An extract from the Huntingdonshire County Gazetteer
Mirkmere in the Fen is an isolated country town which lies between Pidley and Warboys, deep in the black fen country of Huntingdonshire. It is reached by a narrow and winding road starting to the north of Pidley (and truly, there is a village called Pidley as GoogleMaps will prove to you) at Mirkstone’s Gibbet. “One road in and one road out and nought but mud for miles about” as it was so succinctly put by Thaddeus Grimley, the “Mirkmere Bard” in his definitive work “The Mere; An Elegy in 200 Verses” published in 1842 (now out of print).
A map showing the location of Mirkmere Fen is at the foot of this page.
The population of Mirkmere has never been especially numerous, though the town has prospered in its isolation over the centuries. For many years it was shunned by the people of nearby towns and villages due to superstitious fears of what was said to live in the misty, murky depths of the great Mirk Mere – a superstition that was actively encouraged by the inhabitants. There is evidence of human settlement for at least 2000 years while the first historical event of which we can be certain is that a major defeat was inflicted on the Roman legions near here by the army of Boudicca. Unaccountably omitted from the Domesday survey, Mirkmere first rose to prominence during a period of rapid development and local affluence following shortly upon the losing by King John of his jewels “somewhere in the Wash”. Earlier it was a part of the fiefdom of the Norman Earls of Mirkmere and passed, in the Middle Ages, into the hands of a small, but commercially minded, monastic order who lived at the infamous Mirkmere Abbey who tempered the rigours of the religious life with a keen understanding of the values of property and the intricacies of agricultural economics. In partnership with the Earls of Mirkmere the monks established a period of prosperity for the village that lasted until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.
During the Civil War, the powerful Earl of Mirkmere was originally for the King while the bulk of the population were Parliamentarians. Realising that this difference of opinion could lead to a disruption of the local economy the two sides agreed to differ whilst keeping their heads down and their fingers crossed, thereby profiting satisfactorily from the ensuing national confusion. Later, and expediently as it became clear who was winning, the Earl declared for Parliament. The prosperity of Mirkmere has lasted from those days until now when, with the lack of major road and rail links, the village has gracefully retired into the seeming role of pleasant rural backwater.
Probably as a consequence of the village’s self sufficient history and the geographical limitations thereby placed on travel, the people of Mirkmere have maintained a faintly old world character and still observe some traditions and customs long abandoned by more “sophisticated” communities. Many picturesque rural activities can be viewed by the tourist staying at The Lame Duck public house, with its low beamed bars and bedrooms and its pleasant views over the market square and along the adjacent river bank. The village still maintains traditional celebrations and parades on Boxing Day, All Fools Day and May Day at which may be seen the Mirkmere Morris Dancers who claim to be the oldest side in England! Mirkmere is also probably the last community in the country to maintain a working pack of Fenland Rat Terriers (or rat hounds) who meet regularly throughout the year to hunt the nearby drains and dykes and offer an exciting day’s sport to those of robust constitution.
Dominating the western end of the village is the medieval church of St.Fenella the Fastidious wherein can be seen some of the best extant examples of English carved architravure. That of the west door being particularly interesting having been carved out of local bog oak.
Many good examples of vernacular architecture are found in Mirkmere. The finest are sited around the market square, with its old public house abutting the riverside with picturesque views over the water meadows and the water mill opposite. In the centre of the square is a splendid gilded, cast iron band stand donated by public subscription and erected by the, now defunct, Mirkmere Prize Concertina Band in 1886 to mark some forgotten landmark of Queen Victoria’s long reign. Mirkmere Hall, once home of the Earls of Mirkmere and, for the last 150 years of the Moriarties, is open to the public May to September. In particular visitors will note the vineyard, the apple orchard, the comprehensive herb and rose gardens and the only licensed private distillery still in operation in England. Try their applejack! The ruins of Mirkmere Abbey are worthy of attention, as is the working water mill.
There are three public houses, all owned by Fuddles of Mirkmere (The Mirkmere Brewery). There is the, already mentioned, Lame Duck by the riverside, the Rose and Thorn (affectionately known to locals as The Bindweed) and the Cricketers’ Arms. All have their distinctive character and clientele. The latter named pub is frequented by the more sporting minded of the villagers. The Bindweed is favoured by the aspiring professional classes while The Lame Duck attracts the remainder of the pub-going populace as well as being the adopted home of the Mirkmere Morris Dancers and the not altogether different individuals who comprise the Mirkmere Rat Hounds. Of the three establishments only the latter still has rooms to let, although bed and breakfast arrangements can be found in village houses if desired.
Mirkmere boasts the expected range of shops and traditional trades normally encountered in a place of this size perhaps even slightly above the normal complement. There is the obligatory antiques shop, a bakers, a grocers and a general store cum greengrocers as well as a small book shop, a tea and home-made cakes emporium (The Old Puntgunner’s Tearooms), a garage, a corn merchant and a jobbing builder and decorator. The village has its own general medical practitioner but no pharmacist or dentist. There is also a small sub post office.
Social life is much what you would expect. The parish church has a large hall used by the local Horticultural Association for its meetings and flower shows as well as by the Scouts, Guides and the Womens’ institute. There is a small non conformist chapel with its associated range of clubs and societies. Occasional small gatherings of adherents of less orthodox persuasions of greater or lesser degrees of lunacy have been known to assemble from time to time to anticipate the millennium and on auspicious astrological dates the Ancient Order of Mirkmere Bards and Druids come forth and, they tell us, ensure the world continues to turn as it should. All very picturesque. Mirkmere has no football team. Bowls is played on a (crown) green attached to the Bindweed public house and the regulation number of joggers and would be marathon runners set out each morning to combat the excesses of the night before. The villages main sports is cricket. The village team are currently third in the Mid Huntingdonshire League and hold the Fenland Licensed Victuallers Association All Comers Challenge Trophy.
Market day is Wednesday. A solitary bus leaves the square for Huntingdon at 7.30am each morning and returns at 6.00pm each evening. The garage operate a taxi for those finding this inadequate. A primary school is adjacent to the church and runs to the general satisfaction of the villagers. Children of secondary age are compelled to rely on parental transport or the solitary early bus for access to their education. The village is represented at Westminster by the Member for Huntingdon and on the District and County Councils by the butcher (Independent Conservative) and the baker (Independent Radical) respectively. The antiques dealer is the chairman of the Parish Council and has not, at the time of writing, declared his political affiliations.