Pirton lies at the eastern end of the Chiltern Hills and is on the Icknield Way, an ancient trade route that links with the Ridgeway in Wiltshire and the Peddars Way in Norfolk. It is a nucleated settlement with the village core at the centre of the two and a half thousand acres of its parish. The village has a triangular plan created by the three boundary roads at the edges of the village: West Lane/Shillington Road, Walnut Tree Road/Royal Oak Lane and Priors Hill/Hitchin Road. Within the area bounded by these roads, the village has developed as it has alternately prospered and declined over the past thousand or so years.
In simple terms Pirton comprises a large open area to the south, which was the ancient core (see below: Toot Hill Castle and the Bury), and a larger area of farms and houses to the north and west, which date from the medieval period (c1200) to the present day. This arrangement of roads and the particular way in which Pirton village has developed gives it a unique character. Although the population doubled in the first half of the nineteenth century, it has stayed remarkably constant over the last 150 years at about 1,300.The number of houses has increased to the current count of 470 as fewer people now live in each house.
Plan of the Motte and Bailey and medieval village as identified on the survey carried out in 1988.
Several important prehistoric, Roman and Anglo-Saxon sites have been identified in Pirton, but it is for the medieval (AD1066-1500) monuments that the village is especially noted. The most famous is the Motte and Bailey castle, known as ‘Toot Hill’ (meaning `look out’). This comprises a large earth mound (the motte) with a water-filled ditch and two outer, defence areas (the baileys). The Grade 1 Listed parish church of St. Mary, which dates from the 11th century, also lies within one of the castle baileys.
To the south east of the castle and church is a large grassed area known as ‘The Bury’ which contains the earthwork remains of the now deserted part of the ancient village of Pirton. Long depressions are clearly visible which were once the streets of the old village and the areas of raised ground indicate the position of the houses. The site of the ancient village also extends to and can be seen in the field on the far side of Walnut Tree Road.
An imaginary reconstruction of Norman Pirton in 1139.
Both the Castle and the Bury are nationally important and are designated as Scheduled Ancient Monuments. Pirton village also contains a scheduled medieval moated site at Rectory Farm and well-preserved remains of medieval ‘ridge and furrow’ ploughing in several of the fields that surround the village .
The first written mention of Pirton was in the Domesday Book compiled in 1086 A.D. when it was referred to as Peritone: peri- a pear tree and ton – homestead. From the entry made it seems that the population must then have been about 200, and that the village was fairly prosperous with four water mills.
Norman undershot watermill
The Manor of Pirton which, before the Norman Conquest, was held by Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, was awarded to a Norman knight, Ralph de Limesy. It was eventually divided into three manors: the manors of Pirton, Doddingselles and Rectory. Rectory Manor was created by Ralph de Limesy when he granted the church at Pirton to the Priory of St Mary at Hertford. The present manor house, known as Rectory Farm, is a typical E-shaped Elizabethan house but was much altered in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Limesy family were followed at the end of the 12th century by the Oddingselles. The remainder of the Manor of Pirton was divided between two Oddingselles sons in the 13th century, William and Hugh. William took the portion including the old manor house [now known as Docwra manor] which was called the Manor of Pirton. Thomas Docwra of Putteridge bought the manor in the 16th century and erected a new manor house at Highdown. Hugh took the portion which became known as the Manor of Doddingselles and included Burge End and Hammonds Farms. Eton College bought the Manor of Doddingselles in 153? and the land and property was leased to local tenants. By the end of the 18th century the Delme-Radcliffes of Hitchin Priory owned both the manors.
The Lord of the Manor had a right to hold a court for his tenants and the business transacted was recorded in the court rolls. Many of the rolls for the three manors in Pirton still survive and can be found at the Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies at County Hall Hertford Manor of Pirton [1487-1921], Manor of Pirton Doddingselles [1373-1925] and Manor of Pirton Rectory [1576-1809].These are not complete runs and until the mid 18th century are in abbreviated medieval latin except for a brief period during the Commonwealth.
Until the nineteenth century, the economy of the village was based on agriculture with six open fields divided into half acre strips. It was mainly arable farming growing crops such as wheat, oats, peas and beans, and barley supplying the malting trade in Hitchin. The commonfield system continued until the fields were enclosed by act of parliament in 1818. As Luton developed as the centre of the hat trade in the middle of the 19th century, Pirton became a straw plaiting village. However this source of supplementing the family income declined by the beginning of the 20th century because of cheap imports from abroad. The farmhouses and barns have now mostly been sold as residential property and all the fields are farmed by business farmers from outside the village. Like many villages in Hertfordshire, Pirton is now a commuter village.
One hundred years ago there were five bakeries, seven pubs and nine shops, but changing times means that only the Fox, the Motte and Bailey and the combined village stores / post office remain. The thriving primary school was established in 1841 as a national school.
Pirton has a large number of important historic buildings, 54 of which are Listed. At least three former manor houses lie within the village, Rectory Farm, Hammonds Farm and Docwra Manor. A Grade II* Listed 16th century tithe barn also lies at Rectory Farm. A group of fine medieval and Tudor timber-framed buildings are found on Great Green and at Burge End. `Three Gables’ in Bury End was originally a medieval hall house with cross wings.
The village underwent a period of rapid population growth in the early 19th century from under 500 at the beginning of the century to 1023 in 1861. New houses were built to accommodate this rising population, most of which were terraces of the characteristic Arlesey white brick (made from local gault clay), a number of which are spread throughout the village, but some much larger Victorian houses were also built, for example Pirton Court and Pirton Hall.
The next significant phase of Pirton’s development occurred after the First and Second World Wars in the 20th century when the municipal housing estates of Davis Crescent and Danefield Road were constructed.
During the latter half of the 20th century the development of the village mainly consisted of in-fill within the existing envelope. In 1965 a modern estate was built at Cromwell Way and Bunyan Close and later small estates were also built, such as St Mary’s Close and Franklin Close in the 1980s. The last large in-fill development was at Coleman’s Close in the 1990s. A number of smaller developments, many comprising single houses, continue to be built in the village’s small open areas.