Glacial Outwash

At the end of the last ice-age, some 10,000 years ago, large amounts of sand, gravel and other flinty material was washed-down from the chalk hills to the south, west and south east, by rivers running out into the southern edge of the Fens. Since that time, the river Cam meandered over the old flood-plains, leaving a series of sand and gravel river terraces, cut with old channels, lined with willow and alder, as water-levels fell and the river changed course. A similar environment exists now in Coe Fen, south of the Mill Pond in the centre of town.


River Terraces

Cambridge is built on three of these old river terraces; initial settlement was closer to the current crossing-point of the Cam and market place, on slightly lower terraces. The Cemetery is on the third or highest terrace, about 9-10m above sea-level. The soils left behind are of a flinty, calcareous nature, with a lot of sand and gravel deposits under a thin, poor top-soil. In fact, much of the early Georgian building in the town centre, to the west, used sand and gravel extracted from pits where now Flower, Blossom Street and Norfolk Terrace are built, as the height of the retaining Cemetery wall in Norfolk Terrace will testify.



Development of the city was confined to existing centre mainly by the close proximity of the Common Field system. In many cities, these had been enclosed centuries earlier, but in Cambridge Fields were relatively late in their enclosure; the Barnwell Fields, of which the Cemetery was part, were only enclosed by Act of Parliament in 1807 and land re-distributed in 1811.[1] So far as we know, the fields which became the Cemetery have never been intensively cultivated for agriculture; they were used for hay or light-grazing throughout the Common Field period, being too poor to support other crops.


University Cricket Club

After Enclosure, the next milestone in the development of the grassland in the Cemetery came, when in 1821, the University Cricket Club leased a field “of eight acres” for £30 a year and it became the “New Ground”. For about 10 years, some UCC matches were played on the site and shorter grass maintained by grounds staff employed by the Club, before it fell from favour, being “at some distance from the colleges”. There are no records of matches being played after 1830.[2]


When the Cemetery was first consecrated in1848, the site was an open, grassy field, supporting a rich variety of wild-flowers, surrounded by large trees, approached by the existing avenue from Mill Road. On the ARU site was a market-garden. The northern extension to the Cemetery was not part of the cricket ground and supports a poorer flora than the rest of the site. Since then, various plantings, of which we still have the original lists, have added a lime walk from Mill Road and the central yew avenue; other specimen trees and shrubs have added to the diverse mix of plants already found. The Cemetery was rapidly enclosed by new housing developments within the next 20 to 30 years and filled rapidly as the city grew. A guardian was employed and the Cemetery was maintained and graves tended until it was declared full in the mid-20th century.



By the late1940s the original plantings had matured and others added, whilst the open areas had retained their original flora; the Cemetery was closed to new burials in 1949 and the chapel demolished in 1954, a crime now to destroy a building by George Gilbert Scott! As a Closed Cemetery, it was left to the people of Cambridge as an amenity space, to be enjoyed by all. It is managed by the city council for the Diocese of Ely, under the Parochial Grounds Committee. In the intervening 60+ years, management has become less-intense and shrubs, self-set trees, ivy and brambles have flourished. Brambles in the Cemetery produce larger and earlier blackberries than our native species; they have been identified as a Himalayan cultivar, possibly a relic of the market-garden next-door. In the 1990s, rabbits and tawny owls were resident in the Cemetery; as environmental pressure, from dogs in particular, increased, the rabbits disappeared and owls became a rare visitor. Much of the site later came under municipal grass management, with regular strimming or mowing and little chance for flowers to bloom and set seed or for insects to reproduce.



By the turn of the 21st century, identifying our remaining meadows and grassland became a priority, as it became clear that we had lost more than 95% of our traditional flower meadows since the Cemetery became closed. As a fragment of semi-improved, neutral/calcareous grassland, the variety and density of plant species present qualified the Cemetery to be confirmed as a City Wildlife Site[3] in 2005; as such, it is one of the few examples of this kind in the county. Elsewhere, the diversity of wild flowers, grasses and other climbing plants (at least 115 identified and more to be named), plus trees, scrub and bramble, provided habitat for an abundance of other wildlife – more than 40 bird species and 23 of the UK’s butterflies, with mammals including weasels and European dormouse – all enclosed in the heart of a highly urbanised part of the city. It is this astonishing variety in such a small space that marked Mill Road Cemetery as such a special place, at the heart of the community, worthy of careful conservation.


Current status
When the Cemetery opened, it was surrounded by fields, orchards and hedgerows; the pre-industrial countryside was all around. Now it is completely surrounded by urban development; a fragment of the countryside we have lost. A draft Management Plan is now in operation, developed with input from many stakeholders and interested parties, approved by the Parochial Grounds Committee and executed by the city council, with help from other volunteer groups. The aim is to maintain the proportions of scrub, bramble, trees and grassland at around their current levels. Rotating management of each of the four main quadrants and maintaining core areas of mature habitat elsewhere will produce a rich mosaic to maximise biodiversity, whilst also allowing periodic access to currently overgrown areas of memorials. Managing the environmental balance with that of a consecrated place of remembrance is part of the plan.


The future

As the globe warms and populations increase, preserving places like Mill Road Cemetery for wildlife becomes even more important. Habitat loss remains the biggest reason for loss of species, but we are slowly learning how species are interdependent and starting to reverse that trend in some cases. We owe it to future generations to conserve such gems as the Cemetery and make sure we widen and spread our understanding of the natural world for all to enjoy.


Nick Ballard


[1] Cambridge. The Shaping of the City , by Peter Bryan

[2] On Fenner’s Sward – A History of Cambridge University Cricket Club, by Giles Phillips