Thorn Spring moated site and associated woodbanks


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of Thorn Spring moated site and associated woodbanks
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Central Bedfordshire (Unitary Authority)
Houghton Regis
National Grid Reference:
TL 00390 24985, TL 00584 24873

Reasons for Designation

Around 6,000 moated sites are known in England. They consist of wide ditches, often or seasonally water-filled, partly or completely enclosing one or more islands of dry ground on which stood domestic or religious buildings. In some cases the islands were used for horticulture. The majority of moated sites served as prestigious aristocratic and seigneurial residences with the provision of a moat intended as a status symbol rather than a practical military defence. The peak period during which moated sites were built was between about 1250 and 1350 and by far the greatest concentration lies in central and eastern parts of England. However, moated sites were built throughout the medieval period, are widely scattered throughout England and exhibit a high level of diversity in their forms and sizes. They form a significant class of medieval monument and are important for the understanding of the distribution of wealth and status in the countryside. Many examples provide conditions favourable to the survival of organic remains.

The moated site at Thorn Spring is a very well preserved example of the small, single island type. The island has remained largely undisturbed and will retain buried evidence for structures and other features related to the period of occupation. The buried ditches to the north and east of the site provide evidence for the water-management system, and the waterlogged silts within the moat will contain both artefacts and environmental evidence illustrating the function of the site and the landscape in which it was set. The monument lies within an area in which moated sites are comparatively numerous, allowing comparisons which will provide insights into the development of such residences in the region. The medieval woodbanks are of particular interest, illustrating part of that development.

Woodbanks were constructed to define the boundaries of woodland, which was an extremely valuable and intensively managed resource during the medieval period. The bank and ditch prevented encroachment by neighbours and, aided by either hedges or fences on top of the bank, excluded livestock which would otherwise have damaged the young trees and understorey. Most large woodbanks were already in existence by c.1270, although some have been dated to the previous century. Later woodland boundaries, particularly those of the 19th century, tend to be slighter and straighter, often retaining the hawthorn hedgerows which were planted on the banks.

The protected length of woodbank at Thorn Springs, although only part of a larger circuit, survives as a well preserved length of earthwork and includes an original entrance. The banks will preserve evidence of former land use on the buried ground surface, and the infilled ditches may contain artefacts from the periods of construction and subsequent use.

The woodbank illustrates the longevity of the woodland area surrounding the moated site, and provides rare and valuable evidence concerning the management of its immediate surroundings.


The monument lies within an area of woodland known as Thorn Spring and is protected within two areas: a medieval moated site located some 60m to the north east of Oakwell Park (an early 20th century country house), and an associated boundary earthwork which flanks the north side of Thorn Road, some 190m to the south east.

The moat has three straight arms enclosing an island which is roughly rectangular in plan, measuring c.29m north east to south west by 40m north west to south east. The fourth arm, to the south east, curves away from the centre of the island forming an arc. The ditch varies between 2.8m and 6m in width, widest in the north east and north west arms, and between 1m and 1.5m in depth. The western half of the south eastern arm has been partially infilled in recent years leaving a narrow channel; and the eastern half, together with part of the north eastern arm, has been partially dredged and now contains shallow standing water. This operation has not, however, removed the earlier deposits of waterlogged silt from the base of the ditch, which continue around the complete circuit to a depth of at least 0.8m. Traces of an external bank, 3m wide and 0.4m high, survive along the outer edge of the north eastern arm, continuing for a short distance around the northern corner. The moat is thought, as the placename suggests, to derive water from springs below it. There are, however, two infilled leats which enter the moat at the highest point of the circuit, and are considered to have provided an additional supply. The first, visible as a slight depression, 2.5m wide and 0.2m deep, runs for approximately 90m to the north west from the centre of the north western arm, and is particularly noticeable where it is crossed by a grass pathway flanking the moat. The second buried channel is similar in appearance and extends for c.50m to the north east of the northern corner of the moat. A sample of each channel, 10m in length, is included in the scheduling in order to provide protection for their archaeological relationships with the moat. The narrow outflow channel is a relatively modern feature which connects the southern corner of the moat to the eastern end of an ornamental pond located in the gardens to the east of Oakwell Park. It is not included in the scheduling.

The surface of the island retains slight traces of two raised platforms positioned within the angles of the northern corners, which are thought to mark the locations of former buildings. Each measures about 15m by 10m, and about 0.3m high, separated by a shallow hollow, c.8m in width. A low bank, c.1.8m wide and up to 0.4m high, skirts the edge of the island indicating the position of a palisade or wall. Access to the island is currently provided by a wooden footbridge across the south western arm, approached by a footpath from the house. A slight broadening of the internal bank in the centre of the south eastern arm of the moat is thought to indicate the location of the original bridge.

The earthworks adjacent to Thorn Road to the south are thought to represent the enclosure and management of woodland within the estate of the moated site. The boundary, or woodbank, survives in two sections. The longer, southern, section runs parallel to the road near the south eastern edge of the present wood. The bank is c.120m in length, averaging 4.5m wide and between 0.4m and 0.8m high. It is flanked on the southern side by a largely infilled ditch, 3m wide and 0.2m deep, which lies between 4m and 6m to the north of a modern ditch marking the edge of the road. The western end of the woodbank has been truncated by a later boundary ditch which provides the outflow from the ornamental pond to the north. At about 50m from this end, the earthworks are broken by a 3m wide gap, which is considered to be an original entrance way, perhaps aligned with the original entrance to the moated island. Two further gaps in the bank to the east appear to be later alterations since the accompanying ditch is continuous. The southern section of the woodbank terminates by the eastern edge of the present wood, separated from the southern end of the second section by a narrow ditch. The bank here is similar in appearance, and can be traced northwards along the eastern side of the wood for approximately 40m. The external ditch along this section, however, has been recut to form a modern drainage channel. The moated site was first identified in 1916 by the antiquarian, F G Gurney. It is thought to have been one of several residences constructed in the 12th or early 13th century as a consequence of disputes over the lordship of Houghton. Houghton was a royal manor at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, and remained crown property until the early 12th century when it was granted to Hugh de Gurney by Henry I. Henry, however, also granted lands and rights-in-common in Houghton to his newly founded priory at Dunstable and this resulted in a protracted series of disputes between the priors and the Lords of Houghton Manor, who each sought to defend their respective rights. A later Hugh de Gurney fell from royal favour during the reign of John (1199-1216), possibly as a result of the strained allegiances caused by the French wars. The Prior of Dunstable is believed to have taken this opportunity to acquire the original Houghton Manor (which is thought to have been located to the north of the parish church). Hugh was subsequently restored to his property, intensifying the dispute which led to the demolition of the existing manor, and the construction of a new residence for the de Gurney family. Thorn Spring is the most probable location for this new manor. The priory subsequently founded a separate holding at nearby Calcutt's Farm.

The moated site is depicted on a map of the Duke of Bedford's estate dated 1762, at which time Thorn Spring was in the possession of William Fossey. The wooden footbridge serving the island and the series of wooden path edges in the interior are excluded from the scheduling, together with the brick pedestal and concrete bird bath located in the southern corner of the moat ditch, although the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Lea, H S F , The Victoria History of the County of Bedfordshire, (1912), 390
Lovering, P, Royal Houghton, (1986), 26-7
Rackham, O, The Illustrated History of the Countryside, (1994), 53
Conversation with the gardener, Clearing the moat at Thorn Springs, (1994)
copied from a map of 1762, CRO B553: Estate Map (Duke of Bedford), (1766)
Notebook, Gurney, F G, CRO X325/58, (1916)
O.S. revision card, NKB, Antiquity No. TL 02 SW 20: Enclosure - Doubtful Homestead Moat, (1973)
Sketch map and field notes, Simco, A, 140 Thorn Moat, Houghton Regis, (1986)
Title: CRO B553 Estate Map - Duke of Bedford Source Date: 1766 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: copied from map of 1766


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing