The Middlebere Searchlight

I said goodbye to Louise and drove back across the heathland towards Corfe Castle. A hot day in Purbeck and three white horses blocked the narrow road where a clump of trees had given them shade.

We put the brakes on, got out and walked towards them.

A few of us had met to walk the archaeology of an apparently empty piece of landscape, jutting out as a low peninsula into Poole Harbour.

The Middlebere peninsula (top centre) where it juts into Poole Harbour (Middlebere Quay is near the centre of its upper shoreline). Above Middlebere across the water inlet is Arne and bottom right across the Corfe River is the Fitzworth peninsula.

We walked the line of an early tramway towards an overgrown jetty where, in the 18th-19th centuries, thousands of tons of fine ball clay, dug from the heath, had been loaded onto barges to feed Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery industry.

Remains of one of the timber jetties for Middlebere Quay. .Ruins of one of the stone buildings bottom right.

We stopped by some molehills where Pam had found some medieval pottery, perhaps part of the salt production business that used to supply Corfe Castle. Certainly salt pits are shown here on Ralph Treswell’s map of 1586.

My interest that day was rather different though.

Louise had been looking into the documentation for Middlebere within the Bankes Archive held at the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester. The Bankes family had owned the whole of the Corfe Castle Estate from the early 17th century until 1982 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust.

She had found some WWII correspondence from Frederick Otto Rhodes. Mr Rhodes had been Mr Bankes’s steward and land agent for several decades in the 20th century. At a time when tending a great estate was a lifetime’s vocation, carefully guarding the property of his employer.

From 1940-45, the war department took over large areas of the Middlebere and Studland peninsulas and Mr Rhodes had discovered that damage was being done to Mr Bankes’s White House cottages at South Middlebere.

Louise had emailed transcripts of his letters which described the stripping out of the buildings, robbed for materials to help build a searchlight battery and gun emplacement. The letters describe the military facility and the White House and the costs the war department must pay to compensate Mr Bankes.

These were new archaeological sites. They were not on the National Trust’s historic buildings sites and monuments record.

Before my visit to Purbeck, I looked at the old Ordnance Survey maps and Mr Rhodes’s letters to fix the sites on the database map.

The White House was easy to find. It had been the farmhouse for an area of heath converted to arable during agricultural improvements in the mid 19th century. Unfortunately none of my maps covered the 1940s so I could not see the site of the searchlight battery.

Mr Rhodes had made a list of actions required to restore Middlebere to its pre-war condition and the costs the government were to pay in compensation for each item on the list. This included removing the searchlight battery and associated buildings and trackways.

Not much was likely to be visible now.

Perhaps the latest air photograph on the database would give me a clue to locate the demolished military facility.

In pasture land, just north of the site of the White House, I zoomed in and saw a parch mark rectangle with two rectangular blobs within it…..’How easy was that !’ was my initial thought….but then I looked closer.

A small part of the extensive Iron Age and Romano-British settlement north of South MIddlebere revealed by air photography. The darker lines are boundary and enclosure ditches and the blobs mark building sites. The more you look the more you seen ..with lines overlapping and being cut across by later and earlier phases of settlement.

No, this looked much older than a searchlight battery. It reminded me of buildings within enclosures detected through geophysical survey on the Roman settlement at Kingston Lacy.

I zoomed out and suddenly there were lines and circles and linear boundaries everywhere.

The photographic cover of the area was taken in a dry and revealing year and suddenly this apparently empty and uninhabited landscape reeled with the evidence of an intense past palimpsest of human activity. The property boundaries, enclosures, house and outhouse foundations, stretched out for many hectares across the land either side of Corfe River..all along towards its outflow into Poole Harbour.

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This settlement now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, kilns, workshops, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still! (William Wordsworth ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ apart from the italics)

Middlebere it seems would have been a power house c. 400BC to AD400, one of the Purbeck industrial settlements… Arne, Fitzworth, Cleavel, Goathorn and Studland, the peninsulas jutting into Poole Harbour. Here boats would have arrived and taken salt, pottery, shale products, Purbeck stone and agricultural goods out to the wider world.

The Wessex Archaeology excavation of the Middlebere settlement discovered in September 1989 published in ‘Redeemed from the Heath’, Cox and Hearne 1991

This took me back to 1989 when Wessex Archaeology got a glimpse of this site when an oil pipeline crossed a northern section of Middlebere. They found Neolithic and Bronze Age evidence but particularly Iron Age ditches and gullies. I remembered too those excavations at Cleavel Point where we uncovered so much Roman activity particularly Black Burnished ware kilns and cubes of different types of Purbeck stone prepared for the mosaic makers.

Back to our visit this year.. and the White House cottages were completely gone. Now an overgrown scrub woodland. A patch of bamboo marked the site of the outdoor privy. They were grown as a screen apparently.

Oliver found some chunks of brick and concrete amongst the heather, a little to the south west of the White House site. So I’ll mark the searchlight site there on the map…but I wanted to see the ancient Middlebere settlement.. so clear on the air photographs. I left them in WWII and walked about a 100 yards north of the wood and gazed out across a level sweep of grassland. Nothing to see at all.

Time for home…but what of the horses. Two agreed reluctantly to shuffle from their shade but the third gave us a stubborn hard stare. We spent some time leaning against him and coaxing… assured him he could have his cool tree back once we had driven past…eventually he sighed and shifted. To give him his due, he gave us time to run back to the cars and get past.

We were able to leave the quiet heathland behind, turn right below the castle ruin and enter the 21st century, rejoining the holiday traffic flowing back towards Wareham.

NZ 2: Invercargill, Bluff, Lizard

The Climate is wretched, with its infrequent rains and mists, but there is no extreme cold. Their day is longer than in our part of the world. and in the extreme north so short that evening and morning twilight are scarcely distinguishable Tacitus in The Agricola writing of Britain c.AD 98

At first the only inhabitants of the island were the Britons, from whom it take its name, and who, according to tradition, crossed into Britain from Armorica….then it is said that that Picts from Scythia put to sea in long ships…Bede writing of Britain AD 731 A History of the English Church and People

Jan said that she wanted to go back to New Zealand…which was a surprise….I said OK but this time let’s go to the far south ..and she said OK but I want to be in Nelson for my birthday.

Queens Park Invercarghill

So we booked the tickets and flew around the world together.

At dawn, we flew into Auckland from Vancouver and wheeled our cases in light drizzle to the domestic terminal and took a plane south to Christchurch, enjoyed the sunrise over the Cook Strait ..then flew over snow-capped mountains…. and every so often bright-bright blue braded rivers flowing out from the mountains across farmland to the sea

A river from the mountains crossing the Canterbury Plain near Christchurch

We had an overnight pause in Christchurch… where we slept off a bit of jet lag… and first appreciated the wonder of October blossom.

The next day, boarding a yet smaller plane, heading south once again through bright sunlight into cloudy gloom and…. Invercargill, the southernmost English speaking city in the world.

The airport was briefly busy from our flight but by the time we retrieved our cases the hire car booth was empty as was the rest of the terminal… apart from someone at the cafe/airport shop who took one last look around her and disappeared into the kitchen

We pressed the bell on the hire car desk and after a while saw a sign on the phone with a number and tried that .A woman answered and said she’d be over from the garage in a few minutes.

Soon she had inspected my licence, I signed the agreement and we were given a Sat Nav and a key. We were directed cross the car park to the hire-car forecourt and we found a light blue Corolla with a CD player! I have missed a car CD player…… if only we had a CD.

Invercargill Airport

This was the third part of our expedition team.. it would be our driving home for the length of the South Island though… we were told that we couldn’t ferry it across the Cook Strait, we’d need a new vehicle in Wellington.

We worked out how the Sat Nav worked (a bit hit and miss) put in the address of the Colonial Motel.. indicated to turn right and the windscreen wipers came on.

The next day we were back at the airport to board a small aircraft to Stewart Island. We handed back the Sat Nav to the car hire desk because it didn’t work properly and another was found in the back of the drawer.

During the trip negotiations.. Jan had agreed that we could make our first visit to the third much smaller New Zealand island…just a short flight from Invercargill.

In preparation, Jan had read up extensively and discovered information on rough weather and dodgy conditions that often beset flights to Stewart Island.

In my mind it was like Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, a wildlife sanctuary where alien plants and animals have been excluded and where flightless birds like Kiwis can thrive in the same way that Brownsea’s red squirrels have a sanctuary away from the greys.

We were to land, have a guided tour in a mini-bus and then fly back to enable us to drive up to Dunedin the next day. The guy at the Stewart Island desk shook his head and pointed to a video screen. “See that hill?” It was just grey with a vague building and a couple of trees visible in the foreground. “No”.

“That’s right”, he said, “the cloud’s too low today over Oban” (a lot of Scots came to Southland…they felt at home there), “we’ll give you a refund”. Jan looked relieved and we went back to the car.

We connected up the new Sat Nav but this time it spoke to us in Chinese possibly Korean…so we had to go back to the desk again. A search was made and one more was found and this time it was fine…. because she talked to us with a New Zealand accent and guided us from the airport and out into that lovely far country.

I signalled right and the windscreen wipers came on (it took me ages to get used to this…I’m glad NZ drives on the left). We headed south to Bluff, the most southerly point of the South Island the same way that NT’s Cornish Lizard is the south point for England.

The small town of Bluff itself is industrial and did not look its best in the cloud and the rain. A railway freight line goes there. We found a side road that took us up to Bluff Hill. We spiralled up into the mist, parked beside another car and took a winding path to the summit. There were regular damp information boards as we ascended.

Bluff was an early contact point for European traders. In 1813, the sailing ship Perseverence entered Bluff harbour in search of trading possibilities for flax. The Maori or Tangata Whenua had got there about 500 years earlier. The first European settlers arrived in 1823.This was the earliest pakeha settlement in the whole of New Zealand (with the exception perhaps of Keri Keri, Northland). This was almost 20 years before NZ became part of the British Empire

Bluff developed into a port famed for its fishing particularly for whaling and oysters. Ships dock here, a last stop before Antarctica far to the south.

Our view from Bluff Hill

This place of first trade contact reminds me of the Iron Age settlements around Poole Harbour. National Trust Dorset.. Purbeck places like Middlebere, Brownsea, Studland and Brands Point. Places where Roman trading ships edged their way along the coast, moored their ships beside Iron Age Durotrigan settlements and traded Gallic and Spanish wine for shale and salt. Similarly, the Cornish coastal sites like Gunwalloe and St Michael’s Mount where copper and tin were traded… long before the Roman Empire in Britain.

We looked out from Bluff Hill….no spectacular views today… but I had set foot on this place. Jan gave me a look, so we retraced our steps and followed the coast round to Bluff Point.

Cape Reinga, 1980 the northernmost tip of New Zealand

And there at last was the yellow sign post. I stood by it and touched it looking out across the grey sea towards Stewart Island and far away Antarctica, This was quite a moment …as it had taken me over 40 years to get here from Cape Reinga on the northern tip of New Zealand.

We walked up a path to the modern cafe and asked for tea. We sat at the cosy table and looked through the glass window out along the coast…we had arrived …..but should we have come?.

Tomorrow we would drive north to Jan’s cousins in Dunedin.

Views From Hardy’s Monument

Last week I looked out and back from Hardy Monument consideration of someone pivotal… now gone.


The view south from the Hardy Monument to Weymouth and the Isle of Portland

Hardy’s is high up. The highest point of the vast Bronze Age cemetery of the South Dorset Ridgeway.

Looking distantly down onto a field… now, with dogs gathering sheep… but then, where my caravan was.

A September Sunday afternoon. After the excavation…. ordering the artefacts.

I was leftover. The vibrant dig community gone. A row of bleached grass rectangles. Just the finds supervisor’s tent against the Loscombe Copse.. two fields away.. and the HQ caravan, a little out of sight, beside the barrow …and the lone tree.

HQ was full ..of vegetarian beans, pulses and CND posters ‘do not walk gently…..’ With the blackberries and hazelnuts.. enough to keep me for a while.

From my window, rural Dorset, and just the tinny sound of Terry Wogan leaking from a battered transistor. All that it could manage.

On the table, a plastic bag containing one of the cremations from the barrow.

Each had a gift for the dead. One had a bronze dagger, another a stone archer’s wrist guard. But what of this one? The director had asked me to separate the bone from the charcoal.

That was my job.. on an isolated peaceful Sunday afternoon.

Soon, my survey contract would begin… me and my bicycle, visiting, measuring, researching every Ridgeway barrow… but the winter-let flat and marriage were still 2 weeks away.

So… place the contents carefully on the table and gradually separate the black from the grey-white while listening to the hits of 82.

As the hours passed…the necklace emerged.

The National Trust archaeologists have been to Sutton Hoo. Angus showed us the new visitor access route. How to evoke the wonder of the place from a few low mounds.. ringed with modern distractions? To reveal the very roots of the English…in a nice way.


The NT Archaeologists on the site of the Sutton Hoo ship burial

What a story ! Local skilled archaeologist Basil Brown asked to excavate a mound…. on the utter brink of WWII. Britain’s Tutankhamun, emerging as the tempest clouds of war gathered. A sand long boat. The decayed planks carefully revealed as a beautiful and curving ridged mould, spaced with clinker nails. That long last peaceful summer…it never rained.

Amazing gifts for a king, gathered in Suffolk from across the known world. The find so great that Brown is edged out by the posh academics from the BM. A poignant photo in the cafe as he respectfully watches the experts at work.

We gather in the wood above the riverside. We imagine the 7th century long boat dragged to its final resting place. Was this Raedwald, Bretwalda, king of the Anglo-Saxon kings? His people gathered around him and the gifts and treasure bestowed in honour of his greatness. Memories and stories. The holy men guided the congregation from life to death and a life beyond his passing.

I stand at the stone tower and look back to the caravan… and beside me a large Bronze Age barrow. The highest of the 600 or so scattered along the ridge between Dorchester and Weymouth…from Abbotsbury to Poxwell.


The plundered burial mound beside the Hardy Monument.

Presumably, the tomb of one the greatest Dorset barrow men but truncated and burrowed into long ago. Its contents taken without record. like so many of the barrows at Sutton Hoo… except Mr Brown’s wonderful discovery…

and mine in 1982…the amber and shale.. hidden but then emerging from the charcoal. Lozenges and cones, with holes drilled for the long rotted thread.

As the sun passed to late afternoon, his mini-van bumps across the field to meet me. I wait to show him.

Years before, the newly graduated Weymouth students had followed him to the shores of Poole Harbour and spent the summer easing a Roman pottery workers’ settlement from the stubble. We got food poisoning…the motorbike got a flat. His back gave out… but we tenderly carried him on the finds table to the trench edge. A battle stretcher but with cheesecloth and loons.

On a road to Emmaus, at his requiem mass, we gathered to honour him and remembered.

Look around you.

‘There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend’

Giving memories a voice

We can write down our memories for future generations to read, but we can also hear the past through sound recordings and videos.

Today Alex is visiting from The Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network (CITiZAN, an organization set up in response to dynamic threats to our island coastal heritage. It is a community archaeology project and actively promotes site recording and long-term monitoring programmes led by volunteers.

Alex will be soon leading a walk at Studland on the Dorset coast, looking at the WWII sites, and as well as research for the tour she hopes to play snippets from our sound archive of local people talking about what it was like, what they saw and stories of life in Studland during WWII.

Studland played an important part in WWII as a testing area for amphibius tanks and  fougasse (burning sea). In April 1944 Prime Minister Winston Churchill, King George VI and General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and in charge of the military operation) met at Fort Henry on Redend Point at Studland to watch the combined power of the Allied Forces preparing for D-Day.

Alex l listening to the taped memories and working on her tour notes

Alex listening to the taped memories and working on her tour notes


The copies of the small sound archive we hold at the office are all still on original cassette tapes. For younger readers there is a picture below of what one is!

A cassette tape

A cassette tape



Alex has had to come and use our old technology to be able to then record a digitized copy for use in the field. We will need to digitize our archive so the recordings are more accessible. Luckily we have a cassette transcribing machine and a cassette player. The transcriber has extra controls so you can slow the tape down, change the tone and various backspace and counter options. It even has a foot pedal control!

Transcribing machine –  a special purpose machine which is used for voice recording processing, so the recording can be  written in hard copy form.

The Transcribing machine

The Transcribing machine



One day these machines will become part of the archaeological archives. At the moment they are thankfully still available and needed to play the memories from the past.

Finds in the flowerbed

In the Trust we have many large wonderful gardens, but we also have many small gardens attached to our offices, tea-rooms, shops, holiday cottages and some tenanted properties. These gardens are cared for by a group of volunteers who do a fantastic job tending them all year round.

A few weeks ago I had a call from the group who work in Purbeck, they had collected lots of pottery, ironwork and clay pipes while digging in the gardens they look after. They hoped I would be able have a look at them and help them to record what they had found, date them and add the information to the archive.

A box of goodies to search through

A box of goodies to search through

They had done a great job keeping every site separated from the next, so we could relate the finds to the properties they came from and where in the garden they were found. The pottery was a mixture of china and local earthenware, and were mainly 18th and 19th  century in date. Though there were some sherds that were probably  medieval and a few from the early 17th century. The pottery can tell us a lot about the social standing of the people who lived in the attached properties. The quality of the china, and the types of vessels can point to the inhabitants position in society and whether they had  good or bad fortunes! Clues to changes in society were  found in the collection from one of the gardens were the  property  had been a private family home, a poor house with 12 families and a pub!

As we went through the boxes and bags it became clear that some of the sherds fitted together. We soon found we  had  a lovely small ginger jar probably from the first half of the 19th century. Yay! time to get the glue out and also to look out for the missing bits when next digging the weeds!

Small 19th century ginger jar

Small 19th century ginger jar

Amongst all the pottery, clay pipes and ironwork there appeared a piece of flint. Oooo excitement grew as the soil was brush off and the light hit the tell tales signs that  mans hand had been involved in shaping this stone. Probably Bronze age, and  a multi purpose tool, reduced in usefulness after being snapped in two.

A prehistoric flint/chert tool found in the flowerbed at the Purbeck office

A broken prehistoric flint/chert tool found in the flowerbed at the Purbeck office

So when weeding that flowerbed collect all those bits and pieces, give them a wash, find a friendly archaeologist, offer them tea and cake and you never know what new tales will emerge about your own little plot of history.

Gill and Jill two of the flowerbed diggers with some of their finds

Gill and Jill two of the flowerbed diggers with some of their finds

Meshing the Bell Barrows at Godlingston

It was a good day on Wednesday. Two Bell Barrows and a Bowl Barrow on Godlingston Heath got meshed. I have known them a long time and they have not looked their best but they shone on Wednesday. They are now in the conservation condition that these nationally significant Bronze Age burial mounds deserve.

Crossing the border and driving down through the Dorset countryside to Purbeck, I felt elated. Good Bell Barrows are rare things and those that are known have often been damaged by ploughing.

3 bell barrows and a bowl barrow built over 4,000 years ago overlooking Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island

3 bell barrows and a bowl barrow built over 4,000 years ago overlooking Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island

The Godlingston barrows lie in a beautiful position, on a slope overlooking Poole Harbour. The heather and gorse landscape looks 21st century BC, little intrudes from the 21st century AD (if you ignore the golf course and ice cream van in the lay-by).

They are Bell Barrows because they have an outer quarry ditch, a raised level platform (berm) within and a large mound at the centre. In plan they were thought to look like an old fashioned bell, hence the name. They are usually larger than ordinary burial mounds and concentrated in Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire (a Wessex thing).

Each barrow was a burial place for one or more significant people. At the centre of the mound lies the grave of someone, accompanied by special objects, perhaps a bow and a sheath of arrows, a bronze dagger, pottery vessels and perhaps a necklace or mace of office.

The Trust inherited a tenancy which prevented access for many years. During that time the land was left to become overgrown with gorse and bracken and rabbits using the mounds to dig burrows.

A view from the central barrow back towards the north bell barrow. A smaller bowl barrow was later built across its ditch.

A view from the central barrow back towards the north bell barrow. A smaller bowl barrow was later built across its ditch.

The Bronze Age people and their culture are long gone. Their barrows are all the information we have about them. Anything we are likely to know about these ancient British people lie locked in their monuments. Science gives us new ways of finding out every year and digging up a site can only take place once. Once it is dug it is gone so if it happens it must be done archaeologically, recording the clues in each layer of soil as we dig deeper.

Rabbits are not good archaeologists and so it is better for them to dig their homes somewhere else.

Resistivity meter in the foreground and magnetometer in the background

Resistivity meter in the foreground and magnetometer in the background

Now Godlingston is back in hand and managed under a higher level stewardship agreement. We used to surround sites with rabbit proof fences to keep them out but we now mesh vulnerable sites with wire. This armour plates them and quickly becomes hidden under grass and heather. We carry out geophysical surveys of the whole site first as once the mesh is in place such surveys cannot take place.

English Heritage and Natural England agreed the method of the work and provided funding and Paul the Ranger arranged for the Trevor the contractor and his team to do the meshing. He had a great brush cutter that gave the barrows a hair cut and then the mesh was laid and pinned in place.

The barrows were given a hair cut with this handy machine to prepare the surface for meshing

The barrows were given a hair cut with this handy machine to prepare the surface for meshing

They now look very impressive. There is one mound which has been very badly dug into and this will need careful archaeological excavation and reprofiling next June before it can be meshed.

One of our Tank Traps has fallen

This week, I went to see a line of concrete blocks across a small valley leading up from Studland beach in SE Dorset. They have been cleared of scrub and are now on clear display to visitors.


They were set in place in 1940 to prevent German tanks progressing inland if there was an invasion here. Studland was seen as very vulnerable and there are gun emplacements, machine gun posts and other structures built amongst the Studland sand dunes. English Heritage has just listed them Grade II. The older things get the rarer and more valuable they become. The recent wet weather has caused one of the tank traps (‘shark’s teeth’) to fall as the valley sands and clays slump and slide. The war-time builders rushing to erect a defence against imminent attack would not expect their efforts to be valued as a historic monument 73 years later.