Richard rang. Could I come to Montacute. A tenant had some damp problems and he needed to dig a French drain.
Though he had a vague memory that a drain had already been dug against the building… back in the 80s… he said that ‘The Borough’ was at the gates of the Montacute House and was one of the oldest houses in the village.
Probably best to have an archaeologist watch the soil while he wielded the JCB.
To be honest it would be good to get out. Too many on-screen meetings from my back room since returning from furlough, so I took the A303 west into South Somerset.
Soon, I was driving down the main street of the ancient honey-coloured Ham stone village. I passed the church on the right and arrived at the gates to Montacute House.
They were locked… with a message on the railings to phone the house. Graham answered and walked up the drive to let me in.
We greeted each other, shared our ‘lockdown’ experiences… from a distance…and then I drove round the corner to the overflow car park.
There, in the corner of the grass covered area, was the gable end of the Borough with 4m high stone kitchen garden walls running up to it from the north and the east. The ground floor window was almost at soil level. No wonder there was a damp problem with the cottage kitchen floor over a metre below the car park ground surface.
Richard had already taken off a 1.5m wide strip of turf against the cottage and I got out my drawing board and created a scale plan. I could see that there was a gravel surface 0.7m wide against the wall and then dark soil, so as I can’t help but think in context numbers… the turf would be (1), the gravel (2) and the dark soil (3). (3) had bits of coal and clinker and a mix of pottery.. blue and white willow pattern but no plastic so it felt like a pre 1960s deposit.
I guessed that the gravel (2) was the upper filling of the old, now useless, drain that Richard had mentioned.
Richard turned up with the digger and Dean with the mini tractor and trailer and the gravel was scraped off. This turned out to be just a skim on top of the real drain filling which consisted of large chunks of Ham stone in a clinker and ash silt.
This I called (4).. and it was 0.7m deep … so (2) and (4) filled a trench  which was cut down through (3) . Dean gave me a whole Victorian wine bottle he had pulled out of (4) but there were fragments of more modern pottery too. The blocks of stone were debris from some demolished building or buildings because some had moulded and dressed edges.
As Richard dug them out, Dean pulled them from the trailer and placed them against the wall for reuse,
The wall of the cottage at this modern drain level had been lined with Welsh slate on concrete…to keep the damp out…unsuccessfully…. as it turned out.
Suddenly the ash and stone filling stopped and the digger bucket scraped yellow clay. I jumped down with the trowel and started cleaning.
I found a smooth clay layer (5). As I scraped my trowel, it hit something brittle and white, an oyster shell… always a good indicator that things are getting older.. and a moment later, a fragment of earthenware with bits of green glaze on …and a thin white tube.. part of a tobacco pipe stem.
At this level, the dressed Ham stone wall face of The Borough disappeared and it seemed that the footings had been lost.
(5) was about 5cm deep and my trowel started hitting fragments of Ham stone and the clay became stickier. I called this (7) and a fragment of grey and brown salt-glaze pottery flicked out of it as well as a fragment of a jug with a hard-fired fabric and a shiny deep green glaze.
This kind of stuff was early 17th century..possibly late 16th, the sort of thing we had found at Corfe Castle in the Civil War deposits… and dated to about the time of the construction of Montacute House itself …which stood in all its golden grandeur just a couple of hundred yards away.
At this level, at the edge of the trench, there was a plastic grey clay which I could follow down with my trowel (10) and this turned out to be a water-proof drain lining which (7) was filling. The Borough wall face emerged again at this level but this time the wall was of unshaped local rubble stone. Perhaps an earlier building on the same site?
Suddenly the trowel hit stone bedrock which had been cut flat and level with this earliest foundation of the Borough built directly on it. The original drain of the house had been well made but at some stage. loads of soil had been brought in to raise the ground level and the wall face had been buried almost a metre deep.
Behind me, Richard had continued digging out the mid to late 20th century drain filling and he had reached the garden wall further east. Here the soil was jumbled and mixed. He said that when he was a boy he had known the bloke who ran the market garden here. On market days he’d sell the produce to the villagers.
I had a look at the old Ordnance Survey maps and from the 1880s through to the early 20th century there were extensive greenhouses here. The high walls sheltered vulnerable plants from cold winds, enabling fruit and vegetables to be produced out of season. A few years before, I had recorded a flue in one of these kitchen garden walls. The gardener apprentices had the job of stoking the hearth to keep exotic plants warm on the heated wall during frosty weather.
The earliest map, is Samuel Donne’s Montacute plan of 1774. It was lost about 60 years ago but we found that Country Life magazine had included a section of the map in their 1950s article on Montacute House. We tracked down their archivist and asked if they had a photo of the map and they checked their photograph files and sent us a copy of the whole thing …in the post!
So good to see it, as it shows clues to an earlier designed landscape. The roads and main entrance to the house were on the east side then. The western approach was only installed in 1785 and involved much landscaping and demolition of parts of the village. The map shows the Borough as one of a number of buildings lining what is now the visitor entrance to the house.
The excavation site was not part of a kitchen garden then… but a gap between two houses in a street with their long back gardens continuing to the east.
Montacute goes back to Saxon times… at least… and the 1774 maps shows a village in transition as the owning Phelips family extended their influence and absorbed ancient streets within their expanding parkland…..
Dean brought me a clay tobacco pipe bowl. On the base it read ‘Will Pitch’ and underneath ‘er’ … perhaps William Pitcher made this. It had a shape and design typical of about 1670-1700 …but it was out of context.. the mixed garden soil contained all sorts of jumbled finds from the 17th through to the 20th centuries.
I had been privileged to gain another small glimpse of the complex past of Montacute.
I finished the drawings and photography, checked that I had numbered up all the finds bags… said goodbye…. and drove home.