuel Fanjio when they raced for BRM, a motor racing company formed by Ray Mays in Bourne that wowed the Grand Prix world throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s. But it is back down on the ground floor where you can begin to delve into the Hereward legend.

Believed to be one of the three mills listed for Bourne in the Domesday Book of 1086, it is here where you will find one of only two known statues of Hereward, much to do with Jim’s ingenuity once again, when he came across an old hard plastic two-metres tall Viking statue in Skegness that was being dumped and strapped it to the roof of his car, took it to the mill, repaired and painted it and turned it in to Hereward! Its credibility is that it gives the Hereward story tangibility. On the bare brick wall of the mill beside the statue is a lengthy story about Hereward written by local historian Rex Needle. Each being the only sign of Hereward in the town.

Monk’s Chronicle

Richard of Ely in his chronicle ‘the Exploits of Hereward’ tells us that Hereward was a troublesome youth who was outlawed at the age of 18 and went on a number of adventures. He killed an escaped bear in Northumberland, rescued a princess from the clutches of a giant in Cornwall and fought in the army of the King of Ireland. Closer to history than legend is that he returned from fighting as a mercenary soldier in Flanders around this time of the year, in early September of 1067, almost a year after the Battle of Hastings, and found that his deceased father’s house had been taken over by a group of Norman knights who had decapitated his brother and hung his head above the entrance to the property. Hereward upon his return, so legend goes, crept from the shadows one night and slaughtered the lot of them. The next morning fourteen Norman heads were hanging from the entrance to his father’s estate. His legend grew…

Charles Kingsley

And so began Hereward’s rebellion in the Fens. The author Charles Kingsley, publishing the romantic epic ‘Hereward the Wake – Last of the English!’ in 1866, describes the moment, ‘And at Holbeach, and at Spalding, Hereward split up the war-arrow, and sent it through Kesteven and south into the Cambridge fens, calling on all men to arm and come to him at Bourne.’ Kingsley’s work is the benchmark novel and the place to begin your Hereward education.

Bourne Abbey

Once you have enjoyed the company of Brenda and Jim at the mill don’t forget to show your appreciation by leaving a small donation in the box provided, as the entrance is free and the upkeep costs are high, or purchase one of the books they have for sale near the entrance. On exiting the mill, cross the road to Bourne Abbey Church, founded in 1138 by Baldwin FitzGilbert de Clare and built on the foundations of an Anglo Saxon Minster Church. Robert Mannyng (flourished c: 1288) a monk and historiographer from Bourne Abbey and nearby Sempringham Abbey is credited as being among the first chroniclers to write in the ‘Middle English’ that formed the base of the modern English language.

When inside the spacious environs look to the roof and you will notice the red and cream striped shield of the Wake family who claimed Hereward ‘the Wake’ as their descendant when their pedigree was drawn up for heraldic purposes in the fourteenth century, consequently Charles Kingsley used the patronym ‘the Wake’ to mean ‘the alert’ or ‘the watchful’ (over his folk) and the nickname stuck. Historians have refuted the Wake family claim, though Professor David Roffe in his academic text ‘Hereward the Wake and the Barony of Bourne’ makes the case that the Wake family who settled in Bourne may well have descended from Hereward. It is one of the great unsolved mysteries that surrounds our forgotten folk hero.

Hereward’s Castle

From the church walk back across the road to the Wellhead Park, an area of serene beauty which houses beautiful gardens and a natural spring. There is an area in the park where medieval foundations of a castle can be seen. Years ago this was known locally as ‘Hereward’s Castle’, when folk believed it was his stronghold in the Fens. Steve Giullari from Bourne History Group is currently running a campaign to get an archeological survey done on the castle, which he believes was quite a large 12th century building of Norman origin. Though, like with many Norman buildings they were built upon Anglo-Saxon foundations, so it may well have been the site of the Manor of Bourne and Hereward’s home. While you are in the town there are other places of interest to visit, not least of all the recently refurbished Old Town Hall, which has now become a venue showing live performances, theatre and films and while you are at it why not visit Wake House Community Centre, former home of Charles Worth and named after our very own Hereward.

Bourne Woods

‘Then Hereward, as he had promised, set fire to the three farms close to the Brunneswald and all his outlawed friends lurking in the forest knew by that signal that Hereward was come again.’ (Charles Kingsley – ‘Hereward the Wake’ 1866).

After Hereward’s slaughter of the Normans at Bourne, Richard of Ely says Hereward ‘then departed into the woods until his men could be gathered together’ and made camp in the style of that other more illustrious folklore hero, Robin Hood, in an ancient tract of forest known as the Brunneswald, much of which no longer exists. According to the 12th century chronicler Orderic Vitalis the Normans called them the ‘Silvatici’ the ‘wild men of the woods.’ Bourne Woods on the western outskirts of the town is believed to be the northern tip of the Brunneswald, ‘Brunne’ being the Old English origin name for the town of Bourne, meaning brook or stream, and so it is here where you should spend a couple of hours imagining our past.

There is a large car park and the woods are ideal for a lengthy ramble and a picnic, so take some sandwiches and enjoy the foliage. Much of the settlement of Bourne in Hereward’s time was likely built from timber that was cut from the woods and collecting wood for fire was such an important job that part of the initial endowment of Bourne Abbey was ‘two big faggots, such as might be carried on the back, of the larger branches, to be taken every day out of Bourne Wood without interference.’ Mystically, there are a number of wooden sculptures within the woods that are now rotting and decayed, one of which is believed to be of Hereward, see if you can find it! The woods are looked after by a society called the ‘Friends of Bourne Woods’ whose website is worth browsing before you visit and don’t forget to take your rubbish home or put it in the bins provided.

Carr Dyke

There are other Hereward related places of interest you can visit from Bourne. King Street is an old Roman road that runs out of the town which surely Hereward bounded along and the Carr Dyke is an old Roman canal running from Peterborough to Lincoln that skirts the eastern side of the town that can also be followed on a ramble, though be careful, some parts of Carr Dyke are now in-filled and other parts are on farmland, so plan before you leave home.

Witham on the Hill

Finally, about five miles outside of Bourne is the village of Witham on the Hill, a place where Hereward is recorded as holding land as a tenant of Peterborough Abbey at the time of the Norman Conquest. If you visit and stand on the village green looking eastwards you will notice that the land falls away dramatically into the fen land, this was once the confluence of two rivers the East Glen and the West Glen and no doubt a small inland port in the time of Hereward. Perhaps it was used as the dock where Viking traders came along the Carr Dyke to load up with sheep fleeces brought across the rolling hills from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire on their way to the Flanders weavers. One can imagine Hereward governing affairs from this spot, but it is pure conjecture, of course. On the edge of the green is a sixteenth century wooden stock and whipping post and just around the corner is the grand 18th century entrance to Witham Hall, which is now a prep’ school for boys. Witham is likely one of the villages overlooking Bourne that Hereward set light to upon his return.

Bowthorpe Park Farm

But here is the mystical end to your day out in Bourne and the end of part one of your tour on the Hereward Trail. Just outside of Witham is a place you must visit. Drive past the Six Bells pub with the village green and church behind you and continue along Elm Avenue on the road to Manthorpe. When you meet the crossroads turn right onto the A6121 and after half a mile turn left into Bowthorpe Park Farm, where you can experience a working livestock farm, undertake a farming education and even go along to one of the many events held there, such as the annual Summer Solstice Festival.

But the magic of the place comes when you view the magnificent Bowthorpe Oak, an oak tree that is estimated to be over 1000 years old. The Bowthorpe Oak is said to have the largest girth of any Oak tree in Europe and once housed over thirty people for a dinner party within its trunk.

It is a sobering thought, given that Hereward held land a short distance away, that he too may well have stood and admired the very same tree. Perhaps, like his more illustrious fellow outlaw Robin Hood at Sherwood, he even used it as a hideaway from the authorities that were tracking him down.


At times like these one of the most empowering things we can do is to get outside and explore, adventure is out there waiting. I have been running a community programme called the WakeHereward Project for several years and one of the aims is to make the intangible, tangible and build the ‘Hereward Trail’ across ‘Hereward Country’ so that people can go ‘In Search of Hereward’. As my grandmother used to tell me ‘he’s still out there y’know, watching, waiting…’

David AC Maile.


WakeHereward Project:

Hereward Country:

Baldock’s Mill

Bourne History Group:

Friends of Bourne Woods

Bowthorpe Park Farm:

Image Copyright Attributions:

Hereward the Wake logo image: Diego Aballay copyright WakeHereward Project

Baldock’s Mill & Hereward Statue & Hereward Country flyer images: David AC Maile.

Bowthorpe Oak: Jay Haywood

Bourne Woods / ‘Footpath Junction in Bourne Woods’: Tim Heaton


Director of Operations of the WakeHereward Project since 2013 and ‘Hereward’s Champion’*, David AC Maile is a BA History Alumni of Anglia Ruskin University who lives both in England and Argentina where he works as Consultant Research Historian for the La Plata Historical Archaeology programme, is co-founder with Professor Maria Peltzer of the Anglo-Argentine Cultural Heritage Project and is completing his PhD at the Universidad Nacional des Artes in Buenos Aries. His book on Hereward is due for publication in 2021.

*(Nick Conrad BBC Radio Camb’s, July 2016).

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