Mepal lies on the western edge of the Isle of Ely on what was once the shoreline between the fen and higher ground. The landscape we see today is largely the creation of rivers cut in the 17th century to drain the fen but the village was here long before this. The name suggests a Saxon settlement but the Manor is not mentioned until the reign of King John (1199-1216).
The busy A142 speeds traffic towards Ely, Cambridge, Huntingdon and Peterborough. At Mepal it may have been a 17th century military road and is marked on some maps as Ireton’s Way. Today it bypasses the village, sweeping through the site of a wartime airfield and carried over the rivers and washes by a modern viaduct (1984). Ferry Cottage reminds us of how this crossing was made at times of flood before the first viaduct was built in 1930. The washes have been famous for skating and wildfowling but are now best known as a site of international importance for bird life.
The tiny 13th century Church of St.Mary is separated from the village by the Manor House, Manor Farm and a field where earthworks indicate former buildings. Behind the Church a copse of elm trees has survived when other elms along Sutton Road and on the Widdens were lost in the 1970s. Near the cemetery the “ridge and furrow” pattern of medieval fields can still be seen.
Many of the larger houses in the village were farmhouses and have a plain, honest character. The picturesque Round House was never a toll but there was one, and a Toll Farm, on the Chatteris side of the rivers. Ash Cottage (School Lane) and Pond Farm (High Street) are both timber framed late 17th/early 18th century buildings but most of the old houses are of dark gault or cream Cambridgeshire brick. A barn behind 17 Bridge Road has the date “1756” picked out in coloured brickwork and a door that once linked the yard to trade on the river. The smithy, garage, bakery, Newton’s Shop and a dovecote have all disappeared within living memory but other buildings have found new uses. The Old Chapel (New Road, 1846), the Tea Caddy Café/White Hart (High Street), Dylong’s Shop (High Street and several former pubs are now private houses while the old school has become the village hall. Sir Clement Freud lived in the Cross Keys (High Street) when he was MP for the Isle of Ely (1973-1987).
Cross Keys Public house c. 1910
Fortrey Hall out on the fen has links with the great 17th century drainage scheme and its history is recorded on a memorial in the Church. Sadly, only part of the original house remains. The peat land here is some of the richest in the country. It has been drained in turn by windmills, steam, diesel and electric power. Glynn’s engine house (1840) still stands on Engine Bank. Further out on the fen is a band of gravel and evidence of prehistoric barrows have been found.
It is perhaps this setting between the fen, rivers and the higher land of the old island that has had as much influence on the character of the village as have historic events and social change. Mepal remains a unique example of a small fenland community.
The Mepal Archive is a collection of over 500 photographs and stories accessible on www.ccan.co.uk .