an Historic Village
The history of Stilton is inextricably connected to
two items of national importance: the Great North Road, and Stilton Cheese.
No one knows who lived here first - the Time
Team dig in 2006, on Stilton Fen to the east of Stilton, uncovered a Neolithic
enclosure, a Roman industrial kiln complex, and a possible Anglo Saxon village.
earliest local finds date from the time of the Roman occupation;
find, in 2006, was a Roman
Running right through the centre of the village, south
to north, is the Roman road that connected London (Londinium) to the army fortress
at Lincoln (Lindum Colonia), and York (Eboracum), and more locally Godmanchester
(Durovigutum) to Water Newton (Durobrivae), where the road crossed the River Nene.
The Saxons later called the road Ermine Street, and it later became the Great
North Road, and then the A1.
For centuries this north-south road seems
to have been little used, the important route through the village being the east-west
road, Fen Street and Church Street, connecting the higher ground in the west to
the fen in the east, and so allowing the movement of livestock from winter to
summer pastures. This is why our oldest building, the Church
of St Mary Magdalene, which dates from the 13th Century, is found on Church
Street, away from the main road that now exists.
gets three mentions (as Stichiltone or Sticiltone, meaning 'village at a stile
or steep ascent') in the Doomesday
Book of 1086 as three landowners, the King, the Bishop of Lincoln and Eustace
held land here. The 'steep ascent' could refer to the steady gradient up to Norman
Cross, or to the notable climb westwards to Caldecote.
The Great North
Road had become a busy thoroughfare by the fifteenth century and Stilton, with
its exceptionally wide high street, was a well-known staging post between Huntingdon
1642 Civil War broke out and Stilton, along with most of Huntingdonshire, siding
with the Parliamentarians. In 1645 Charles I marched his army south from Newark
down the Great North Road, briefly occupying the town of Huntingdon.
the peak of the stage coach age, from around 1784 (when the Royal Mail was first
carried by coach) to the 1840s (when the growth of the railways killed the coaching
trade), there were 42 scheduled coaches and mails stopping daily and many private
carriages and post-chaises either travelling on the Great North Road or connecting
with such services. Stilton was also one of the points where the drove road to
the west (the Bullock Road) met the Great North Road and there was great business
to be had shoeing cattle.
There were 14 inns or ale houses in Stilton,
with a permanent population of around 500 to 600 people. While most earned their
living from farming, an analysis of the 1841
census showed that occupations directly connected to the coaches were important
This period also coincided with the construction and occupation of
the Norman Cross Barracks, around a mile to the north, which housed prisoners
from the Napoleonic Wars between 1796 and 1814.
Pubs & The Cheese
All four of the present inns have very ancient
origins, even though their buildings have been changed and modernised several
times. The Bell Inn
has a keystone dated 1642 (the year of the start of the English Civil War), but
it's known that the inn dates back to at least 1500, maybe even 1437.
our famous cheese to the coach trade. Any Stiltonian can relate tales of visitors
asking "where is the cheese made?...", only to be told "Ďin
Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire".
For many years,
the most widely accepted explanation was that the cheese came down to be sold
at one of the coach stops in Stilton, perhaps The Bell or The Angel. As early
as 1722 Daniel Defoe (the author of "Robinson Crusoe") ate some here
and mentioned that the village was already famous for its cheese. The story goes
that the recipe was passed down through the Beaumont family of Quenby in Leicestershire.
By 1830 a former housekeeper at Quenby, Elizabeth Orton, made cheese in her farmhouse.
Her daughter married Cooper Thornhill who kept The Bell Inn and he sold the cheese.
(He was famous (or infamous) as a larger-than-life character who long held the
record for riding to London and back).
However...recent exhaustive research
has shown that Stilton did originally produce a cheese in the village,
and we have since been commercially making a cheese so that we can apply to Defra
to get the PDO amended, and be allowed to make Stilton cheese in Stilton. Read
about our campaign.
dependence on the main road has been its undoing twice; in the middle of the nineteenth
century when the railway line passed to the east through Holme and Yaxley, and
in 1959 when the present A1 Stilton by-pass was opened. The village became a ghost
village; The Bell actually closed and fell into dereliction and other businesses
also disappeared. In 1962 Tom McDonald of The Talbot and Malcolm Moyer of The
Bell, aided and abetted by telephone engineer Fred Linstead who provided a telegraph
pole, cheered up their drinkers by organising the first ever Cheese
Rolling along a course on the High Street on Easter Monday.
half-century has seen the rapid growth of Stilton, with many new housing estates,
but the village has maintained its character, with many thriving organisations,
pubs and restaurants, primary school, shops (including
Post Office and pharmacy), playing field,
and SCAN, the eagerly-awaited monthly newsletter.