Bernard O’Connor, author of ‘Gamlingay Park and the Downings’, ‘Gamlingay’s Procession Way’ and much more, has kindly provided GamArch with the following history of the Moon Gate.
“The MOON GATE was on the boundary of John Downing’s estate. His family’s story is told in ‘Gamlingay Park and the Downings’. As a spy for Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War, he went on to amass a considerable fortune, informed Charles I’s son of an assassination attempt, was rewarded with a knighthood, the confiscated estate of the Castell family of East Hatley, land in Whitehall, London, on which Downing Street was built and a lucrative post in the Exchequer. As one of the wealthiest men in the United Kingdom, Downing bought the Shakledon estate from Sir John Burgoyne, the Lord of Potton Manor in the late 17th century. It was marked on the 1601 map as ‘The Graunge’. This was the triangle of land between the Heath Road, Drove Road and Park Lane.
Like other wealthy contemporaries, he proceeded to erect for himself a huge mansion at a cost of about £9,000. Nearby Everton House, Woodbury Hall and Tetworth Hall were similarly completed in the early-18th century and well-laid out gardens and parklands created. His gardens emulated the style of those in the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris. There were four ornamental fish ponds, a trapezium-shaped lake with resident Canada geese and straight and winding paths through carefully laid out raised lawns, flower beds, gardens, a labyrinth and woods. Apart from views across the surrounding countryside the eye was attracted by fountains and statues of Diana, Mercury, a gladiator, and ‘Fame on a pedestal’. There were also two pyramids, a huge urn, an obelisk and a Gothic gate.
Part of the northern boundary of Gamlingay Park, had a Full Moon Gate, a popular 18th century folly (TL 22275267), thought to have been built early in the park’s development. There already was a 25 feet (6.75m.) high Moon Gate on the ridge top in Mr Astell’s Woodbury Park, known to the locals as Cromwell’s Rest. Maybe Astell in his capacity as a director of the East India Company, had travelled to China as moon gates were part of the fashion in Chinoiserie. The one in Gamlingay Park, about 500 metres from the main garden area, thought to be the same height, had two red brick rusticated pillars surrounding a lunette, an intricate patterned window through which one could look at the moon, protected from the wind. There are suggested that masonic principles were used in the design of the garden and the moon gate would have stood at the end of a track through tall trees so that in the evening, when it was dark, one would see what appeared to be an enormous moon, fulfilling the idea of ‘As above, so below’. (R.C.H.M. (1968, West Cambridge, p.99; Taylor, C. (1983), The Archaeology of Gardens; French, op.cit. p.33).
A smaller Half Moon Gate was referred to but exactly where it was is unknown. This might have been a wooden gate with a semi-circular opening at the top. At the end of an avenue of trees on a dark night, one would have seen what would appear to be a huge half moon. Fowler, a local historian, commenting on Gamlingay Park, stated that “the only indications of the site of the mansion are the cellars underlying the mould, and the only brickwork that has resisted the ravages of time is the curious “O” or moon, situated near the Cinques hamlet. This pile of brickwork, which is very massive, has been the cause of much conjecture and argument. Fifty years ago (1885) the circle was perfect, but now the top has fallen in, and the only portions left are in the form of two upright piers of brickwork. It is believed that more than one piece of brickwork was erected upon the estate by the eccentric Downing. The fact that the circle alone can now be seen need not infer that it was the only erection. Circular work has a curious property – that of binding itself together with age. The theory is that the last wall of the estate, of which this is a portion, contained the word Downing. The local tradition, handed down through the years, is that Sir George Downing built a high wall on the eastern boundary. The letters of his name, “Downing,” were inserted into this wall, and the intervening spaces filled with glass.
Also that Dick Turpin, on his memorable ride from London to York, being closely pursued by the myrmidons of the law, jumped through the “O” upon Bonnie Black Bess in reckless bravado, scattering the glass in every direction.” (Fowler, E.J. (1935), History of Gamlingay and Neighbourhood, Fowler Bros. Gamlingay, p.8). The Turpin story is considered to be incorrect. The base of the window is over six feet (2m.) above the ground and the diameter not wide enough for a horse and rider to jump through. Fowler also suggested that Sir John Jacob Knight, the owner of Woodbury Hall in the reign of Charles I, had the wall built to commemorate his centenary and that it contained the number “100”. The Moon Gate was one of the o’s. As the brickwork of the folly is not wide enough to have the 1 and other 0 this story is untrue.
The ‘Gamlingay Moon’, seen by the sculptor Henry Wiles and his brothers in 1869 was not part of an alphabet as their landlady told them. It was then a 150-year old brick folly and has been a local landmark until early in the 20th century when it became overgrown and , although the two pillars can still be seen, the top and bottom of the window have collapsed.”
Bernard’s final paragraph refers to an email GamArch received in September 2014 about the Moon Gate:-
“I hope you might be able to help me and I believe that this might also be of interest to Gamarch. In 1869 my great grandfather, the sculptor Henry Wiles and his brothers walked from Elstow to Cambridge and passed through Gamlingay. Henry made a book describing the walk, including watercolours of what they saw. He records a brick arch, known as the “Gamlingay moon” which was supposed to be the remnants of a brick alphabet. (according to the landlady they stayed with) Is there anything still there? Does anyone remember this amazing construction?”
With this latest information sent to us about how it looked in 1869, (click on images to enlarge) it is a real shame that this folly will soon be lost forever. It may be possible to apply for some Heritage Lottery funding to stabilise it and perhaps recreate it as it was in 1869. We would need to get the landowner to agree to public access to view it from the footpath, and agree for permission for works to be carried out. If anyone feels strongly about preserving this unique feature of Gamlingay please get in contact with us. If there is enough interest, we can form a partnership with the History Society, Forward Gamlingay!, and Gamlingay Parish Council. Please let us know your views. Contact Kirstin at Gamlingay Parish Council firstname.lastname@example.org or call on 01767 650310.
Remains are still there at the Drove Road end of Park Lane. The photos shows the view in September 2014 barely visible behind the trees, and in winter, so wait until leaves have fallen if you wish to view it as it is today.
The Gamlingay History Society also has information about this ‘folly’.