‘You know… I walk my dog here every day and I’ve never noticed that before’
I turn from a huge block of limestone masonry. Part of the corner of something…pitched at a strange angle.. embedded in the earth.
I see a man on the path beside North Castle Field and behind him, in the distance, Steve and Dave walking up and down….
Doing the geophysical survey of Norden Roman settlement.
‘There’s another one in the river’ I reply.
‘Yes, I spotted that one…I guess it’s the time of year. The leaves off the trees, not much bramble’
‘To be fair, we’ve cleared much of the ivy off, in the last few weeks. NT’s commissioned a digital survey of the whole Castle and we want to include all the blocks of tumble around it’
‘I’m surprised it’s still in one piece’
‘The Purbeck stone… well this Burr Stone… case-hardens with time. Starts off quite soft for the stonemasons to work but over the centuries becomes, stronger until weathering has little effect. This pink lime mortar between the blocks of stone … Jeff the mason told me long ago… it’s the best in the Castle.. King Henry I had a top builder create his Keep…..1105 … they say he made it to imprison his older brother Robert…to stop him claiming the Kingdom.’
‘So what’s it doing down here’
‘It tumbled down the hill and landed here…..The huge King’s Tower, the Keep’,
‘Yes, the highest building at the top of Castle Hill’
‘It was undermined during the English Civil War. Parliament captured Corfe by treachery and once the King’s men were defeated their old stronghold was wrecked. A lot of digging and some gunpowder and the walls came tumbling down’
‘These pieces are huge.. however many tons… and you wouldn’t have wanted to be in the way when this one rolled down the hill and bounced across the river’
‘Definitely….I’m told, that back in the 1860s, half the Dungeon Tower fell and the locals said it seemed like an earthquake in Corfe Village…. in 1646, when they demolished Corfe Castle, we can only guess about …the sensations, sounds and spectacles… well they would have been extraordinary’
‘And all these years it’s been here, hidden by ivy’
‘Now its uncovered again it seems hardly changed since it fell 380 years ago. They knew how to build in 1105’
He nodded and said goodbye, continuing his walk towards the village.
I needed to look for something. I knelt down and crawled under the leaning ashlar face of this upper corner of this fallen chunk of Norman tower… far from where it was supposed to be ….when first constructed 900 years ago.
Our photogrammetric survey might enable us to virtually put the whole building back together on a computer screen. I imagined the various pieces rising up to the Castle hill top again.
I moved aside the ivy….I’m sure I saw the carving here 35 years ago…ah yes.. there it is ….how curious… what was the reason for this random piece of decoration.
On Friday, Phil sent out the results from the preserved woodland found under two metres of peat. A digger bucket had ripped up the branches and twigs just before Christmas and Wessex Archaeology was commissioned to re-excavate the trench on Alderman’s Barrow on Exmoor in West Somerset.
They took samples for pollen, wood, leaves and insects… any evidence they could extract from the archaeological stratigraphy to understand this potentially ancient preserved environment.
How old was it?
Surely…. significantly old… if so much peat had formed above it. Well, the Radiocarbon dates are back and they do not disappoint.
The peat filled valley, Alderman’s Barrow Allotment where the ancient preserved woodland debris deposit was found 2m down.
One sample taken from preserved wood at the west end of the valley, below the peat, was Early Neolithic 3940-3650 BC, an indicator of how long this area had been part of a forest. Hard to imagine now in this bleak, exposed and largely treeless domain.
Further down the valley, below the peat, an 0.7m deep deposit of vegetation was recorded. The C14 date from the bottom sample was Early Bronze Age (2490-2290 BC) and from the upper surface of the wood debris, where the last branches fell… the date range was 1620-1410 BC.
As Phil, the South West Peatland Project Archaeologist said ‘So far it looks like the woodland may have disappeared by the late Bronze Age, which fits quite well with the onset of colder and wetter conditions’.
Most of the area I work in is soft undulating country but Holnicote Estate on Exmoor, at the west edge of Somerset, has wilderness.
I prefer the route in via Tiverton.
Beyond Knightshayes, the countryside closes into a narrow erratic road, wooded, following a river torrent on one side and a steep, tree-covered slope on the other. Encountering a tractor here requires patience, there are no passing places.
At the Exmoor National Park Office, Dulverton, I meet Phil and Shirley. I pull out wellingtons, fleece and coat, put some lunch and water in my backpack and transfer into Phil’s car.
A journey of several miles past grazing ponies, zig-zagging up to the high moorland until we find Alderman’s Barrow.
This is where the South West Peatland project has been blocking drainage channels, cut in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Back in the day, the idea was to convert the rugged moor into farmland. Now it has been realised that the peatland must be conserved. The climate emergency has created the need for the carbon absorbing qualities of the peat to be fully utilised. The water must be contained and slowed so that the peat begins to increase again.
The car stops in a remote place with wide sweeping views across soggy tussock grass.
Another car is there and our guide Holly emerges, we join her on the exposed open road.
We step out of shelter, the beautiful blue sky day is modified by a cutting winter wind. I think of my protective over-trousers in the boot of the car at Dulverton, find a wooly hat in my pocket, zip up the fleece and shove my hands into coat pockets.
The outgrown beech hedge between the road and the moorland of Alderman’s Barrow. Dunkery Beacon in the far distance
We set off to a gate through a leafless outgrown beech hedge, squelch through the rough grassy peat and find a vantage point with a view to distant Dunkery Beacon. There’s a faint circular ridge here about 6m across. ‘Round House’ Phil says ‘built with its door facing Dunkery.’
We wondered whether there was some kind of sacred element to the orientation of the house.
We concluded, as we stood there, staggering slightly as the prevailing SW wind hit our backs… that the Bronze Age locals probably weren’t so stupid circa 4000 years ago.
It made sense to put the entrance on the sheltered east side so that the rising sun would shine through the doorway in the morning…..most roundhouses face east … the view to the moorland peak on the ridge was good though… it would have been more sensible to put it downslope a bit. Perhaps there were others there, though now hidden under the peat.
Standing on the site of the round house. Its entrance facing east towards Dunkery Beacon
Phil said that there was a another round house on the opposite side of the valley, just above the stone circle.
I thought of the reason I was here.
‘Where was the wood found?’
‘ Just down in the valley there, preserved about 2m under the peat’
We wove our way around pools and soggy areas balancing on tussocks. I noted a leak in my right wellington.
Just before Christmas, a cutting was made to block a ‘peat pipe’ (a water channel that develops under the peat… which is a bad thing as it takes away water). The project has been set up to create dams and pools to collect and slow water. In December, while some peat was being shifted to block the ‘pipe’, the digger bucket pulled up a mat of branches, twigs and leaves.
The preserved woodland found deep under the peat in December 2022, branches and leaf litter clearly visible in the digger bucket. Photo copyright Philip Wright
Perfectly preserved and probably contemporary with the round house we had just visited.
Detail of preserved woodPhoto copyright Philip Wright
Wessex Archaeology have been commissioned to take the wood samples back to the lab and create a palaeoenvironmental assessment. The species of plants and trees would be identified along with any evidence of animal life.. including insects. This rich organic material will also provide samples for radiocarbon analysis.
The valley would once have been covered in trees. For warmth and cooking, the locals foraged for branches to feed the hearth of the round house. Then, in the later Bronze Age, there was climate change and the area became inhospitable. Intense rainfall and colder seasons made the ground waterlogged and the woodland died, buried by a developing blanket of peat.
Photo showing the depth of peat above the wood debris outcropping below peat. The wood fragments can be seen jutting out half way up the white section of the ranging rode. Each section pf the ranging rod 0.5m long. The bedrock is the lighter material at the bottom of the trench. Photo copyright Philip Wright
This period forced the upland people to migrate down to the lowlands. It’s a time of linear banks and ditches. Communities marked out boundaries, to show what belonged to them, keeping out the newcomers, the refugees.
A section across the 2.5m deep, Late Bronze Age ‘v’-shaped ditch at Kingston Lacy which runs from Badbury Rings across the Beech Avenue almost to Crab Farm and then turns east towards Bishops Court Farm a distance over 2km. It is a mystery why so much effort went into creating this huge boundary but movements of people caused by climate change is likely to have been part of the answer. We dug this section beside the Beech Avenue in March 1989 and it matches what we found beside Badbury Rings in March 2022.
I thought of the deep ditch and bank I’d excavated at Badbury last March. Lorraine sent the ceramics report back a few weeks ago. The fragments of pot in the bank and near the bottom of the ditch dated to this period of climate change, about 3000 years ago.
We got back in the car. Calm: that sense of relief to be in a sheltered place.
In the afternoon, Mansley Coombe, one of the five upland deserted medieval settlements on Holnicote. The Peatland Project is paying for a survey by Hazel to locate archaeology so that the peat creation work doesn’t damage it.
One of the house platforms (the moss covers, stones that once supported walls) beside the stream at Mansley Coombe deserted medieval settlement.
At Mansley, amongst some gnarled trees. A group of 7 or 8 small rectangular stone and earthwork building platforms. They lie beside a stream above a group of abandoned strip lynchets and clearance cairns. Never an easy place to farm.
Once again, a warmer 13th century made it worthwhile to make a living on this marginal land.. but the climate became colder and wetter.. and then came the Black Death in the 1340s. The farming families left and never returned.
Exmoor’s a raw, beautiful and exhilarating place but not a soft option. It was time to drive home to my easy, curving Wiltshire downlands.
Newark Park is a mid 16th-century hunting lodge first built within a deer park belonging to Sir Nicholas Poyntz. His main house was 24 km away at Acton Court near Bristol.
The Tudor south-east front of Newark Park
Newark Park was built for the view. Perched on the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, to enjoy a panorama of Gloucestershire.
The view from one of James Wyatt’s Georgian windows south-west across Gloucestershire.
It was sold in 1600 to the Low family who converted it into a private residence. In 1722, the Hardings bought it and in the late 18th century it was sold again to Sir James Clutterbuck. The architect James Wyatt was appointed in 1790 to transform and extend the Tudor building into a Georgian style residence.
The now fashionable home needed a fashionable garden, so, on a wide terrace below the escarpment, a pleasure ground was formed…with garden beds, paths, a summer house and a brick wall facing south to the sun so that fruit trees could be trained against it and greenhouses could be populated with exotic plants.
At the centre of all this, a long lake was made, perhaps to reflect the newly completed Classical revamp of the old lodge in its waters.
The 1821 map of the designed landscape, below the escarpment on the south-west side of Newark Park. The lake had already shrunk in size by this time.
Back in the 80s, I wasn’t really sure whether Garden Archaeology was a thing…. but you can’t quite escape it when working for the National Trust.
Now.. I can name drop Switzer with Eames, Bridgeman with Repton, Capability Brown and Kent and all those un-named designers. Sometimes the owners were so into it that they read some books, got some advice and designed their own thing.
Usually there’s a historic map or two in the archives but knowing where it fits in the many phases of a garden’s development is unclear… from origin to abandonment.
The silted lake in May with the late 18th century garden lodge overlooked by Newark Park House
We met beside the Lake in May. It was not looking its best. Two islands had been built in it towards the end of the 19th century and these had broken up the intended vista, the expansive views across the water. The islands were overgrown with collapsing trees and the lake silted.
Money had been granted by Highways England as part of A417 landscape enhancement funding scheme …and the Newark Park lake restoration was one of the projects that got the go ahead.
There was money for feasibility.
The LiDAR survey of the lake with its two islands inserted in the later 19th century. The evidence now indicates that the lake once extended as far as the left hand edge of the picture.
We already had the LiDAR for the property and the Conservation Management Plan had looked through the history and particularly the historic maps. The earliest dated to1821 but there was a pre Clutterbuck accounting document of 1766 which mentions lakes at Newark. Perhaps the great lake we were studying had been made up from earlier fish ponds.
The lake was now smaller than it was in 1821 and many paths shown then were no longer visible. I asked for a geophysical survey and Martin and Anne from Tigergeo carried this out for us. Both magnetometry and earth resistance were carried out.
The magnetometry survey by Tigergeo showing a distinctly edged lighter grey silted area to the left of the lake.
What about the plants that were once grown in the garden… was there a way of identifying these in the silted up part of the lake? Petra said that she would give it a go.. though the quality of information would depend on how efficiently the lake has been dredged in the past.
Keith put our LiDAR into a 3D viewing programme so that we could see the slope terrain of the lake. Certainly everything to the west seemed to level out a long curving cutting and Tigergeo’s surveys showed that this part of the terrace gave a response that indicated silt.
Before the Tudor hunting lodge, this land had been owned by Kingswood Abbey, located five miles away near Wootton Under Edge but the Abbey had been knocked down as part of the Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and its lands transferred to the Poyntz family.
Perhaps the lake was made out of a chain of medieval fish ponds. The 1821 map shows a couple of small areas of water south and west of the main lake.
Petra auger sampled the silted west end of the lake and a hollowed area in the grass where one of the ponds had once been.
To help work out the chronology of the silts in the ponds there were pollen grains of various species, flecks of charcoal, flecks of brick and… a new one to me, SCPs or spherical carbonaceous particles.
SCPs result from the high temperature combustion of fossil fuels. They only occur from the mid 19th century and rise gradually in concentration until 1940 and then rapidly up to 1970. A relief to know that the concentrations are falling now.
They are useful for chronology though and the bottom silts at the west end, above the clay floor of the lake had no SCPs… so before about 1850 and the small fragments of brick suggested that the silts were being deposited when the brick garden wall above the lake had been built. There were few tree pollens indicating that the area was far more open than now and lots of cereal pollen suggesting arable land in close proximity. There were water lilies and rose pollens giving an indication of flowers in the garden borders and white water lilies in the lake as well as rushes and sedges around the lake.
The pollen auger column of soil found a pre-industrial deposit of silt above the clay base of the lake. In this was found a range of pollen species including the white water lilies which would once have graced the surface of the water body.
The upper part of the western lake filling had lots of SCPs and was a mixed deposit suggesting rapid backfilling of the once over 1m deep western lake by dredging the eastern part of the lake.
The geophysics shows a wide bulbous load of silt at the western end covered with later paths and drains and other ‘anomalies’ It looks as though this lake now covers a little over half of its original extent. When complete, it could have been a ‘serpentine’ lake like those at the National Trust properties like Prior Park at Bath and Fyne Court on the Quantocks near Taunton.
The archaeology gives us understanding and options. Do we keep the lake as it is or remove the Victorian islands, dredge the lake to its original extent to allow the mansion house above to be reflected in the open water with clumps of white water lilies to enhance its beauty.
This pollen sampling for garden archaeology could catch on. Hopefully, the next step will be the augering of other silted earthwork lakes. Perhaps the various archaeological gardens at Lacock. Watch this space.
Well preserved building archaeology can be found in quiet places. Frugal places where little fuss is made…. families come and go.. the home is kept water tight but apart from that.. small practical changes as the years stretch into centuries. Generations of evidence will accumulate ..gradually… like dust settling on rafters.
National Trust Vernacular Building Survey for Holly Farm completed in 1987. The NT aims to record all of the visible historic architecture of its cottages, farms and outbuildings in this way.
But…fire and money will to sweep the evidence away.
We are in the roof of Barrington Court in Somerset. Dan, the Conservator, Robert the Buildings Archaeologist and I.
A Tudor mansion built between 1538 and 1552.
The mid 16th century Barrington Court (on the right) and the late 17th century grand stables converted to accommodation in the 1920s (on the left) known as Strode House after the 17th century family who commissioned it. The two linked by a 1920s corridor.
In 1907, it was the first large house to be saved for the nation by National Trust. In the 1920s, it was leased to Colonel Lyle (of Tate & Lyle sugar) and he repaired it and turned it into a country home. During his building project, he linked Barrington via a corridor to Strode House…..the huge neighbouring brick stables, built in the 1670s, which he converted into a comfortable residence.
Lyle’s transformation of Barrington also created a home for his collection of carved timber panelling… gathered from many derelict buildings in Britain and beyond.
Adding confusion for the archaeologist… a challenge.
Both the Strode House and Barrington Court needed roof repairs and the three of us had assembled to determine the level of archaeological recording and conservation work required during the repair.
‘Any new service trenches planned for the project?’
‘Probably not’…. so, little chance of spotting anything of the previous medieval house which was glimpsed by Forbes the architect during the 1920s overhaul of the building.
We stood in the hall and grand staircase. The architecture looked like a screen-set, something out of an Errol Flynn movie. Dan opened a panel and revealed a giant iron key.
The dancing hall and staircase created for Colonel Lyle in the 1920s
‘ This adjusted the sprung floor of this room’ he said ‘like Blackpool Ballroom.. for dancing’
Nothing truly Tudor visible here. We ascended the stair and Robert spotted a small door half way up. ‘Garderobe’ he said and reached across the landing and looked inside. ‘still has the loo seat!’ The insertion of the stair had broken through a first floor Tudor room of some status ..which once had its own facilities.
At the top of the stairs, we walked through a doorway into a huge empty chamber, still with a fine Tudor fireplace. The yellow brown Ham stone surround was intricately carved and was decorated with painting.
The painted Tudor fireplace in the first floor chamber. The decorative column on the right is original but the unpainted stone on the left is a copy.How much of this decoration is in fact Tudor?.. we will see.
‘It’s been partly covered and then exposed again’ said Robert. ‘These timber dowels would have fixed a wooden screen. The mock red and white marbling, blues, greys and blacks including traces of gold leaf on the carved flowers .. this could be original’
Detail of the painted fireplace showing red and white marbling.
A historic paint specialist would be employed to record this potentially highly significant survival. We imagined the whole room decorated in this lavish way…. 500 years earlier.
However, the main point of the work was to make the place water-tight.. so we were in the roof…. and as we walked along the galleries we became increasingly disappointed.
The attic galleries of Barrington Court turned out to be largely 1920s repair with imported panelling
Robert shook his head. ‘Modern… saw marks… that one’s Tudor but in the wrong place.. I reckon Colonel Lyle’s builders took most of the old roof off, left a few original bits and pieces and used some of his collection of old carved wood to make this part of the building look Tudor’.
Barrington Court was badly neglected when the National Trust saved it …much of the structure was in a poor state.. but.. we had seen adzed and pit-sawn timbers forming partitions on the lower floors.. so not all was lost.
We would call in a dendrochronologist to check whether secure dating was a possibility in these less altered parts of the building.
At the end of the tour, we went into the cellar and looked at the foundations. There was a corridor at a strange angle which formed a corner. The quoin stones here were unlike those of the building that towered above it.
‘Perhaps part of the medieval house’.
Time for lunch and Robert grabbed a roll of drawings from the back of his landrover on the way to the property office in Strode House. Robert unfurled the black line drawings across a table as the kettle boiled.
The inked in survey drawings of the archaeological recording which took place to salvage the information from the ruins of Holly Farm.
Rare these days, but beautiful: hand crafted Indian ink technical pen drawings. The reassemblage from the ashes of the evidence. Holly Farm on the Kingston Lacy Estate.
In May 2021, a spark from a flue lit the thatch and suddenly…. timber-framed Holly Farm burned. The fire brigade could only save the shell of the building
By the time I got there… a few weeks later, the surviving walls were held up with scaffolding and the burnt interior was a heap of fallen charred rafters, purlins and beams.
Robert had worked with the builders and used his forensic skills to work out how old this building was and how it had functioned.
Tree-ring dating showed that the earliest phase of Holly Farm made it contemporary with Barrington Court… though its occupants were worlds away in the social hierachy.
Holly Farmhouse was the home of a yeoman farmer and his family. Customary tenants of Kingston Lacy, part of the Duchy of Lancaster.
In contrast, the Earl of Bridgewater Henry Daubenay occupied the newly built and huge ‘E’-plan Barrington. He’d ordered the old family home knocked down and had the cash to commission this symmetrical wonder. Very much the latest thing back then.
Like Barrington, there are likely to have been previous houses on the site of Holly Farm… and the timber framing gave this away… a piece had been reused from an earlier building. Most of the dendro dates were 16th and 17th century but one of the corner posts was from a timber felled in 1245.
The next set of drawings enabled Robert to talk through the fireplace technology of Holly Farm.. the beating heart of the building. The fire had stripped back the layers of later centuries of adaptation to reveal the large inglenook fireplace. A bread oven on one side, salt drying alcove at the back and on the other side a brewing vat.. and above it ..and accessed from the first floor… a curing chamber. The hooks, where the meat was hung, were still in place.
Robert will unite the structural evidence with the documentary information and complete his report which is the archive and archaeological essence of all that remains of Holly Farm.
Holly Farm after the forensic removal of the burnt collapsed evidence of the building
After lunch, Daniel led us into the attic of Strode House. Huge plain chunky trusses…very late 17th century…. and with assembly marks in numbered order. Colonel Lyle had not needed to replace these…This roof was largely intact.
‘Elm’ Robert tutted… ‘not much chance of dendro-dating these’
My phone went off … the central heating had stopped working….. I gave my excuses, wished them a Happy Christmas and left.
We would do our best to understand the surviving evidence, to fill in the gaps… but at Barrington Court… it was money…. and at Holly Farm…. it was fire…. which had swept… much of… but not all ..the archaeology away.
The excavation in High Wood has just been published.
It reminds me of the day I swung into Badbury Rings car park to ‘Whiskey in the Jar’.
Love the sound of that Thin Lyzzy electric guitar.
As it was a special day, I’d decided to walk across the hillfort to High Wood.
Badbury is the highest and central hill on the Kingston Lacy Estate.. but it is a double hill.
Beyond the hillfort, the land drops away and then rises again through ancient woodland.
Badbury is ringed by its three concentric pairs of ramparts and ditches.. but what lies on the crest of High Wood Hill?
I opened the boot and took out drawing boards, a bucket full of tapes, a toolbox and notebooks. I pulled the camera bag over my shoulder and locked the car.
My route took me across the agger of the Dorchester Roman road, past the Romano Celtic temple, through the western gateway of Badbury.
Mywalk from Badbury car park to the trench in High Wood as a red dotted line using the 1742 rights of way map
I’d had to go into the office before driving down to Dorset and Nancy told me not to hurry. She would look after the site until I arrived.
The bank and ditch had been found hidden by trees in 1987, just before I’d bumped into the body under the windblown tree.
By searching and pacing, the hill top earthworks had turned out to belong to a ‘D’-shaped enclosure about 90m across. The woodland vegetation had stopped it being spotted previously. It had not been easy to see because quarries had been cut through it…hiding its outline.
I walked past the deep ditches and high ramparts of Badbury…High Wood was very different to this. Its bank and ditch were much slighter features.. and.. unlike Badbury, the ditch lay along the inner edge of the bank.
Badbury a defence.. for security, to keep things out .. but High Wood…to keep something in perhaps?
We’d picked up long flint blades scuffed from the leaf litter in High Wood’s ditch…….
I’d reached the summit of Badbury now, we’d excavated flakes of flint over 5000 years old here in 2004. High Wood was also occupied then… but was the enclosure a henge… like Avebury?
If High Wood was a Neolithic earthwork it would be the only one on the Kingston Lacy Estate. The best way to understand it better was to make a surgical incision.
Mark, from English Heritage, had carried out a survey of the High Wood earthworks and from this we could see where the enclosure survived and where it had been cut by the old quarries.
Our trench was placed across the bank of the enclosure, the ditch and part of the quarry.
My walk now took me down towards the east entrance through the trees and grassland. Here, there are many pebbles, the same geology which ovelies the chalk on the summit of High Wood. The quarries were presumably dug to harvest these slingshot sized stones. I’d seen them capping the Dorchester Roman road where the grass had been eroded by cattle.
The Palaeolithic axe found cast aside in a Roman quarry
On the first day of the excavation, we’d found an extraordinary thing. A multi-faceted but worn chunk of grey flint. The oldest object we’d ever discovered at KL. Phil the flint specialist said it was Palaeolithic, over 40,000 years old. It was out of context as we also picked up sherds of Roman pottery in the quarry backfill. Perhaps the Roman quarrymen had found this curious thing as they dug out the pebbles to surface their new road to Dorchester on the other side of Badbury.
I had walked through Badbury’s Iron Age east gate now and was crossing the turning of the Hamworthy to Bath Roman road before entering High Wood.
When we excavated into the bank, we found burnt flint and struck flakes but also prehistoric pottery.
This site was a strange, hidden sort of place to work.
We’d cut out a narrow world in the undergrowth and our conversations seemed hushed and interrupted by bird song. Visitors rarely found us here unless we guided them in… and there were midges.
The hidden trench in High Wood
As we dug deeper, it was clear that the bank had been built up from earlier occupation deposits, long, long before the medieval wood had been established here. A time when there were clear views out to Badbury and far out across the surrounding landscape.
Once… the Isle of Wight, the Purbeck ridge and the chalkland of Cranborne Chase would have been clearly seen by the people living here.
Phil said that there was so much later Bronze Age flint that the enclosure may well date before Badbury..about 1000 BC but we found that it was mingled with Iron Age pottery.
I had reached the old, upended beech tree roots where I’d discovered the Early Bronze Age woman …21 years earlier (see Arch NT SW ‘Meeting in High Wood’). From here, my path took me upwards, towards the excavation. I followed the markers we’d tied to the saplings to guide us in.
Our trench had revealed that the earthwork enclosure was built in the later Iron Age about 100BC. It was contemporary with Badbury, occupying its hilltop twin, a few hundred metres to the south west.
Perhaps this was a sacred place. A place to keep something valuable?
At the bottom of the bank, we found large chunks of earlier Iron Age pottery.
Excavating a chunk of Middle Iron Age pottery c. 300 BC below the enclosure bank in High Wood
Our small trench and short stay in the wood had uncovered many layers of time.
There were noises ahead. Laughter, the bright colours of balloons.
A champagne cork burst.
A birthday banner stretched between the trees. Half a century!
Papworth, M., 2022, ‘Evaluation Excavation of an Iron Age Enclosure within High Wood, Kingston Lacy Estate, Pamphill ‘, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural HIstory and Archaeological Society 143, 125-148.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.