The origins of Bourne

St Peter's Pool

Water gushes from St Peter's Pool, the very heart of Bourne's water

supply, feeding the Bourne Eau at its source

The Bourne Eau

The town is sited on Jurassic rock. The northern and eastern parts are on cornbrash, a ferruginous limestone, and the western and southern areas of the town are sited on Oxford clay with Kellaways Sands at the base, dipping eastwards below fen alluvium and peat. Boulder clay, glacial sands and gravels were deposited in the locality during glaciation. Water wells are found where the solid and drift geology meet.

This varied geology of the town area gives rise to striking differences in relief which is particularly noticeable on entering the town from the west. Here, the Bourne to Stamford road runs along the top of a clay ridge about 100 feet above sea level and from it, Bourne can be seen spread out below. Most of the town lies below 50 feet above sea level and to the east lie the flat expanses of the northern fenland. It has been suggested in past times that the rising ground which is now the western boundary of the fens formed the shore of the North Sea centuries ago.

The fens formed a formidable obstacle to the early settlers of this area and it was not until the Roman occupation that any attempt was made to drain them. There are still the remains of their success, notably the Car Dyke to the east of the town, car meaning overgrown with rushes, reeds, shrubs and small trees, and built in the Second Century AD. The waterway which connects the rivers Ouse and Cam appears to have been cut to enable the produce of the rich fen edge grain and wool, be transported by water to the northern garrisons at Lincoln and York. Troops may also have been transported and it was also used as a main drain. Other attempts at drainage included work by the monks who lived in monasteries on gravelly islands in the quagmires, such as that at Crowland.

Bourne has always been associated with water and we have to look to the Wellhead or St Peter's Pool for its origins because the name indicates that this is a place near to the source of a spring or stream and it is the course of the ensuing waterway that gives the town its name. The Old English word burna, common in the early Anglo-Saxon period and found in modern form as burn, especially in Scotland, means stream and also spring although this particular Bourne was recorded in a document of about 960 as Brunne. Over the years, this became Bourn and then in the late 19th century is was changed to Bourne to avoid confusion with other places of similar name, particularly Bourn in Cambridgeshire that had already caused difficulties with the postal and railway services.

The water from the Wellhead springs runs into the Bourne Eau, a name that has also puzzled many people who have decided that the word eau comes from the French, meaning water, but that is not so. It actually derives from , a pure Old English word that was erroneously given by cartographers on their maps as eau and few examples of this spelling occur in documents before the 18th century. Although the modern tendency is to go for a French sound when pronouncing eau, this does appear to be a very recent practice. is a dialectical survival in its own right meaning drain and far more accurate than the French when relating to a Lincolnshire watercourse and older people in many parts of the county still say Eddick rather than Eaudyke. 

And so the water connection is correct and it seems quite probable that the early settlement which later grew into the town of Bourne originated around the Wellhead, a natural feature reputed to be replenished by seven springs that would have provided an abundant supply of water for the early settlers. In fact the water here has been so productive in past years that Willingham Franklin Rawnsley in his informative book Highways & Byways of Lincolnshire published in 1914 wrote that "near the castle hill is a strong spring called Peter's Pool or Bourne Wellhead, the water of which runs through the town and is copious enough to furnish a water supply for Spalding". 

This water from the Bourne area was also reputed to have curative properties and a century ago one of the most important springs was Braceborough Spa where it gushed from the limestone at the rate of a million and a half gallons daily. There was another source five miles to the west at Holywell and a chalybeate spring at Billingborough was described as "continually gushing up" near the church while there were others at Great Ponton and Stoke Rochford that was said to "abound in springs of pure water rising out of the rock and running into the River Witham". 

The springs at Bourne are possibly one of the most ancient sites of artesian water supply in the country, figuring so prominently in the history of the town that at times, quite remarkable traditions have gathered around them. One of these was still current in the mid-19th century and asserted that the Bourne Eau flowed underground from Stoke Rochford, sixteen miles away, and that a white duck which was immersed at Stoke, was later seen to rise at the Wellhead, a tale that owes more to the imagination than actuality. 

The Car Dyke was used for transporting goods and people until about 1860. But road transport was improving, especially with the advent of carriers. These were men who had carts used for the delivery of goods or parcels for payment to the addressees. In 1856, there were three such men in the town and they served four towns around Bourne, namely Stamford, Spalding, Corby Glen and Swinstead.

Changes in the industrial structure of Bourne were undoubtedly a result of developments in transport methods which brought the town into a broader contact with the rest of the country. Water transport was going into a decline. The Bourne Eau, which joins the River Glen at Tongue End, was one of the waterway links, the Anchor Quay being the mooring point in Eastgate.

In 1876, eighteen towns and villages were being visited by the carriers, some daily, including for example Edenham, Grimsthorpe, Swinstead, Folkingham and Sleaford. By the turn of the century (1909), the carriers were serving 22 settlements. Daily services had now stopped, three visits a week being the maximum. Twenty years later, only 13 towns and villages were visited by the carriers.

But by far the most significant development was that of the railways. The first line opened between Bourne and Essendine on 16th May 1860. The service was incorporated into the Great Northern Railway Company in 1864 and from the connecting line to Essendine, it was possible to travel to London and the north. This line closed to traffic in June 1951. About 100 years after the initial excitement of the railway's arrival, Bourne's brief association came to an end with the closure of the station to all goods traffic on 2nd April 1965.

Yet the population was rising steadily and its light industry increasing. Today, the town lies across the A15 trunk road between Peterborough and Lincoln with the A1 or Great North Road eleven miles to the east. The withdrawal of the railways is undoubtedly the biggest single economic drawback in the history of Bourne and it is significant that there are now moves to bring it back although financial considerations make it unlikely that they will succeed.

See also     Water supplies     When Bourn became Bourne

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