Evening falls and the familiar figures meander homeward People who were strangers, now friends, will soon forget, Once the trains leave, spreading a team across a nation, Something newly precious will be gone, Pleasant memories, will then become dreams, And those glowing faces will fade with the passing of time.
This was long ago.
Our archaeology course required us to do 14 weeks of digging in our holidays. We needed to book what was available and hope for enough subsistence payment to enable us to break even.
Another time…when a sustainable career in archaeology seemed very unlikely..I did it anyway.
And so you find me in my father’s car in the back streets of Southampton. It is September 1977, the summer is all but gone, the nights are closing in.. and… by the end of the month I’ll be back for my final year at Weymouth.
Therefore, on a late dig placement….we are guided in our Cortina by the 70s equivalent of a sat nav, which amounts to a sketch drawing and a set of directions scrawled on the back of the letter of acceptance.
It was dark, and the guidance proved to be inadequate. After exploring for a long while, we eventually arrived in Upper Bugle Street. At first glance it was disappointing and also at second glance…it consisted of 3 buildings. At one end, a tired looking darkened house which later proved to be the archaeological office …and at the other end, a slum with a light on ….and beside that … the Juniper Berry pub.
We tried the slum. Pat opened the door and confirmed that I had arrived at my destination. So my stuff was unloaded, the car turned for home and I was abandoned. Pat said she had come down from London for the dig and that the others had gone down the Anchor, so we walked there together and found them there.
I recognised Patrick and Alphonse from Winchester (the dig at Easter). The strangers were Tracey, who was trying out some practical archaeology before studying it at Exeter, Heather from America, Imo from Devon, Anne from Cambridge (who knew latin) and Hilary from Liverpool who was studying at Reading.
A disparate group of people in their teens and twenties who had washed up on the shore of Upper Bugle Street. We would inhabit a condemned building for a fortnight…a place accidentally spared for us …from a street demolished…for a development…presently put on hold.
It took a little time to gel. We divided our sleeping into rooms, dossed on beaten up mattresses, made meals in tarnished saucepans on a dodgy stove and re-stuffed newspaper into window cracks when the wind blew.
We walked to the site together through the Southampton Streets. Alert and questioning. We searched and discovered each other. Leaving the walled medieval town through the Bargate, we aimed for Six Dials and the international Saxon port of Hamwic….which turned out to be a large open area covered in weeds and a wooden, flat pack tea hut …which we later erected in one corner.
Dave and Mort met us and put us to work.
They told us about the importance of the 8th century archaeology beneath our feet. Recently, rows of Victorian terraces had stood there.
Our job was to dig foundations, carry metal hoops and set them in place to create a series of parallel poly-tunnels.
The geology is Southampton is brickearth they said. It goes rock hard when it dries out; the tunnels would keep it moist enough to dig and protect it from getting waterlogged and sticky.
They were all wonderful. Tracey was lovely. Alphonse was from Germany. He was so funny and good to talk to. He’d appreciate everything you said…which is always encouraging. ‘Tell me another’ he’d say. ‘Once in a Blue Moon?’ …’Amazing… what does it mean…and another ‘talk the hind leg off a donkey’ he broke down into fits of laughter.
Sombrely, once the tea hut was complete, he placed the sign ‘Arbeit macht frie’ over the door. He said it was fitting.
We talked of economic models while we worked…laws of diminishing returns and marginal utility.
Mike was rarely seen, though I would meet him in Northampton. He was famous because he owned the hostel TV… but most evenings, after our struggle to create edible food from meagre resources, we would devise games. They were great but I don’t remember them.
It took a little time but we became a bubble of familiarity.
Each evening.. back out into the dark streets of Southampton… but never to the Juniper Berry… It was infamous. The girls warned of strange happenings there. The sounds beat out until early morning and we wondered…cries and strangely dressed figures.
We invaded a darkened playground and swung, slid and spun.
One Saturday Imogen, Heather and I took the ferry to the Isle of Wight and spent the day at Carisbrooke Castle and Newport Roman Villa.
I had to leave for Weymouth and said goodbye. Alphonse helped me carry my bags to the station.
I came back at Christmas but the site was closed. Upper Bugle Street had one inhabitant and it was freezing. They shifted me to Micheldever to work in the permafrost.
I came back in March but only Dave was there, the others.. I never met again. The poly-tunnels were finished.
To the sound of Blondie ‘Touched by Your Presence’ I walked through the early morning mist…. rising from the brickearth …through a plastic cocoon.
Kneeling, I began to trowel the surface as directed, a silver stater burst from the earth and later… at the end of the tunnel…a deep rubbish pit full of Saxon pottery and exotic glass…the things we prepared for but never had the chance to work on…
They all signed my book, and 43 years later it is open beside me.
‘Well, Martin, as the saying goes, everybody’s got to go their own way. It was fun while it lasted (as they say) so until our paths cross again on some dig or maybe I’ll meet you in that big dig in the sky. So, we will always remember our great voyage to the Isle of Wight (because it wasn’t too dear) Yours Heather’