Therfield Heath is located to the west of Royston and covers an area of about 420 acres. It has been used by people since the Neolithic period for farming, military and recreation.
In the Cretaceous period (65 - 95 million years ago), the area now known as Therfield Heath was a warm, shallow sea called the Tethys Sea. Organic debris containing calcium carbonate, left by millions of microorganisms in the sea, formed sediments. With time and pressure, these sediments eventually became chalk rock.
The continental collisions of the Alpine Orogeny, which formed the Alps in Europe, caused localised folds and faults in southern England. This led to uplifted ridges which brought chalk to the surface. Retreating ice sheets and glaciers from various Ice Ages were then instrumental in shaping the dry valleys that are visible today. Therfield Heath sits on the northern end of the Chiltern Hills, a long chalk slope that runs through England.
The rare chalk grasslands that remain from these geological events has led Therfield Heath to become a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is inhabited by 32 rare invertebrates which thrive in the relatively dry and nutrient-poor conditions that characterise the Heath.
Many ground nesting birds visit every year, some of which are now endangered, such as Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. The Hooded Crow, or Corvus Cornix, is an ashy grey bird with black accents. The medieval sheep pens that were on the Heath provided plenty of food for them and they thrived in the area. Though no longer local to the area, they are still often referred to as ‘Royston Crows’. This name dates from 1649, during the English Civil War, when locals attacked a group of Parliamentarian soldiers. Royalist media later described the attackers as the ‘Royston Crowes’, named after the abundance of these birds.
A variety of butterfly have also been documented on the Heath including Adonis Blue, Chalk Hill Blue, Brimstone, Meadow Brown and Speckled Wood. The Chalk Hill Blue butterfly can be seen in late summer. It needs a very specific habitat for its caterpillars which includes short grassland containing a plant called Horseshoe Vetch, and a certain species of ant. The caterpillars produce a honeydew which the ants feed on. In return, the ants protect the caterpillars and build special cells in the ground for their chrysalises.
There are six rare species of plants too; Pasqueflower, Wild Candytuff, Perenial Flax, Taraxacum, Acutum, Field Fleawart and Bastard Toadflax. A springtime visit to Church Hill will offer you an impressive display of over 60,000 Pasqueflowers. These vibrant, purple petalled flowers are incredibly rare and the Heath is one of only five sites in the UK were they can be found. The pasqueflower is also known as Danes Blood, as legend says that it springs from the blood of dead Vikings.
This myth may have come from the various burial mounds on the Heath. The large long barrow is Neolithic, from around 4000 BC, and is the only upstanding example in Hertfordshire, at a height of approx 3m. There are also Bronze Age burial grounds (2500 - 800 BC) and Iron Age (800BC - 43AD) banks and ditches. Archaeological digs at these sites have discovered skeletons, cremations, ingots, tools pots and urns, some of which can be seen at Royston Museum.
Royalty have used the Heath too. When King James VI of Scotland stopped overnight in Royston on his way to London to be crowned King James I of England in 1603, he loved the area so much that he returned the following year and began establishing a palace in the town. He placed a 14 mile wide hunting ban around Royston, which included the Heath, to preserve the game for his pleasure. In 1624, the first recorded game of golf in England was played on Therfield Heath, by George Villiers, Earl of Buckingham and one of the King’s favourites, whose account book from the time documents the purchase of clubs and balls, and a lost wager:
‘Paid to the Gofball keep[er] for clubs and balles at Roiston 4th October. £1 11s 0d.
Lost to Sir Robert Deale at Goff the 4th October. £2 0s 0d’
In 1647, 20,000 roundhead soldiers, led by Oliver Cromwell, camped overnight on the Heath during the Civil War. Two years later, after the execution of Charles I, local royalist sympathisers rose in mutiny against some Parliamentarian solders. Royalist media later described the attackers as ‘The Royston Crowes’, named after the many Hooded Crows that used to live on the Heath. This is the earliest known reference to a Royston Crow, having since lent itself to the name of the town’s football club and Royston’s local newspaper.
In 1855, Herts Militia built training grounds and a rifle range on the Heath and, during World War II, a prisoner-of-war camp was built to house 300 Italian prisoners. By 1944, there were 20 huts based there which included medical services, a shop and places for the prisoners to sleep, eat and mend uniforms. There was a 12-foot-high barbed wire fence in place around the camp. Most of the prisoners were put to work on local farms but were also used for building works and road maintenance. Towards the end of the War, the Italian prisoners were cleared to make way for German ones.
In 1869, two centuries after Villier’s game, a couple of Cambridge students established the first 18-hole golf course outside of Scotland on the Heath. The well-draining soil means that there’s a good surface for play all year round and people still use the historic course today. The Heath has also been used for cricket, tennis, rugby, football, archery and boxing, and horses have been raced on it since the 1600s. Artic Prince, a racehorse trained in Royston under Willie Stephenson, won the Epsom Derby in 1951, and, in 1659, a horse called Oxo won the Grand National.
Today, as well as sports clubs, the Heath is used by ramblers and dog walkers, with open views across Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. At its highest point, there is a toposcope which has an orientation table that points towards notable features and interesting sites across Britain and the world.
Therfield Heath and Greens. (Unknown). <www.therfieldheath.org.uk> (Accessed: September 2022).
The Friends of Therfield Heath. (Unknown). <www.friendsoftherfieldheath.org.uk> (Accessed: September 2022).
Scottish Gold History. (Unknown). 1869 Royston. <www.scottishgolfhistory.org/18-x-18-oldest-18-hole-courses/1869-royston/> (Accessed: September 2022).