Into Silbury Hill

I saw it once by moonlight. Returning on the Marlborough Road, in the dark, surrounded by the silver-washed, gently curving chalkland. Then dreaming..forgetting…and a little before the Avebury turning… it reared up from the right, huge and impossible. Surely too big to be made, a conical flat-topped mass. A passing Neolithic shock.

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I remembered 1968, my mum calling me to the TV. Live archaeology and Professor Atkinson driving his tunnel to the centre. I had no idea what Silbury was then. I never saw it until I was 18.

Then in the 90s, after moving to Wiltshire, sitting in Devizes Museum at the WAC meeting. At the end, we drank coffee and Gill and Andrew said: ‘yes, we were there with Atkinson.We walked with him to the centre’. Wow! What a thing!

The National Trust have never owned Silbury but have managed it as part of their Avebury Estate.

In May 2000, we were excavating the Lacock Rockworks. Rosie, the Avebury archaeologist ranger, arrived late. She had been called to the top of Silbury with Chris, the NT property manager. ‘There’s a hole!’ she said, ‘a vertical shaft right down to the centre of Silbury’.

English Heritage fenced it off and considered the options. The Hill was not as stable as might be imagined.

For many generations visitors had wondered. Was this the tomb of a great king? Something so huge had surely been raised in honour of someone exceptional and his grave must be furnished with fabulous treasure. So, in 1776, Edward Drax, with some support from Hugh Percy duke of Northumberland, directed a group of miners to sink a vertical shaft to the centre. They were disappointed, no tomb was found. Silbury was further disturbed in 1849, by Rev John Merewether, who organised the digging of a new horizontal tunnel, no finds for him either except his report of preserved organic remains near the centre. Then a pause for a century plus and Professor Atkinson, famed for his work at Stonehenge, directed the campaign I had seen on TV as a child. Another horizontal tunnel with branches.

The experts shook their heads. Something must be done. A conference was called and the players assembled at Devizes Corn Exchange. I sat and heard the debate and remembered Professor Bradley strongly advocating the solution. Reopen Atkinson’s shaft, assemble a crack team and employ the very best archaeological techniques that the 21st century can offer. Create a new exceptional record and then backfill with packed chalk…and seal for all time.

And so it came to pass. The tunnel was opened, the section through the hill was scanned, drawn and photographed in great detail. Samples were taken and analysed…..and then, the invitations went out.

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In the autumn of 2007, we assembled at the portacabins for the health and safety talk. David Attenborough, almost 40 years later, had just returned again from the centre… and now it was our turn.

Along a track…Silbury looming over us…we circled the perimeter of the artificial mountain, to arrive at a concrete portal at its base. The worn green door had a futuristic S on the front, not superman.. Silbury of course, and above it on the lintel ..1968.

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Jim Leary, the English Heritage site director, gave an introductory talk on the threshold,…then the door was opened and we were allowed to enter. ‘we few, we happy few’.

A line of steel ‘U’ frames ran into the distance illuminated by rigged strip lights a network of wires and ribbed ventilation tubing but amongst it all and between the frames the stratigraphy of the mound. ‘Here is the trampled chalk’ Jim pointed. The ancients had worked here compressing the chalk rubble with their feet as they built their mountain.

Further in and the frames were bent and twisted. The torch illuminated a void sloping upwards. Was this where Professor Atkinson cut Rev Merewether’s tunnel?

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Deep below the mound and far from the entrance, the white chalk walls turned brown. We had crossed the inner ditch and here were the beginnings of the construction. Silbury had been built in successive phases but the C14 dates tell us that all the work took place over a short period, c.2400-2300 BC. They started small, heaping gravel from the nearby river and then cutting the turf and topsoil and heaping it into a mound.

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We reached the far end and here was the treasure where we stopped. The famous turf stack where the 1960s diggers had told their stories of green grass and beetles’ wings. Extraordinary environmental survival, sealed within the earth. Many more samples were taken and the list of plants and invertebrates grew and told of a landscape of chalkland pasture. Though we do not know the exact year, the insects tell us that this organised and presumably vast community of farmers cut this turf in the summer. Some of the creatures that were found, only emerge from their larvae in August.

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They didn’t stop. They kept building. What drove them on? They dug deep into the chalk creating a massive moat that  still fills with water after heavy rain in winter. They heaped the chalk higher and higher. A monument to the very end of the Neolithic..as if to say. ‘See! This is what we can do with bone and wood and stone’. That was before the strangers came with their clever rocks from far away. Rocks that could be melted and mixed and beaten to create sharp blades and shiny ornaments.

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Nancy and I retraced our steps, back down the tunnel and out into the light. Best to go to the Avebury Henge, to walk beside the megaliths and then to take tea in the Stones restaurant beside the tithe barn.

To savour the electricity of the moment.

Finding Killerton’s 1776 House 2

To make sense of this you will need to read the first post which describes how a grand 18th century house designed by a famous architect was never completed. This is on the Killerton Estate near Exeter, Devon where the mansion house is…well.. it’s a little disappointing.

The many thousands of acres both at Killerton and on the Holnicote Estate in west Somerset were given to the National Trust in the 1940s by the Acland family.

It’s been 18 months since the first discoveries and things have moved on.

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Killerton House with its roof covered in scaffolding. There is limited access for visitors while the repairs are taking place. The roof archaeology is being recorded and fragments of 19th-century wall paper and early 20th century photos of the Acland family have been found amongst the rafters. 

The present Killerton House is having its roof repaired and the 1776 house has been cleared of undergrowth.

We wondered whether the LiDAR survey had see the cellars of the abandoned house under the trees of Columbjohn wood. Now that we can see ground beneath the vegetation there are heaps of bricks everywhere.

The workers charged with salvaging the building materials had left the broken bricks behind.

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The scrub has been cleared in what we think was the main cellar of the 1776 house and the remains of its demolition and salvage have been found:  lots of broken bricks scattered in piles in the hollow.

Project manager Fi has co-ordinated a series of events which will enable visitors to explore Killerton’s historic landscape. This will happen during the CBA Archaeology Festival later this month. A team of National Trust Heritage Archaeology Rangers have been trained and Bryn from South West Archaeology is supervising the investigation of the lost house of Killerton .

A couple of weeks ago they mapped the earthworks and these fit with the architect’s plans for great house. At the end of July, they will dig some evaluation trenches to ‘ground-truth’ the remains.

Visitors will be very welcome and the mock-up of an 18th century doorway has been erected amongst trees as an entrance to the excavations.

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The newly erected doorway based on the original architect’s drawings of the house that never was. Visit and pass through the doorway to see the excavations in a couple of weeks….

I will spend a couple of days at the folly on the hill-top working out what remains of the ‘white tower’. This folly is shown on an 18th century painting . At this stage we don’t understand quite what the building looked like. It had been demolished long before any photos had been taken.

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The new National Trust HART ranger team for Killerton. Practicing making condition monitoring records of the 18th-century folly site on the conical hill top across the valley from Wyatt’s lost house. We will take off the turf on July 27th and see what lies beneath.

Purbeck: Treswell’s Palimpsest

February: last week, meetings with Historic England. 5 hillforts in 2 days.

We were puffed out. It’s a long slog up the path to the ramparts of Hambledon Hill.

We paused near to top…just beyond the gate, and looked down on the Dorset countryside.

I turned to our Clive…

‘How did the conference go ?’

‘Good. I discovered a new archaeological term…now what was it?’

‘We tried to guess’   stratigraphic relationship? Harris matrix? Deverel Rimbury Culture?

‘Ah yes! Palimpsest!

High above Child Okeford, we gazed north beyond the chalkland into the Blackmoor Vale. Our eyes drifted across the sunlit network of field systems, farmsteads and trackways, disappearing into a late winter haze.

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The view from Hambledon Hill north into the Blackmore Vale

The archaeological metaphor. The palimpsest of the historic landscape. We nicked the term (archaeologists are scavengers). Wipe a slate clean but earlier messages can never be quite erased..look carefully…they can still be read.

Rip out a hedge, plough two fields as one, but the boundary will still be visible as a dark line.

Abandon a farm, pull down the buildings and walk away… but thousands of years later, scatters of finds will be evidence. Silent witnesses of past lives.

Wouldn’t it be good to go back and take a video or at least a snap shot.

Well, there are old maps at least.

Detailed Ordnance Survey will take you back to the 1880s. Then most areas are covered by the parish Tithe Maps of the 1840s.

If you are lucky..wealthy landowners commissioned surveyors to map their land..often in the 18th century.

Before that there are written documents but no visual links…but in Purbeck there is Ralph Treswell’s survey.

He was an artist cartographer commissioned by Elizabeth I’s favourite Sir Christopher Hatton.

Hatton’s family were from Northamptonshire, but after Elizabeth sold him Corfe Castle in 1572, he decided to carve out a Purbeck empire. He bought various blocks of land across this chunk of south-east Dorset and then decided to have them surveyed (this is the core of the National Trust’s Purbeck Estate).

The result is the Treswell Survey which took my breath away when I first saw it in the Dorset History Centre. It had survived the English Civil War and the plunder of Corfe Castle and been kept by the Bankes family in a cupboard at Kingston Lacy until the 1980s.

The maps are beautiful and detailed. Colour drawings of Tudor life and land tenure with the names of tenants and their land holdings across the Corfe Castle Estate in 1585-1586.

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Middlebere Heath 1586 with Ralph Treswell’s drawing of a Tudor furzecutter with red deer (no longer found in Purbeck)

Gold cannons line the upper terrace at Corfe Castle. Deer prance across Middlebere Heath. Working men stand with their furze cutting tools and rabbits emerge from burrows. High on the Purbeck hills above Langton is a timber beacon tower with ladder to the fire pot ready to warn against Spanish invasion. In the vale to the south, Langton West Wood follows the same contours as today, shrouding the worked out Roman and medieval Purbeck marble quarries.

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The signal beacon drawn on the chalk ridge crest above West Wood (bottom right) which was planted on worked out medieval Purbeck limestone quarries.

Farms and villages occupy the same locations as farms and villages today. The long boundaries across the limestone plateau mark medieval manorial divisions …Worth from Eastington from Acton from Langton..the boundaries survive today and can be traced back to Domesday of 1086 and beyond.

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The long boundaries of stone walls (still in the landscape today) divide the Domesday manors and therefore Saxon land holdings of Worth, Eastington, Acton and Langton.

At Studland, the coast has changed completely..no sand dunes then and the good arable land between chalk ridge, village and heathland is crowded with strips forming the common field system indicated as ‘hides’ by 1086. Studland Wood is larger than today but not ploughed since Roman times because Treswell’s map shows it then and under the trees today are the earthworks of ancient ‘celtic fields’.

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The East Common Field of Studland divided into arable strips between the chalk ridge of Studland Down and the village of Studland. Studland Wood is shown though larger than today. The tree cover preserved evidence of earlier Roman and preshistoric agriculture in the form of ‘celtic fields’. The name Castell Leyes may indicate the site of a 13th century coastal castle or fort referred to in medieval documents of King John.

The maps are a fabulous marker at a time when things moved slowly, reflecting far more of medieval life than can the later estate maps and tithe maps.

These Tudor surveys show how precious our landscape is. Built by the many generations of ancestors who have never been quite rubbed out. Their evidence is all around us. Treswell’s maps prove it !

Under the First Tower Corfe Castle

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Sometimes, at a distance, when the sunlight hits Corfe Castle… it seems whole again..

Just an illusion..it has been a battered shell since 1646, when, after a long siege, it was captured and blown apart by the Parliamentarians.

They made sure that the supporters of King Charles could not use it again..unpicking the defenses, trenching under the walls, packing with gunpowder and throwing the turrets and walls in all directions.

But this blog is also about something that happened 300 years earlier ..when Corfe Castle was one of the brightest and best within the league table of medieval fortresses.

About 1250, the 1st Tower was created for King Henry III.

When first added to the defensive circuit, this structure was a cutting edge design, built to protect the southern and western approaches. The barons were often restless.

A wonderful thing, with its rounded tower and its 3 arrow loop embrasures.. from these, bowmen or more probably cross bowmen could take aim and fell an attacker up to 300m away. A crossbow bolt could penetrate a knight’s armour.

We only know of one illustration and then only in plan.. drawn for the new owner Sir Christoper Hatton..14 years after it was sold to him by Elizabeth I. Such castles were old fashioned by then.

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Ralph Treswell’s 1586 survey of Corfe Castle shows the 1st Tower between the steps up to the Outer Gatehouse (right) and the Outer Bailey latrines (left). 60 years later it was blown in two.

The Parliamentary demolition team searched for weak spots and made them weaker. They set their charges and the explosion fractured the 1st tower.. right down its central arrowloop. It must have sounded like an earthquake in the town.. and when the dust settled, the east half leaned drunkenly outward and the west half  had been flipped 180 degrees coming to a rest half way down the hill slope.. This is where it has remained gathering soil, vegetation and scrub for another 371 years.

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Looking along the west wall of the Outer Bailey from the SW Gatehouse towards Corfe Village. The scrub covered fallen 1st Tower lies below the castle wall hidden by vegetation directly below the position of the church tower.

Other parts of the Castle have been cleaned and consolidated over the years but the chunks that lie tumbled across the slopes, or down by the river, have not. The largest of these pieces is the First Tower, and now …the scaffolding is upon it.

So last week I headed south through a cold winter morning of dramatic contrasts: on the high chalk downs, bright melting sunlight above vales of mist.. but down on the heath, thick freezing fog and brittle white frosted trees.

The caged Tower loomed but nobody was on it. I found them in the tea rooms beside the Outer Bridge. Architects, builders and property staff… after warm drinks we headed for the vertical ladder up from the ditch.

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The route up to the First Tower from the Castle Ditch. The standing half of the tower is on the right with part of the 13th century cross-loop visible, the other half is part buried beneath the lowest scaffolding.

A good time to visit. Most of the centuries of roots and soil had been removed. We climbed over the scaffolding and saw, up close, the medieval construction, types of mortar, the galleting of the joints and the different beds of Purbeck stone, the arrangement of rubble and fine ashlar.

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But everything in reverse. When we got to the top, we saw the great slabs of Purbeck Marble laid down as foundation layers before the tower proper was built above. Someone saw tool marks around their edges and suggested they may have been recycled coffin cover rough-outs.

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The foundation of the Tower made of large long slabs of stone, then rough block work, not meant to be seen, followed by the finely worked ashlar burr stone forming the battered plinth (three course vertical, three at 60 degrees and then vertical again rising to the top of the rounded tower).

A stranded whale of a thing, its construction now more visible than at any time since it was built.

Could we laser scan it and capture this revelation in time?

Yes it can be done.

It will be partly obscured soon, new mortar and capping needs to be placed over the Tower to protect the newly exposed structure from weathering.

Both halves will be digitised.

The scaffolding will be edited out, and then, by the touch of a button… the First Tower will be reunited again.

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Stourhead? Where’s Stourton Castle?

In south Wiltshire, on the border with Dorset and Somerset was built a great and ancient house. It lay at the centre of a large estate and was known as Stourton Castle..

but there is a problem…

We don’t know where it is

We have a picture.

An enhanced drawing based on John Aubrey's original sketch.

An enhanced drawing based on John Aubrey’s original sketch.

Drawn from a 1670 sketch by the antiquarian John Aubrey.

The place was massive and must have looked a bit like Lacock Abbey

Lacock Abbey in north Wiltshire. Stourton Castle was arranged around two courtyards like this and would have been of similar scale and outward appearance.

Lacock Abbey in north Wiltshire. Stourton Castle was arranged around two courtyards like this and would have been of similar scale and outward appearance.

but it’s gone.. apparently without trace.

The story of the removal of Stourton Castle and the creation of Stourhead House has a touch of Poldark about it.

The Stourtons (old money Poldark) and the Hoares (new money Warleggan)

The Stourton family had taken their name from the village of Stourton (the farm by the River Stour), a place recorded in Domesday and at least Saxon in origin. The Stourtons claimed that their line went back to a mighty Saxon lord… Botulph.. and William Camden, writing in 1607, saw a ‘monstrous bone’ displayed in Stourton Castle… a leg of their legendary ancestor.

The surviving records trace the family back to the 12th century but the Stourtons only emerge as lords of the manor in the 13th century documents. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the family did very well and built up cash reserves via good marriages and military service in France.

Their manor house blossomed and flourished. Aubrey’s picture shows that it was built around two large courtyards and had a tall tower and shows parapets with military style battlements.

Things fell apart for the Stourtons in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the early 16th century, William Lord Stourton was working for Henry VIII in France and left the care of his estate to his trusted steward William Hartgill…he also looked after Lord Stourton’s  wife Elizabeth.

When Lord Stourton died in 1548, his hot-tempered son Charles inherited the Estate. He rode with a band of henchmen to Kilmington near Stourton and found his mother living at Hartgill’s house. A feud grew up between the men and eventually, in 1557, Lord Stourton kidnapped William and his son John, murdered them and buried their bodies in a cellar within the Castle.

As a catholic, with Queen Mary on the throne, Charles believed that he would get away with the murders. However, William Hartgill had friends and they made sure that the Castle was searched, the bodies found and Lord Stourton arrested. He was convicted and executed in Salisbury. His wife was forced to pay for her husband’s property which had been forfeited to the Crown following his trial. She was also separated from her eldest son John, who was only a child at the time.

The family backed the wrong side in the Civil War. In September 1644, Parliamentarian forces set fire to one of the gates, captured the house, ransacked it and made it untenable.The eldest son John was killed at the battle for Bristol and when the Royalist cause was finally lost, the estates were confiscated and heavy fines were imposed.

The family fortunes continued to decline and by 1686 the impoverished Stourton family had mortgaged their ancestral home and by 1704 it was for sale.

Enter the Hoare family who had made a fortune through banking. In 1720, they purchased the whole estate, demolished the castle and built a new flashy Palladian villa… quite the latest thing. They changed the name to Stourhead. The house at the source of the River Stour.

The Hoare family made sure the transformation was carried out quickly. They paid for a survey of their new property in 1722 and the Estate Map shows the new house completed… Stourton Castle was gone.

The 1722 map shows the new Stourhead House with its garden intruding slightly onto the courtyard of the stables and outbuildings below and to the right. Was this a retained part of the old house?

The 1722 map shows the new Stourhead House with its garden intruding slightly into the top left hand corner of the stable courtyard. The courtyard is below and right of the house. With a large gateway facing south. Was this the outer courtyard of the old house?

Finding the site has been difficult, the normal techniques have proved to be inconclusive and the quest for the Castle has become a great archaeological challenge.

It seemed simple at first. The 1880s 25 inch OS map marks a cross about 100m east of Stourhead House with the legend ‘site of Stourton Castle’ So we geophysed it and the results were very disappointing. Since then, year by year, we have surveyed around the house but nothing has been revealed.

When Meg did her student placement for the National Trust, I asked her to find the Castle and her MA dissertation tracked down the documentary references and descriptions of its chambers and halls and its chapel, which included a decorated tiled floor inlaid with the initials WS for William Stourton. Documents in the record offices of Cornwall, Wiltshire, Somerset and nearby Longleat House were examined. These built up the background: the estate, the farmland, the deer park and hunting lodge, the warren and the warrener’s lodge… bits about the repair of the great house and its approximate location… but nothing to pin it down.

We looked at the fabric of the stone-lined cellars of Stourhead House. Had they built the new house on the old?

The cellars of Stourhead House. Some reused stone but nothing to indicate that these were once the cellars of Stourton Castle.

The cellars of Stourhead House. Some reused stone but nothing to indicate that these were once the cellars of Stourton Castle.

We examined the stableyard to the south. This includes in its walls great chunks of reused? stone and a 16th century? doorway. Was this the remodeled outer courtyard of the Castle?. We dug a trench on its north side, hoping to find medieval walls leading to the inner courtyard.. just 18th century pottery above deep soil.

Our fieldwork in Stourhead Park. Earth resistance meter against the railings and our trench beside the stables courtyard to the left. The Hoare family's 1720s mansion Stourhead House can be seen top right. The site of old Stourton Castle lies somewhere to the right of this picture.

Our fieldwork in Stourhead Park. Earth resistance meter against the railings and our trench beside the stables courtyard to the left. The Hoare family’s 1720s mansion Stourhead House can be seen top right. The site of old Stourton Castle lies somewhere to the right of this picture.

So where is it hiding? A LiDAR laser survey of the parkland ground surface might help or more sensitive geophysics… perhaps ground probing radar. Everything seems to point near the cross marked by Ordnance Survey. A line of pre-Stourhead House chestnut trees are aligned north towards this point where there is a mound in the park. From the east, an old drove-way passes through Drove Lodge and runs as an earthwork into the park.

Our site is most likely to exist where these two alignments meet. Surely the backfilled cellars and extensive robbed out walls lie there or thereabouts.

We’ll keep looking.

Boundaries & Hedges: Look Deeper

Look into this photo…look deep into this photo.

What do you see?

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Yes, I know.. it’s just a bit of farmland.

Look deeper…there’s at least 4000 years of farmland here.
Look at the hedgerows….they’re very precious …on a European scale, our bushy boundaries are surprisingly rare and wonderful for wildlife.

Off to the left is the edge of Badbury Rings.. so we’re on the Kingston Lacy Estate in Dorset again.

Kingston Lacy for me is like Miss Marple’s village.

We are on the south side of the grand Beech Avenue. William John Bankes had this planted for his mother in 1835.

This land has been ploughed for many generations. Bottom centre, there’s a dark circle with a black blob in it.

The ploughing has levelled an Early Bronze Age burial mound and all that is left is the cut of the quarry ditch. From here the chalk was dug to heap up the bright white mound over the grave. Perhaps the body is still in the grave pit marked by the blob.

The Round Barrow was once an eye-catcher. About 1000BC the land was divided into units by linear boundary ditches. Perhaps population was rising. Boundaries needed to be clear and well defined. The barrow mound formed a good fixed point and the boundary runs against it.

Look again. This linear boundary does not follow a straight line. It has to weave between existing fields. Can you see the white ghost lines of the chalk field banks it has to negotiate. These are small ‘celtic’ fields, in use from the Bronze Age through to the Roman period and later.

Many hedge and wall field systems in the west still follow boundaries as old as this.

Nothing is completely static.

Look up to the centre right and see a group of dark-lined enclosure ditches overlying the ghosts. I walked there with the farmer once and recovered scraps of Roman pottery from the new ploughed field. Stock enclosures, Roman development over part of the old system.

Zoom out a little… can you see broad bands of darker and lighter stripes running roughly with the hedgerows?..

These are the remains of the furlongs and strips of Shapwick’s common arable field system. A time of centralisation when scattered farmsteads and fields became concentrated. Devised by the Saxons, around the 10th century, communities farmed their scattered strips within the great fields, managed by the lord’s manorial court.

At Kingston Lacy, this system continued right down to the 19th century. We have a great map showing all the strip fields in 1773-4, it tells us who farmed what.The small guys were being squeezed out by the larger farmers.

How old fashioned! This was the advice of William Woodward, the surveyor, who advised the Bankes family to enclose the land. In 1813, a new map was made and the land was divided up into large economic farms with straight hedge boundaries. The smallholders became farm labourers.

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Look into this photograph. Look deep into this photograph. We are east of Badbury now. Towards Kingston Lacy Park.

Bottom left is the tree-edged enclosure of Lodge Farm. All the names in the landscape matter. It’s ‘lodge’ after the medieval hunting lodge.

The stone lodge itself now has a lawn in front of it. A 15th century building on the site of an earlier building at the gateway to the royal deer park and warren of Badbury. This park is documented right back to Henry de Lacy’s time in the 13th century.

Top, right of Badbury, is the medieval High Wood, and middle right is a hedgerow strip marking the deep survival of the broad medieval deer park ditch. Designed for fallow deer to leap in but not get out. Deer were valued for their high status meat, a preserve of the rich carefully nurtured and guarded.

Badbury Warren was maintained right up to bachelor John Bankes’ day. There were complaints that the thousands of rabbits kept there, got out into the corn and coppices and damaged the crops.

John’s mum Margaret always kept the accounts and when John took over the Estate he followed her example….right up to 1740, when he closed the account book and left a few sheets of paper there.

One of these contained the inked in costs of enclosing the Warren. All the hedges in this photo were planted at this time. Their names give away the old use of this new farmland…’Lodge Field’, ‘Deer Hill Field’, ‘Hare Run Field’ and ..

‘Watch House Field’ (watching for poachers? a dangerous job, one of the medieval keepers Henry Warren was murdered…)

Sometimes… in the right conditions…. the Roman road from Poole on the coast to Badbury can be seen running from Lodge Farm across the fields.. aiming for the saddle of land between the hills of Badbury and High Wood.

Not in this photograph though..

each year brings new conditions of ploughing, drought, snow and frost and …new revelations of the past become possible…

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Look into this photograph…north of Badbury now…what can you see?

The spaghetti junction of Roman Dorset! We’re looking down the barrel of the late 4th century road from Old Sarum (Salisbury), the London Road, to the civitas captital of Dorchester (still Dorset’s county town).

This late road crosses two, perhaps three earlier roads. The Poole road turns in the middle left of the photo and splits.

First joining the field boundary running to bottom centre (the road to London).

Second crossing the centre of the field, under the Dorchester road, and continuing to Bath and….

Third.. following the straight, thick hedge boundary between Badbury and the arable fields. Another road, long forgotten, heading for the Somerset Roman town of Ilchester.

This boundary, preserved and managed over the centuries.. ancient, ancient boundary held in the landscape as a hedge…once a Roman road.. it became a convenient straight marker in the 12th century to divide off  the new manor of Shapwick from the royal manor of Wimborne Minster…

and today it remains the parish boundary between the St Batholomew’s Church of Shapwick  and St Stephen’s of Pamphill.

Everything in the landscape speaks. Ancient public footpaths, names of fields, woodlands, coppices…all  full of stories and ….hedgerows are particularly precious and vulnerable…

 

 

 

 

Seymours Ruin in the Woods, Brownsea

1852 map of Brownsea Island. Not the enclosed lakes and the embankment built across St Andrews Bay top right.

1852 map of Brownsea Island. Note the enclosed lakes (upper centre) and the embankment built across St Andrews Bay top right. Seymours (top left in red)

Over the years I have occasionally come to this place. It’s known as Seymour’s House.

The effect is always the same: a romantic sense of … well, perhaps a whiff of Indiana Jones hacking back the remote jungle fronds and finding a Mayan temple.

Of course, that’s not quite it, this is Dorset… but the Island is a lost world, once a succession of rich men’s kingdoms. Their evidence hidden amongst the trees.

We landed on Brownsea in the early spring to check the winter’s erosion along the coastal archaeology. Each year increasingly exposed and washed away during the winter storms.

By chance, we had tripped over a perfect day: absolutely still; clear blue skies and bright low sunlight freckleing the water. Didn’t see anybody all day.. until the return to the ferry in the afternoon.

I usually get to Seymours from the west end. Climbing up from the ruins of Maryland settlement. We crossed the fence into the nature reserve.

There is no good path here. I always forget exactly where it is, peering through the pine trees to make out a craggy outline, treading the pine needles, hunting for a remote and rarely seen home, long abandoned.

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Then I pick out the line of the wild laurel hedge that once framed the garden and there is Seymours with its tall chimney and its circular privy.

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I first came here in 88 and I always expect it to have fallen down but it looks just the same, sheltered by the pines. It was once a single storey lodge with a verandah overlooking the coast.

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A flight of steps leading down to the beach. The roof has long gone with stacks of Welsh slate piled against the walls. In the kitchen, the hand pump over the sink is now missing but on the other side of the fireplace, the copper for heating water is still in place.

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The house clearly developed over time. It had over century of tenants before the last occupants left. The earliest brick building had pointed gothic windows and then these were blocked and the kitchen was built.

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The 1861 census records that the manager of the brickworks and his family lived here.. but when was it first built?

Time for some documentary research. Sir Charles Chad is barely mentioned in the Brownsea guide books but he came from a wealthy Norfolk family and owned Brownsea 1817-1840. I typed him and Brownsea into Google and there he was in ‘Jones Views of Seats, Mansions and Castles 1829’. It was just what I needed. ‘At Seymours, Sir Charles has also built another ornamental cottage which commands such a fine view of the Castle together with the Harbour and Town of Poole which can be compared to the beautiful scenes in several parts of Italy’

No views today, the place is shrouded in trees..

Usually Brownsea is famed for its scouting heritage and wildlife. Perhaps we have forgotten what the wealth of its various owners did to this place.

From the late 17th-early 20th centuries, each man bent Brownsea to his will.. creating a succession of designed landscapes to embellish a private kingdom… set apart from the world.

Contrived views and plantations, lakes, follies, a model farm and a kitchen garden reached via looping carriage rides.

Sir Charles’ other claim to Google fame is his long legal dispute with the fishermen of Poole. They were prevented from entering Brownsea’s St Andrew’s bay after dams were built across it to make the great lakes and lagoon….Sir Charles applied money and influence and eventually won the court case.

I came back to Seymours with Sarah and Jonathan a few weeks ago. This time we approached from the east between the great lakes. They have agreed to investigate Brownsea and at last tell the stories of its gardens and landscape parks. I look forward to reading their report.