Royston is one of those towns that many busy travellers by car pass by these days, but once was a bustling centre of travel - and continues to reward the visitor who makes the effort to travel to the old town centre and explore on foot. Call at the library for one of the excellent and free 'Town Trail' leaflets.
The old town of Royston is centred on the church of St John the Baptist and a series of almost parallel strees running up todards the Warren. High Street, whilst still permitting cars, gives pedesrians the priority. It has been sensibly modernised, giving the older buildings a chance to show their features. King Street, still open to traffic, is perhaps even more intriguing for its range of buildings, from the Old Barn to a number of buildings showing off their timber framing.
Royston can trace its history back at least two millennia. In Roman times it was the crossing place for two great roads, Icknield Way and Ermine Street. Icknield Way is a route from prehistoric times, following the slope of the chalk hills. The line of these roads can frequently still be seen in today's road pattern.
In Norman times, a Lady Roysia, or in English, Rose - there are two possible candidates for the lady concerned - set up a wayside cross at the crossroads. A large stone, brought to the area in an ice age, was used as the base of the cross, and whilst the cross itself has not survived, the stone does, and remains mounted closed to the crossroads. Roysia's Stone became anglicised to the Royse Stone and hence Royston.
Royston grew as a town with the founding of the Augustinian priory there by Ralph de Rochester. Two hospitals developed alongside the priory. The hopsital of St John and St Thomas for lepers stood on the corner of the crossroads, where the public house called the Old Post Office is now sited. The hospital of St Thomas stood to the east side of the town. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 in the reign of King Henry VIII was the beginning of the end for both the priory and the hospitals.
A charter for the market at Royston had been awarded in the time of Richard I. The two roads we have already mentioned, High Street and King Street, and their extension the other side of Baldock Street, mark the area of the original wide market street. Gradually the market stalls in the centre of the street became permanent buildings, to give the layout we see today.
On that street to the north of Baldock Street a number of houses were build to support King James I's (1603-1627) love for hunting. He and his court spent much time in the town, chasing game on the neighbouring heathland. James appears to have got to know of Royston by stopping there on his journey from Scotland to take up the English throne. The young prince, later Charles I, shared his passion for his sport and spent time in the town.
Over the centuries, the town catered for travellers making the journey from London to York. There were several coaching inns, and the many archways on High Street indicate the entrances to the yards. It must however have been difficult at times turning a coach into those yards from the narrow street that we see today. The building in today's Kneesworth Street with the two tall chimneys is half the palace built for James; the original front of the building has now gone. The delightful fish and chip shop next door was the king's kitchens, and his equerries lived across te road it what is currently the Conservative Club.
The church of St John the Baptist is part of the greater medieval church of the priory, which fell down or was raided for stone after the dissolution by King Henry. As well as the Anglican church, the other principal denominations have their own buildings in the town; the schoolroom of the former Congregational Church is now home to the town museum. The town also boasts a fine selection of other buildings. These range from the tudor period through to more modern times, such as "Thurnall's" on Melbourn Street, a grade I listed building from the 16th century, with a 17th century facade.
A real curiosity of Royston is its 'cave', a man-made feature - and a Grade I listed building. Its origins are uncertain, but it does have unique medieval carvings, including one of St Katherine, with a representation of the spiked wheel on which she was martyred.
During the Second World War the area was home to a number of airfields. The American airmen at the Nuthampstead and Bassingbourn bases, serving with the 91st Bomb Group, had come to regard Royston as their home town. The red granite pillar in the Priory Park is dedicated to the memroy of all who served in that group, flying and seriving the B17 Flying Fortresses.
Royston's importance over the centuries because of its position on the road network was joined by the main rail line to London King's Cross passing through the town. The Royston and Hitchin railway company built the first line in 1850; it was then taken over by the Great Eastern Railway. The swift journey south makes today's much expanded town a commuter centre for the city, as well as being in easy striking distance of Cambridge.
The Royce Stone, from which the town derives its name, can be seen in the town centre
Timber framed houses with jettied floors can be seen throughout the town. Such buildings date from Tudor times. This intriguing example, with decorative plasterwork, is in King Street.
The tall chimneys are on King James's palace. Originally there was another part of the building, extending into what is now Kneesworth Street
The Priory Gardens are on the site of the former priory. St John the Baptist church was once just the chancel of the priory church. The memorial to the American airmen of the 91st Bomb Group (H), who served nearby in the Second World War, is just one of the features in the gardens