History of Lilbourne

Lilbourne is a small village located at the north-west corner of Northamptonshire, on its borders with both Warwickshire and Leicestershire.

The site was originally settled by the Saxons, and by the end of the dark ages had become an important trading centre - to the point that the Normans built a motte and bailey fort here in the late 1100s - of which the mounds can still be seen today, just opposite the Church.

The Church itself - seen here in a painting from a 300-year old lithograph - is one of the oldest in the area. Research indicates that parts of the chancel date back to Saxon times. Lilbourne has very well-defined mounds showing the formation of the Norman motte and bailey castle, and also some very clear ridge-and-furrow fields. To the north of the Church are the earthwork remains of a millpond and leat contructed in the Norman period.

Lilbourne once had a railway station sited just over the county river Avon border, into the neighbouring parish of Catthorpe, Leicestershire. The entire railway line & station closed on June 6th. 1966.

A field, on the Warwickshire side of the A5 Watling Street first surveyed c1910 as a possible airfield was privately built upon c1913, eventually becoming a WW1 grass airfield with the construction of hangars & service buildings, c1915, being de-commissioned c1920. The site continued to be utilised for several years after the war returning to usage as a private airfield.

In the mid 1920's the airfield & much of the surrounding landbecame what was known as Rugby Radio Station opening for transmission on January 1st. 1926. The national "time signal" was transmitted from an aerial suspended between two of the southern most, 820ft. high, masts until several years ago. The whole site will eventually be developed into housing, light industry & warehousingin the coming years.

On the Northamptonshire side of Watling Street & a few hundred yards to the north of the airfield, was the former site of the officers quarters. Many years afterwards, the land & some of these buildings were converted into a petrol filling station and cafe. During the late 20th. century, this area has been progressively developed into a large "truck-stop" with lorry parking, re-fuelling and catering facilities.

Image gallery

A BRIEF HISTORY by E. W. Timmins.

Lilbourne is a village with special archaeological interest, and is regarded as such by Northamptonshire Heritage. It is one village in a group which has survived from a pattern of settlements originating at least in the Iron Age, if not the preceding Bronze Age. Its name derives from the Celtic language of the Iron Age people, shown by one of the two entries in the Domesday Book as ‘Lineburne’, where ‘Lin, Lyn or Ilyn’ means water or a pool, and ‘Burn’, deriving from ‘Avon’, means a river or stream. Thus, the name could mean ‘water river, or watery stream. The river is actuallythe river Avon. The change of ‘n’ to ‘I’ by association with theinitial L I gave the present form of ‘Lilbourne’

The location of the original village was down by the river, revealed by the hollows and mounds left by streets and houses. No signs of the Roman period remain, but the present old Vicarage is built where the Hall of the Saxon thegns, as lords of the manor, once stood within its moated enclosure. (A length of the moat was still visible in the 18th. century). The conversion of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia about 850 AD. resulted in the building of churches by the newly converted thegna, who for their own benefit chose a site close to the Hall. Hence we find Lilbourne church nextdoor to the original Hall. Although many must have been built of timberinitially to keep down costs, and for speed, they were replaced by moredurable stone structures. The present chancel was almost certainly the nave of the small Saxon church, for the later additions were built up toit, but are not bonded to it, leaving it stilla separate entity.

The Church of All Saints is the oldest in the district. It is not large, seating about 150 people, and consists of chancel, clerestoried nave with north and south aisles, and a 12th.century west tower. The interior is light and spacious, presenting a homely atmosphere with no pretentionsto grandeur and is furnished with simple early 18th century pews (reducedin height) and a good Queen Anne pulpit. Its complex architectural history is reflected in a blend of styles ranging from the 11th.century Saxo-Norman chancel door to a fine mid-15th century nave roof, slightly later chancel windows and an 18th.century porch. It escaped the enthusiasms of the Victorian restorers apart from a re-roofed chancel. Over the 13th century chancel arch is a Doom painting from about 1400-1450, at presentunfortunately under several coats of whitewash and modern paint, and there are traces of an ochre riband pattern of about 1300 painted on the arcades.

The Church underwent a very sound and thorough restoration in 1906 which ensured its stability for a long time to come, but the fabric is in continual need of repair. English Heritage consider the church significantand worthy of their full support, and contribute substantial grants towards the costs of the work.

Lilbourne stood in an important and strategic position at a cross-roads with a crossing, probably originally a ford, across the river Avon. Oneancient road ran from London through Oxford then by way of Crick andLilbourne to Leicester, and up to Newcastle and beyond – the ‘Oxford Way’. Another was from an Iron Age fort at Ban’s Hill near Coventry through Rugby, Lilbourne andWest Haddon to Hunsbury. Lilbourne, along with Rugby and West Haddon, was from a very early stage a market town or village, and that road was known as the ‘Portway’, because it connectedmarket towns or villages. (Port = market).

Opposite the church are the remains of a typical motte-and-baileycastle, but with two baileys. In theyears immediately following the Norman conquest, hundreds of these castles were thrown up at great speed by the Normans, in the face of uprisings throughout the country, which in this region took place between 1068 and 1070. They were built in accordance with carefully organised plans, carried out under the control of the Norman barony. At Lilbourne it was put in a strategic position to control the Oxford Way where it crossed the Avon, as well as to command the east-west road to Hunsbury. (The Watling Street was little used by then.) It formed part of a defensive network set up by Robert Mellent, Earl of Leicester, centred on his castle at Mountsorrel. The illustration below shows the appearance of the castle as it might have been a century or so later in more settled times. The ‘keep’ on the top of the motte, and the defences of the court or ‘baileys’ were made of timber, and when in 1218 Henry III ordered the castle to be ‘prostrated’ by having the defences thrown down, it was almost certainly done by setting the timbers on fire.

About half a mile west of the castle, on a ridge of high ground is what is known as the Roundhill. It was actually a siege castle, thrown up in great haste in the form of a small motte-and-balley structure by forces intent on besieging the main castle.The small half-moon bailey on the north side and the motte were surrounded by a dry moat, but in the last 50 years considerable damage has been done to the surviving earthworks. Essential to the life of even the earliest settlements was the provision of centres for trading, buying and selling goods and cattle, and because of its position at an important cross-roads. Lilbourne from a very early stage was a market settlement, as were Rugby, West Haddon and Burgh Hill near Daventry, amongst others. The road leading eastwards through Rugby, Lilbourne, and West Haddon to Hunsbury was known as the ‘Portway’, because it connected these market towns or villages. (Port market).

The market-places were nearly always placed between the arms of a “V”-junction where two main roads converged, and this was the situation here at Lilbourne. The street map below, shows how it lay in the triangle between Station Road (part of the Portway). the foot-path (once part of the Oxford Way) now leading past the Butts field down to the church, and the lane named after the Horsepool which used to be there for horses being driven to market, and is now filled-in and built over. The franchise of markets wasin the hands of the Crown originally, but that for Lilbourne was granted by Henry II In the 12th. century to the then lord of the manor, probably Richard de Camville. It was to be held weekly on Sunday, but this was changed to Mondays in 1219. Much of the business was concerned with cattle and sheep but it was noted in particular for its trade in wool. In the face of competition from the markets at Rugby, Daventry and Lutterworth, however, it did not survive beyond the 16th century.

The early village had extended from the river up the hill and flanking the market. The castle seems to have been built over a part of the lower village, so displacing a number of households which had to move further up the hill. There was a disastrous period of torrential rains and consequent famine all over the country. In the years from 1314 to 1317, resulting in the inundation of many low-lying houses and villages. This was almost certainly the cause of the river-side part of Lilbourne being abandoned, with only the church and vicarage remaining. The surviving families were obliged to be rehoused at the crest of the hill. Further desertion of homesteads around the market place followed the gradual collapse of the market.

The 3 medieval common Open Fields known as “Brooke field”, “Crick-path field” and “Castle field” were enclosed in 1663/4 by private agreement between the church, the manorial landholders and the tenants. The result was that in a short time the poorer people with little land had to sell out to the larger landholders, and take on work as day-labourers. Much of the former arable land was grassed down for grazing which required less labour, so that many families turned for a living to cottage industries. The commonest of these was tammy-weaving, the production of a fine Worsted cloth, organised from Leicester,

The Industrial Revolution hardly affected rural villages like Lilbourne until the coming of the railways after 1830. The opening of the line from Rugby to Market Harborough and beyond in 1850, with the station built at *Lilbourne, began to affect the village directly. Apart from the benefits of rail travel it provided welcome employment in the area, some people moving to Rugby to work, whilst others came to live in Lilbourne and other villages along the line. The line was closed by Dr.Beecham in June 1966.

*Lilbourne station was actually sited in the parish of Catthorpe, Leicestershire, just yards away fromriver Avon county border with Northamptonshire.

A WW1 grass airfield was built in 1915, sited close to theA5 (Watling Street). Known as RFC Lilbourne & later on as RAF Lilbourne, it was the home of many training units & also of No. 55& No. 73 operational squadrons. The aircrafts utilising the base at that era included :- Armstrong-Whitworth FK8, Avro 504, De Havilland DH4, Royal Aircraft Factory BE 2, RE 7, SE 5A, Sopwith Camels & Pups. The airfield closed in c1920.

The village school was set up in 1873 as a Church of England school, incorporating a Poor Law cottage standing on land once part of the Waste of the Lord of the Manor, which originally formed a section of the ‘green belt’ or ‘green’ surrounding the village. The school was closed in 1984, but in its heyday there were 30 or more pupils with a headmistress and one or two assistants. It was converted into a dwelling house in 1968.

Lilbourne has since lost its post-office, shops and the last inn, “The Bell” and has to look to Rugby or the out-of-town supermarkets for services.

©E.W.Timmins, 1998.

Script re-produced with kind permission of the Timmins family.

Since 1998, the landscape & skylines around Lilbourne have witnessed many dramatic changes such as the demolition of the early 1920’s built, 12 British Telecom (formerly GPO ) masts andtheaddition of wind turbines (24 in total, at the end of 2014, generating over 48 MWatts of power). Also, under construction, is a large & extensive expansion of warehousing continuing on from another site together with proposed housing estates on the dis-used BT site, to the south of the village.

2012 Update: The past decade saw the completion of a lengthy period of restoration to the fabricof the Church building .This important work has enabled a further restoration project to take place, with the refurbishment of the 5 bells and their associated fittings.

2014 Update: Lilbourne has re-gained apublic house named :- “Head of Steam” which is situated at the village end of Station Rd., adjacent to an inn of earlier times,”The Chequers”.

2016 Update: The original orange sodium & white mercury based street lighting units were proving unreliable so a decision was made to replace the entire system with low energy L.E.D. lighting modules. In Feb. 2016, a super-fast fibre optic broadband cabinet was installed in the village but as at August 2016, there are still no signs that connection is imminent.


Shaded areas show former roads, the section between ” Horsepool “& “Market Cross” is still utilisedbut as a latter day footpath.

Mediaeval road layout at Lilbourne. ( E.W.T.)

© E.W.T.

The old watercourse feeding the watermill, leat & return to the river can still be seen today, especially when heavy rain has filled its course. (see photograpgh below sketch) Also, shadows cast by the late afternoon sun at a low elevation equally emphasisethe ground plan.

(Please respect that all of the earthworksshown on this sketch below are on private grazing land).

Lilbourne c1150 AD. ( E.W.T.)

© E.W.T.

Mediaeval Watercourse & mill leat after heavy rainfall. (photographed from northern motte, with kind permission of the Lloyd family).

(To be continued).

Station road, north of Lilbourne village.

Leaving the Parish & Northamptonshire, over the bridge into Leicestershire.

The Avon & part of the Motte & Bailey.

The castle earthworks are just inside Northamptonshire.