Middle Hope to St Thomas’s Head

Walking briskly on the spine of Middle Hope, the Priory tower below to my right and the Mendips on the horizon.

The view to Woodspring Priory founded in the 13th century and now cared for by Landmark Trust. The Mendip Hills in the background.

To the left and across the Bristol Channel, the coast of Wales sweeps west into a distant Swansea blur. My grandson is about to be born in Cardiff.

This bit of the West Country was still Wales until the 7th century.

A warm, almost hot, October day with wispy clouds in a severely bright blue sky.

Before leaving home, I’d hammered out one last.. delaying email, set the car for Kewstoke and found myself behind time for the car park meeting at 1pm.

The road blocked with drainage works at Sand Bay, so I threw the car into an ill-considered niche (perhaps a parking ticket to greet my return) and pitched myself headlong for the car park half a mile up the road…. past a concrete machine gun post with a lepracaun Banksy? on it.

The car park was empty.. (of course it was !!).. this was Sand Point and I’d forgotten the other car park at Huckers Bow. Wrong end…After all, we were assembling to talk about St Thomas Head not the rocky headland to the west.

In my hurry, I had left the phone and the water in the car… so found myself, dehydrating and uncontactable striding across Middle Hope to find the others… hopefully to intercept them at the security fence.

Though…it was so lovely here. Calm, coastal, sheep-grazed grassland, occasionally divided by stone walls and with a variety of earthworks: terraced tees (from the brief 20th century golf course), field clearance cairns and one or two round barrows.

Looking west from Middle Hope towards Sand Point, the escarpment with the banks of prehistoric ‘celtic’ fields surviving. The edge of the rocky bay visible in the centre.

At the centre, the Middle Hope ridge drops away as an escarpment. Here, the banks and lynchets of a prehistoric field system were picked out in the autumn light. And, beyond this, where the land slopes gently to the sea, a small, secluded rocky bay.

Throughout its history and prehistory, this place had a strategic dimension. At Sand Point, there’s a mound, now cut into by the ruins of some forgotten WWII structures. It’s perhaps a Norman motte ..but nobody knows.

Potentially, something to do with 10th century defence when warring factions were grinding out the identity of Britain.

The view north from Middle Hope to the south coast of Wales.

In 918 AD, a hostile fleet from Britanny penetrated the Channel and raided both the Welsh and Somerset coasts before being driven back by the men of Hereford and Gloucester.

‘And King Edward contrived that a guard should be set against them on the south side of Severnmouth; west from Wales, eastward to the mouth of the Avon’ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

As I walked in the sunshine, more evidence for military works, the zig-zag earthworks of WWI practice trenches.

This place was also requisitioned in WWII, linked to the military research establishment at Birkbeck Pier at Weston. Like Brean Down, (NT’s headland property to the south), experimental weapons were tested here, and the coast was used as a bombing range.

In fact, after 1945, the east end of Middle Hope was not relinquished. St Thomas Head remained a secret establishment. When National Trust acquired the land in1968, it was already a Cold War base.

The perimeter fence and entrance Gates to St Thomas Head MoD research establishment 2012.

I had reached the high perimeter fence topped with barbed wire. The tarmac road led to the double gates with grim no entry signs. Nobody was there.

I spotted the gap in the fence and slipped through … pinning it back afterwards. I had not been here for a decade. At that time, the place was pristine.. and MoD were ready to give it back. It had been taken with the promise to return it as found…but could the NT wipe out all that recent history?

In the military records, there are notes on medieval burials found here during construction work. These may have been associated with a chapel dedicated to the 12th century saint, the martyred Archbishop Thomas a’ Becket. Perhaps the chapel was still in use when Middle Hope’s Woodspring Priory was built in the 13th century.

It cannot be seen now, and indeed, the various structures that were created across the headland, since the 1940s, may have removed much of the evidence.

St Thomas Head soon after it ceased to be used by the MoD in 2012 with the various buildings still in place.

No buildings. That was the great change since my last visit. Initially, we hoped to keep them as a Cold War interpretation site. David recorded them all and put them on the data-base.. found out as much as he could…this side of the official secrets act.

I walked down the track to the bay. Here, the deep tidal range of the Bristol Channel could be utilised. Underwater mines were taken out at low tide, detonated in high tide and the remnants checked and recovered when the tide fell again.

The concrete road down into the sea at St Thomas Head where the mines were transported at low tide.

Once the military ceased to guard the site… the vandals came, broke the windows and stripped out all the wiring. Without a presence on site, at this remote place, these unremarkable buildings could not be curated. Historic England agreed, this place was no Orford Ness. The MoD took the buildings and left the footprint of the paths and foundations for future interpretation.

Nobody was here. Had I got the right day? I spotted clusters of blackberries sheltered behind aluminium railings and quenched my thirst.

I looked back across the sea towards Wales.

Wales.. so strange, that every time we say that.. at its roots it means the place of the foreigners or other people… though I cross the Severn bridge so often.

In Cardiff, I ask Leah….’what does Cymru mean?’

‘It means the land of fellow countrymen, of friends’

‘And as we leave? as the bridge touches England… what is this place Lloegr?

‘Ah, this last sign of the Cymri lets everyone know that they are entering the lost lands… the once Welsh lands of the Romanised Britons’ absorbed by the Germanic tribes from the 5th-7th centuries.

So, even in the 21st century, Cymru still calls out to Middle Hope, part of the Lloegr, the lost lands of the West Country.

The unique language of British place names, telling the stories of the mixing of past communities over many centuries.

I walked back towards the security gate to see at last the group coming towards me.

‘I’m so sorry, I went to the wrong car park’

St Thomas Head reseach buildings

The Studland Fire and WWII

Now, as the long awaited rain falls.. the summer seems a long way off. All that hot dry weather.

Back in August, sunlight amplified through a broken bottle or an injudicious BBQ caused a sudden gorse-fire which swept across the Studland Heath in Dorset. It caused some unusual sounds as the flames ate up the vegetation and scorched the ground surface.

One of the earthwork gun pits exposed by the fire.

Were those sudden cracks and bangs gun shots and small detonations?

It turns out they were…because when I reached the fire site there were munitions experts sweeping the blackened area with detectors and piles of explosive bits were being placed in a secure area for safe disposal.

Ollie, our WWII specialist at Studland, showed me the extent of the burned area. He’s discovered that this piece of coastal Purbeck land was already a military practice area in 1936.

When the war came, it continued to be used.

From 1939-41 pill boxes, gun emplacements and mine fields were created to defend this vulnerable piece of coast against German attack. Oil tanks were built with pipes running into the sea ( a defensive system known as FOUGASSE). The idea was to ignite the sea as the enemy tried to land to make an impenetrable wall of flame. Locals complained that the system was not particularly beneficial. When an offshore wind blew, everyone on land was choked and blinded with smoke and fumes.

Then, as the threat of invasion waned, Studland became an invasion practice area, particularly to train soldiers in the art of coastal attack. Initially, in 1943, for the Italian landings at Salerno and later for the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches in June 1944.

As we walked across the burn site we could see that the gorse had once shrouded a 1944 time-vault. There were gun pits, slit trenches banks and ditches and the impact pits from exploded ordinance. Tread carefully…1 in 10 didn’t go off.

It looked like a battle site and the training was supposed to simulate real war. Here the British and Canadian troops taking part in Operations Pirate, Savvy and Smash exchanged live ammunition fire. Exploded shell and bullet fragments were everywhere. There was evidence for artillery rounds lobbed from Royal Navy vessels in Studland Bay and machine gun bullets fired from aircraft.

Amongst the charcoaled sticks of gorse were more personal items like a military mess-tin with utensils, a cap badge and a Coca Cola bottle. The bullet casings had the date of manufacture stamped on them. Mostly 1942-43.

A spork and part of a mess tin jutting from the gorse.

Ollie has been delving into the WWII records for Studland and found the daily diary of the Canadian unit of engineers who came to Studland to clear a minefield and build an observation bunker. Their work was made more difficult by live firing onto the dunes and heath by the Navy. One engineer lost his life when he stepped on a mine.

The building they completed in 1943 later became known as Fort Henry and it is said that Montgomery, Eisenhower and George VI observed the D-Day practices from there… but this has not yet been confirmed by contemporary documents. The long concrete bunker sits close to the cliff edge… blocking the field of fire from an earlier phase defensive gun emplacement.

Fort Henry observation bunker. Did the VIPs come to watch the D-Day practice landings here? The gun emplacement behind it is left over from the earlier coastal defence phase of the war. Photo snipped from the drone digital video created by Downland Partnership

In a few years it will be undermined by the sea. How significant is it? Should it be allowed to fall over the cliff or should it be pulled inland? These are difficult and potentially expensive questions to answer. Meanwhile, the Downland Partnership have been commissioned to complete a digital record of the structure so that it can be seen and measured inside and out from every angle. It is preserved by record at least.

Artillery and rocket fragments, machine gun and rifle rounds exposed by the fire.

In 1944, the soldiers who occupied these military remains, left this pretty piece of England for the beach landings in Normandy. Strange to walk amongst these traces. How has this archaeology stayed here like this for so long… while generations of holiday makers in the intervening years have splashed happily in the sea and made sandcastles on the beach… just a short distance away.

Across Studland Heath there are many groups of WWII structures and earthworks. We have commissioned a high resolution LiDAR survey to record them all and the pattern of trenches will now be mapped in detail for the first time. These will be plotted with the WWII evidence revealed by the fire.

The terrain LiDAR plot of the Six Bronze Age round barrows on Studland Heath cut by WWII slit trenches

In the ashes, I tried to imagine how this quiet area, much valued for its wildlife, was once crowded with military activity and noisy with the sound of explosions.

Return to Max Gate

The front door is open and from where I kneel in the trench, cleaning chalk, I can hear the sound of the piano tune…a Victorian Romance.

The view across the reopened trench looking across to the front door of Max Gate

Sue talks to her group. She tells of Thomas the architect, his trip to Cornwall and how he met Emma and they fell in love (‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’).

Max Gate their home in later life after Hardy had established himself as a writer.

A voice from above.

‘You’re back then’

I stand to reply.

‘In the end I had to. We found no dating evidence in July. I thought that… before the trenches are hidden… by new grass or the new front drive.. there was still a window of opportunity to take some samples.’

I say the three tongue twister words again… optically stimulated luminescence…dating from quartzite crystals.

Taking the OSL sample from the ditch section the tube is right of the red marker.

I find the best point in the prehistoric? ditch section …and hammer a black plastic pipe into it.

Not easy… as several times it judders to a halt ..on hidden flint nodules.

In the end I got two 20cm long samples, wrapped them in labelled parcel tape and marked the locations on my section drawing. Then I walk back through the garden and into the paddock to find Pete in the pit.

Sarah had dug some of this in July …but like the front door ditch, the excavated filling contained nothing really to date it… just a few flint flakes and one fragment of pottery. Nothing organic though to get a C14 date.

On the first morning, we’d measured along the trench edge, marked out a 3m square and re-exposed the pit. This time, extending the old trench line by a metre to get the full outline of the pit cutting.

The pit after re-excavation to point we left it in July apart from our metre extension (top of photo)

In July, I’d thought the pit was circular and I had a feeling it might be an Iron Age grain storage pit…nice but about 2500 years too recent. In our extension we discovered that it was oval in plan…not so Iron Age after all.

Now, on our second day and almost 1m down Pete has found a larger chunk of pottery and two patches of charcoal. The sherd.. could be Neolithic… and the charcoal would give a date but there were 3 hours left to get as deep as possible.

The pit section 1m deep with the collapsed weathered chalk at the edges. The darker middle fill contained a fragment of prehistoric pottery and two small patches of charcoal contained in the plastic finds bags.

The filling was now collapsed chalk from the weathered sides of the pit with less chance of artefacts being found amongst it.

We talked again about the 1980s excavations which uncovered the west half of the circular Middle Neolithic enclosure… now swept away by road construction.

Back then, some of the pit and ditch sections had smooth chalk walls and these had been inscribed with exceptionally rare… maze-like art or graffiti.

I left that thought in the air as I walked back to the garden.

The home the great writer Thomas Hardy designed for himself..Max Gate. The circular parch mark in front of the bench and megalith found during the 1980s excavation and donated to Max Gate. Linear parch mark to right leading to parched area in foreground.

The dry weather had created parch marks which I plotted on the site plan. One 3m diameter circular parch mark was found in the front lawn near a diagonal linear feature and opposite the megalith left at Max Gate from the 1980s excavation.

Back again to the paddock and there was time to sieve the soil from the pit.

This revealed a few more struck flint flakes, a couple of snail shells and another small black piece of thin pottery. The ceramic specialist will analyse the fabric of our three sherds from the pit and pass judgement on their age.

Pete was now 1.4m down and we’d run out of time. He’d found two smooth faces of chalk stepped one above the other and a section of darker soil at the deepest level.

“Anything on the chalk? What do you see?”

“There are marks… but generally it looks quite smooth”

We changed places. I jumped down. Pete passed down a finds bag and I troweled a soil sample into it. There was definitely charcoal and ash in the darker material. Hopefully enough for a radiocarbon date.

Then I looked at the vertical face of the pit wall.

In all directions… angled down and sideways, the rounded pointed ends of marked indentations. In that intimate, deep place.. hidden for 5,000 years…now uncovered for an hour…

On the smooth chalk face of the pit numerous pointed indentations the impact blows of the antler pick. Traces of a darker chalky soil with ash beneath the chalk rubble filling.

I imagined our fellow digger.. armed not with a 4 inch cast steel pointing trowel but swinging his red deer antler pick again and again against the chalk and leaving this evidence behind….

and just above the chalk rubble, still filling the pit, there were traces (perhaps) of vertical inscribed lines… but further excavation was needed…

The pit at the limit of its excavation. The ranging rod divisions 0.2m.

Just the two of us saw it. We’d run out of time. We drew the section and took the photographs and buried it… but … yes….we now had what we needed.

R8: Devizes to Warminster 22.5 Miles …end

Last night we’d had an over-elaborate meal …and my stomach was protesting. I drank red wine when I should have stuck to water. I drank a lot of that and fruit. Anything to rehydrate myself.

This morning, Jan waved me goodbye as I limped across Devizes High Street towards the Kennett and Avon Canal.

We would hopefully meet again at home in Warminster.

In 89, my brother and I walked the 27 miles across the Scottish border from Byrness to Kirk Yetholm… taking in the Cheviot.

By that last day of the Pennine Way.. we were invincible. Kirk Yethom was nothing, we’d have carried on till we ran out of land.

But 34 years on, this last day would be different. No bleak, rainy moors but a hot day on the Salisbury Plain escarpment edge…and the longest distance so far. My feet sore, my digestive system untrustworthy.

22.5 miles and, straight after the previous 22.. so challenging.

The first piece straight and level along the canal towpath. I left at the wrong bridge too early and asked a woman whether this was Coate. She had no idea and the road didn’t fit with the map so I went back to the water and the next bridge turned out to be the Coate Bridge.

The Kennett and Avon Canal

Then two kms across large arable fields to Etchilhampton Hill where I slipped across the border of OS 157 Avebury and Devizes onto 130 Salisbury and Stonehenge.

The next three were intricate and dodgy. I had to watch out for the Wessex Dragon Ridgeway roundels as the path threaded itself through pasture fields south and east of Stert hamlet across the railway. I climbed yet another stile and dropped my map-reading glasses in the long grass.

I’d had a back-up pair but I’d forgotten them. Left behind in Devizes.

So, I could not leave this spot until I had found them… and eventually I did .. I negotiated a field of horses before reaching the outskirts of Urchfont Village.

Urchfont Village

One of those rare gifts… when the path delivers you to the door of a pub. There was no guarantee that it would be open at 11am on this increasingly hot Saturday but it was… right next door to a shop.

The landlady of the Lamb provided me with a huge pot of tea with biscuits. I took the tray onto the porch outside. The only customer. I just chilled for a while. This place was so necessary. I might get home tonight after all.

On the other side of Urchfont a narrow high-hedged bridleway led straight south to the MoD firing ranges.

The path got suddenly busy… first a family squeezed past… then I backed further into the vegetation as two stately horses ridden by a middle aged couple followed .. and then a young bloke on a bike with a dog. He grinned at me and said ‘getting past that lot’s gonna be a challenge’.

The countryside was quiet again just numerous battered signs warning of explosives if I trespassed east and then south as I climbed to the summit of the Ridgeway edge.

For the next 16 miles I would follow the firing range perimeter track….sometimes tarmac but usually gravelled with wonderful views across the villages to the north-west and north. The path was straight and reasonably level much of the time but it felt like a desert road… not much variation.

The MoD Range edge path above West Lavington

I measured my progress as I plodded above the spring-line villages below.

I aimed for and passed Market Lavington. I had lunch, sat on the dry grass beside the gravel. Sandwiches and the essential easy peeler. An abandoned military signal building breaking up the level vista of my future path. My water supply was good as the stores had been boosted in Devizes by 3 Morrisons juice cartons.

The path descended to the A360 near West Lavington and then climbed back to the ridge edge again, gradually catching up an older woman walking at a steady pace.

She told me that this was a good walk and she had lived in West Lavington all her life. She asked if I was going to New Zealand.. I said that the path took me past New Zealand Camp.

‘That’s right’ she said

‘Were there once New Zealand soldiers posted there?’ I asked.

She didn’t know but the soldiers were away at the moment preparing to fight. We talked of the Ukraine War.

‘One man’s war’ she said ‘Couldn’t a tea lady take a gun and finish him off? Just one bullet…’

She turned off the path saying goodbye and walked through some trees back down to Lavington.

I crossed onto OS 143 Warminster and Trowbridge….the last map.

It took me another 2km to get to the top at New Zealand Camp. I was above Erlestoke now, the settlements were slipping past below me Littleton Panell, Little Cheverell, Great Cheverell, Erlestoke with its prison. Coulston… I trudged on and another car crackled along the dry gravel and parked a little way in front of me at an empty group of buildings…Stoke Hill Farm.

A man, about my age, got out in shorts.

I said ‘Hello’ and he looked at me…concerned

‘Are you alright?’ he asked ..that question again.

He sounded like a senior military officer.

I told him I was just tired. I’d walked a long way.

He looked me up and down, checking out the grazed red patch on my forehead.

‘Where are you going?’

To home… in Warminster I said.

‘Well, you won’t be there for Dinner but perhaps you’ll make it for Drinks’

He wished me well and I walked on towards Edington.

Just another village far below but it was here that the fate of Wessex was decided.

AD 878, the Danish invaders had taken the Anglo Saxon kingdoms one by one and now Guthram’s forces had driven King Alfred and the remnants of his army in retreat to Athelney Marshes in Somerset.

‘the river of death had brimmed its banks and England far and honour a name’

‘Then in the seventh week after Easter, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone to the east of Selwood (On the Stourhead Estate, Henry Hoare built King Alfred’s Tower on what is believed to be the site of Egbert’s Stone in the mid 18th century. Emma and I took the long spiral staircase to the top on Saturday.. we could see as far as Glastonbury and Badbury) and the men of Somerset, Wiltshire and part of Hampshire met Alfred there and received him warmly. Two days later they fought against the entire Danish host at Edington and put it to flight and besieged the enemy at Chippenham where hostages were given and the Danes took oaths saying that they would leave Wessex’ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

King Alfred’s Tower on the escarpment edge on the Stourhead Estate. It is thought to have been built on the site of Egbert’s Stone where Alfred assembled his army to retake Wessex from the Danes. Henry Flitcroft designed the tower for owner of the Stourhead Estate Henry Hoare in 1772. A spiral staircase can take you to the top for spectacular views. Though it’s a long climb.

The path changed back to tarmac above Bratton and I took a right towards Bratton Camp and the White Horse. A large family emerged from a footpath in front of me. I rested to let them move on and then encountered the Bratton Camp car park full of vehicles and people enjoying the evening.

Bratton is the most easterly of the four Warminster hillforts. Two ramparts and ditches surround a Neolithic long barrow.

Excavations within the fort in the 18th century by Jeffrey Whitaker, a local schoolmaster, uncovered quern stones, pottery, and Roman and Saxon coins. Also found were ‘nearly a cartload’ of large pebbles, probably sling stones kept ready on the ramparts to throw at any attackers.

The Neolithic long barrow was built three thousand years before and was preserved by the later occupants of the hillfort. Excavations into the barrow in the 19th century revealed human skeletons and cremations.

Bratton Camp

The White Horse was cut into the chalk of the west ramparts in the mid 18th century in commemoration of the Battle of Edington as it was believed that this is where the fight took place. Westbury has given up whitening it with chalk….its concrete now.

I was above the town of Westbury now and then on past an old chalk pit and along the ridge to my destination.

Another hot and dusty 2km … the sun getting low in the sky… I was on Cow Down above Upton Scudamore as Warminster town unfolded like a jewel below me dappled with sunlight from an erratically cloudy sky. My town watched over by the chalk outlier hillfort of Cley Hill, its Bronze Age round barrow crowning its summit. The lynchets along its slope revealed by shadows..

The town was nestled against the skirts of Salisbury Plain where the Were meets the Wylye and enters the chalkland. What a remarkably pretty place it looked with the tower of its minster church to the north and our church of Christ Church on the hill behind.

Warminster with Cley Hill to the right.

One last valley to cross and then a long last drag up to Arne Hill. A yellow hammer sat on a fence beside me and then the chit chit of a Stonechat as it flew by and landed on the grass a few yards away. I hadn’t seen either in the last 130 miles. Warminster was showing off. I phoned Emma to say I was almost there.

Jan phoned me. She would meet me on the road below the golf course and we would walk the last bit together …Home.

She took a photo as I walked towards her. I was not a pretty sight but it was done.. Ivinghoe Beacon was far away and one day I would walk on to Lyme Regis but for now… I would rest.

Max Gate Day 5

Our last day and it has been so good to work at Max Gate.

Lots of visitors came today and some old friends.

Before tea break we worked hard to get as much of the remaining area in the large trench cleaned down to chalk. Lots of mattocking and shoveling and barrowing onto the growing spoil heap.

Fay sifted the soil from out part excavated circular pit and found a piece of pottery which may be Neolithic. It is the only find from the soil we excavated from the half-sectioned feature.

I then laid out my tapes and began to draw the pits, post-holes and faint ditches cutting the chalk.

The deadline was when Robin arrived with the survey equipment to scan the site and GPS fix our trench.

He set up his targets around the trench and produced a point cloud survey. He then took many overlapping pictures to produce a photogrammetric mosaic of images which will be draped over a digital terrain mode. He showed me the result on his ipad.

Robin surveying the trench

Rob and Carol got to the bottom of the ditch opposite the front door of Max Gate. It was almost a metre deep and below the frost-fractured chalk in the lowest filling was a thin veneer of soil including preserved flecks of topsoil trampled there when the ditch was first dug. We peeled it off and the natural chalk rang as we troweled it.

The thin veneer at the bottom of the excavated ditch below the path surfaces.

The finds exclusively struck flint flakes and sadly no charcoal or enough bone which can provide us with a C14 date.

In our large trench we found two 2m diameter pits, one part excavated with a small fragment of Neolithic? pot. In addition two parallel shallow gullies set 1m apart with post-holes where they turned at right angles away from each other? An entrance to a passage over 3m long between ditches leading to somewhere beyond the north-east edge of our trench.

We did not find a convincing continuation of the Middle Neolithic enclosure unless our half-sectioned pit was part of it. We noted that in the 1987-8 excavation the enclosure pits faded and became more distant as they headed towards the Paddock. Perhaps there was a wide entrance here. Perhaps the east side was the less desirable area for the groups that dug the pits. Perhaps it was never finished…

Air photo taken 1988 showing the excavated circle heading for the Paddock and Max Gate. . The excavated dots get sparser as they approach the Paddock (bottom right) where our trench was. Was it ever finished? Was this a less valued compass point of the circle? who knows the mind of the Middle Neolithic? The front door of Max Gate where we found our prehistoric ditch lies in front of the trees bottom left.

The front door trench hit a pit where the circuit should run but we cannot prove that.

A good but puzzling week. We packed up the tools and drove home.

Corfe Castle CBA festival day tomorrow. Minecraft in the Castle on Sunday.

Max Gate Day 4

Eleanor and Poppy joined us and together in a line we cleaned back onto the chalk in our large trench.

Just a corner of the trench to be cleaned to chalk now. Sarah on the right is half -sectioning the pit.

Tomorrow afternoon the photogrammetric surveyors will come and the trench needs to be ready for final recording.

The last part is very rooty as there is a fir tree beside the trench.

Sarah began to half section one of the pits.

In Rob and Carol’s trench, the prehistoric ditch in front of Max Gate front door is deep and looks like it is one of the Neolithic enclosure pits. We decided to make it longer and broader to enable us to see more of it. Several more flints in the filling but no bone or charcoal yet large enough for a C14 date.

Rob expanding the trench in front of the door of Max Gate, which has found a prehistoric pit.

In the evening a zoom talk with Wessex Museums. David in Devizes and Harriet, Michelle and I in Thomas Hardy’s writing study. A great place to hear of Hardy’s archaeology and to talk about our latest discoveries.

Some said they would visit tomorrow…our last day on site.

Max Gate Day 3

We managed to clear the rest of the pit feature in the big trench so there was something to show Digging for Britain when the production team came to the site today.

The pit in our large trench. We lowered the surface by a few cebtimetres but we will leave the archaeology in situ

We worked together and pushed back the remnant of the old ploughsoil to reveal any features in the buried chalk. The line of the enclosure is unclear in our 10m by 12m trench …unless the pit is part of it and most of our area is a large gap until the next off the edge of the trench?

The Digging for Britain team setting up this morning.

It does have the look of the filling of an Iron Age storage pit rather than a Neolithic ditch section. At the end of the day Sarah found a second chalk filled pit. The bottom edge of linear ditches, almost ploughed, are also evident but only as a slight hollow in the chalk.

Clearing the ploughsoil together in our large trench with the information marquee and visitor soil sieving activity in the background.

Carol and Rob have been looking for Thomas Hardy’s original path surface of Max Gate driveway. It is hoped to replicate this when it is replaced in the next few months.

These small 1m square trenches lies close to the line of the circular Middle Neolithic enclosure as it passes the front door of the house.

At lunch time we noted that the chalk bedrock here sloped steeply down and the filling was a typical prehistoric light yellow ochre chalky clay. A patinated flint flake was found in it and when Alice got into the trench she found a fragment of bone. We will see what else can be found in the filling. Hopefully something for a radiocarbon date.

The front door of Max Gate. We found the 19th century binding lime, brick dust and and surface to the right of the front door where the bollards are. The trench in the foreground has the chalk bedrock cut by a ditch. Is this part of our Neolithic enclosure. It is in the right place along the projected line of this 100m diameter, 5000 year old enclosure..

Max Gate Day Two

On the first day I arrived early and marked out the 12m by 10m trench.

Lee the digger driver arrived, put on a flat edged bucket and we watched as the garden and ploughsoil was scraped off and placed to one side with just few centimetres above the chalk.

We found clay tobacco pipe stems and willow pattern ware right down to the natural chalk surface.

Today we formed a line and worked backwards from the NW (compost heap) end of the trench and revealed the chalk bedrock cleaning and revealing the white blocky surface.

Chalk is nice but for the first 5m of our trench was that’s all there was… no archaeology at all. My imagining of an intricate intercutting, multi-period feast of the past was not working out.

Then the chalk disappeared along a curving edge and by the end of the day a 2m diameter pit and a couple of post-holes had been revealed. We hope for more by Digging for Britain turn up tomorrow.

The trowel lies on the pit filling. The post hole is a little to the right of the point of the trowel.

Digging for a SM, Max Gate, Dorchester

The car is loaded with tools and tomorrow early I drive to Dorchester in Dorset.

Five days in the Paddock at the back of the house that Thomas Hardy designed for himself at Max Gate on the outskirts of the county town.

Max Gate soon after construction with its view of Early Bronze Age Conquer Barrow built on the bank of Late Neolithic Henge, Mount Pleasant

He found Iron Age and Roman burials. Told his visitors of the Roman soldiers beneath his garden. A megalith was also uncovered which he set up on the lawn beside the house.

Thomas Hardy beside the megalith he found beneath his garden.

It took another 100 years to find out what that was all about.

During the Dorchester by-pass construction in 1987-88, the land west of Max Gate was stripped of topsoil following a geophysical survey, and, 50% of a 100m diameter circle of ditch segments was found. Radiocarbon dating revealed it to be Middle Neolithic and contemporary with the similar enclosure surrounding Stonehenge…about 3000BC. Some of the pits contained sarsens and the largest was given to Max Gate.

Max Gate is a Grade 1 listed building because of its designer. A unique building.. a writing power house where Tess of the Durbevilles, Jude the Obscure and so much poetry was written.

Freya worked with the property team in West Dorset and created a Conservation Management Plan which articulates the significances of this land and blends them to create management actions which will enable the conservation of these significances.

Thomas Hardy, his house, his interest in the past and the archaeology he bumped into when he bought an area of arable in the 1880s.

The archaeology stacks up on itself.

Some of the earliest British pottery found anywhere c.3800 BC was found in pits cut by the enclosure. An early Bronze Age ring ditch was constructed near the centre. The enclosure itself has labyrinth type patterns inscribed on some of the chalk cut walls of the ditches. Then there are the Durotrigan burials and the Roman inhumations.

We have carried out geophysical survey to detect the other half of the enclosure where it should cross the Paddock and garden but without success. This, despite trying: earth resistance; magnetometry and ground probing radar.

We’ll set up a ring of white posts where it should be next week

The Conservation Management Plan recommended the site be given the status of nationally significant Scheduled Monument….but the application failed. Historic England fed back that the geophysics had not provided sufficient evidence that the site underlay the Max Gate property.

What could we do?

Some years ago three small test pits were dug across the Paddock.These revealed that ploughsoil continued down to the white chalk bedrock. Within this disturbed soil, were all the jumbled remains… cut up by hundreds of years of cultivation: Roman pottery; prehistoric flint; bone fragments and 19th century nails.

In black the archaeological features found in 1987. The other half of the Middle Neolithic circle lies almost exactly over the Paddock and Garden of National Trust Max Gate. The blue rectangle is our proposed excavation.

Why not temporarily lift off the lid of ploughsoil, clean back the chalk and show the archaeology where the dark soil fillings of features show clearly against the white.

We will precisely record the surface photogrammetrically to get our proof for Historic England …

We’ll do it during Festival of Archaeology and get visitors to sieve the spoil heap to see what evidence of ploughed up archaeology lies within it.

We’ll talk about the site, read some of Thomas Hardy’s poems, backfill the trench and go home.

No need to dig the features. We already have a good idea of the archaeological phasing of the site. We’ll look at the surface of some of it… then cover it up again… leave it for posterity in the more certain knowledge of what lies beneath.

Who knows for what new archaeological techniques it might be saved for decades or perhaps centuries into the future.

We’ll use the evidence to apply for Scheduled Monument status again of course!

The Mound

For a moment pause: —
Just here it was;
And through the thin thorn hedge, by the rays of the moon,
I can see the tree in the field, and beside it the mound —
Now sheeted with snow — whereon we sat that June
When it was green and round,
And she crazed my mind by what she coolly told —


And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
     And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
     "He hears it not now, but used to notice such things?"
One of the Iron Age pots accompanying one of Thomas Hardy’s Durotrigan burials. He gave a talk on his discoveries at Dorset County Museum, Dorchester.

R7: Ogbourne St George to Devizes, Oldbury Camp 22.2 miles

Walking back down Ogbourne’s High Street.

Ogbourne St George

This would be the longest day so far.

I’d started early and the sun was up.

A car passed, stepping to one side, my foot caught on something in the verge.

Suddenly, I was pitching forward with the rucksack giving me momentum….

and found myself heading face down to the tarmac.

This could have been unfortunate but my hands were not cut, my knee grazed but jeans intact. I reached up to my forehead and it was wet and sticky. A bit of blood but not much. My nose was OK.

So, I walked on with just a bruised left hand, knee and shoulder but branded with a bloody mark above the eyebrows which was plainly visible to a questioning world.

I must be more careful… particularly when walking alone.

The day was beautiful and I was soon climbing over a stile and back into and up through Wiltshire farmland. This became a horse-land full of gallops, a world of wooded plantings and paddocks. A formation of four riders in identical uniform jogged towards me.

The Gallops before Barbury

I met a man with a dog. We praised the morning and he told me of his walks and… one day… he would walk the whole Ridgeway.

Soon I was at Barbury Country Park. A school mini-bus was in the car park. I rested at a picnic table on top of the downs. A bit further on was the hillfort. A good but faded information board told me to look over my right shoulder to see Liddington and Uffington …. and sure enough there they were… in profile etched onto the escarpment edge. Three hillforts in a row.

Barbury has two ramparts and ditches enclosing 4.5 hectares. Trenches were dug here in the 1800s and in WWII. They revealed evidence of Iron Age occupation confirmed by an English Heritage geophysical survey which showed the circular drainage gullies of many round houses.

I walked across the hillfort through the opposing east and west entrances to the sound of children engaged in hillfort activities and emerged at the edge of a spur of land with extensive views. The countryside vivid as I walked downslope to join a track… on this increasingly hot day.

Now things were looking familiar as I entered the Avebury landscape… clumps of hedgehog tree plantations, often over barrow groups, spaced along the slope edge. I was on the White Horse trail at Hackpen Hill. I asked a cyclist where the horse was. ‘You need to be downslope to see it’ she said ..but there was no time to do that so I pressed on.

As I reached Monkton Down and then Fyfield Down, the landscape became dotted with sarsen boulders ‘grey wethers’. It was from here that the great stones were chosen to be erected inside the inner ditch of great Avebury henge. I walked past the Green Lane route down but I would need to retrace my steps before entering Avebury. I must press on south another mile to Ridgeway end.

My plan to get there by lunch time had failed and I was walking past increasing numbers of converted horse-boxes and vans. Long braided hair, the sound of drums and bright coloured ribbons and streamers. The travellers were starting to assemble. Just a few weeks to midsummer solstice.

The Overton Hill car park has the final Ridgeway map sign just a short distance from a field of finely rounded Bronze Age burial mounds …but the place was busy with the solstice settlement …so I crossed a dangerous road and found tranquility in the Sanctuary with its view west along the Kennett Valley. The extraordinary Late Neolithic Silbury Hill rose out of the river bed about a mile way. I remembered being taken to Silbury’s centre. The organics were so well preserved that turf and ant wings were found dating to c. 2400 BC. blog Inside Silbury Hill).

The Sanctuary, like Woodhenge near Durrington Walls in the Stonehenge landscape, is set out as a series of concentric concrete markers and these placed to interpret the excavations by Maud and Benjamin Cunnington in the 1920s and 30s. Each marker shows an excavated pit or stone hole. The site was first recorded by John Aubrey in 1649 when many of the sarsen stones making up the circles were still in place.. but the site was subsequently plundered for building stone, particularly in the later 18th and 19th centuries.

I took my boots and rucksack off and drank a long drink and knelt on the manicured English Heritage grass …enjoying this high point.

The Sanctuary marks the end of the great West Kennett Avenue, a double line of sarsens stretching over a mile to link this place to Avebury henge and then below me were the great palisaded enclosures of West Kennett. A more recently discovered Neolithic/Bronze Age complex (in and around the National Trust rangers’ offices at West Kennett Farm).They roughly consist of two large timber circular enclosures which are linked by long timber avenues to smaller timber circles.

Perched on the hill behind them, the c. 5,700 year old megalithic long barrow of West Kennett, which, has a set of stone burial chambers you can walk into and sit inside, unlike Wayland’s Smithy (so many miles back along the Ridgeway now).

This, the most ancient of the archaeological places visible in this extraordinary landscape.

On the high hill horizon, far away and beyond Silbury Hill, was the needle-point of the Landsdowne Monument….I needed to get past this to reach Devizes… such a distance still to go.

Illustration of the Sanctuary looking west into the prehistoric landscape. Silbury Hill beyond the West Kennett Palisades with West Kennett Megalithic long barrow above and to the left. Illustration by Peter Urmston copyright Historic England.

So, the Ridgeway conquered, I backtracked a mile and found my first faded Wessex Ridgeway dragon marker on the public footpath post … and ate lunch there.

2pm and I headed down past the farm, dodged a tractor, and walked across the eastern causeway, through the great ditch and bank of Avebury. I remembered the buried megaliths that Chris, Jeff and I had detected by resistivity in 2003 (blog Avebury Buried Megaliths).

That was October/November, now it was steaming and full of visitors cooling on the recumbent sarsens.

It was hot, I had almost run out of water. Walking past the Red Lion, I headed for the NT Cafe beside the Great Barn…..not really ready for polite society….’a paltry thing’…’a tattered cloak upon a stick’ and why was there a graze on his forehead?

I ordered a large tea and an ice cream and asked to fill my water bottle. The water dispenser was too short for my bottle and water sprayed everywhere… I mumbled that I was an NT staff member… the woman behind the counter gave me a disbelieving and disdainful look… and my staff card proof lay deep in the heart of my rucksack.

I retreated outside and rested at a table gulping ice cream and tea in alternate bursts.

Revived, I pressed on through the west part of the village, past the Saxon church and then weaving on footpaths through Avebury Truslow onto a track where there were a pair of sarsens known as the ‘Long Stones’.

These are all that survive of Avebury’s other megalith avenue, illustrated in the early 18th century drawing by William Stukeley. It is known as the Beckhampton Avenue and excavations along its route have found stone setting pits. Like other monuments in the area… some still contain deliberately buried stones and many others just sarsen fragments… where the megaliths have been broken up for building stone.

The grass whale-back of the Beckhampton long barrow was just beyond the Long Stones and then I was climbing steadily. Along a section of A4, across a car park and then through open downland following the line of an old linear earthwork west to the jutting outline of the Lansdowne Monument. A slow, hot, long climb.

The walk up to the Lansdowne Monument

The Monument is a grade II* listed building designed by Charles Barry (architect for the Houses of Parliament and the last phase of Kingston Lacy House). Erected 1845 for 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne and in need of repair (it is a current National Trust project).

It lies within Oldbury Castle, a fine Iron Age hillfort built on the crest of Cherhill Down. Within and surrounding it are many archaeological sites… long and round barrows, cross-ridge dykes, linear earthworks and flint mines.

The stile into Oldbury Castle with its Wessex Ridgeway dragon way marker

A great National Trust property full of wild flowers. I was glad to get there at last.

I was worn out and dry and very much in need of a large orange from Ogbourne St George which I peeled and devoured before taking the path south down the hill which joined the line of a Roman road running through wheat fields for two miles until it converged with the Wansdyke.

Today was just full of archaeology. The Wansdyke deserves a blog of its own. A huge east to west ditch and bank boundary running for many miles. It is thought to date to the 5th-8th century, a division between political areas. So much effort to make it. I gazed briefly along its length as I walked across it.

Over a hill, filled with butterflies and then dodging golf balls across a course to the club house. Roundway Down separated me from Devizes. A long steady ascent…a bleak, hot and open arable country.

The Battle of Roundway Down was fought on 13 July 1643 during the English Civil War. Despite being outnumbered and exhausted after riding overnight from Oxford, a Royalist cavalry force won a crushing victory over the Parliamentarian Army of the West. Lead musket shot and other debris from the battle is still ploughed up or washed out of the fields after heavy rain.

There was Devizes in the distance at last, Emma rang and we shared the progress of our days as civilisation loomed.

Through a housing estate, along a tree lined avenue to the Kennett and Avon canal. I entered the town, walking swiftly past a drunken argument and then Jan phoned. She had just arrived. My path was along a hidden narrow side road and I spotted her a long way off… at the bus stop in the square….I teased her by describing as I approached her…. and eventually she looked around, spotted me and smiled…. then frowned.

‘What have you done to your head?’