Max Gate and the South Dorset Ridgeway

What would you say was the best archaeological landscape in England ?

The west end of the Ridgeway from the Iron Age hillfort of Abbotsbury Castle east along the Chesil Beach towards the Isle of Portland.

The west end of the Ridgeway from the Iron Age hillfort of Abbotsbury Castle east along the Chesil Beach towards the Isle of Portland.

Yes you guessed it Dorchester, Maiden Castle and the South Dorset Ridgeway…

did I hear somebody say Hadrian’s Wall? Stonehenge?… well granted Avebury’s got a lot going for it. It’s not a county town though.. doesn’t lay claim to being a Roman civitas capital despite there being a large Roman settlement beside Silbury Hill.

Doesn’t have a Waitrose overlying its henge, built as a circle of massive oak posts 380m in diameter. Doesn’t have a Waitrose come to that. Yes you can still see the great bank and ditch of Avebury’s henge, you’d have to go to the east side of Dorchester.. to Mount Pleasant to see anything like that and of course Avebury has its megaliths… but so does Max Gate.

This whole area is a top level Neolithic-Early Bronze Age ceremonial landscape. Dorchester has a line of henges and Neolithic enclosures of various dimensions overlooked by the most impressive of Iron Age hillforts, Maiden Castle. This overlies a unique monument, the later Neolithic bank barrow 600m long which in turn overlies the causewayed enclosure built about 3600 BC.

The view towards Maiden Castle and Dorchester from the heathland east of Hardy's Monument

The view towards Maiden Castle and Dorchester from the heathland east of Hardy’s Monument

South of Maiden Castle is the great chalk Ridgeway.. 18km long dividing Dorchester from the beautiful Dorset coast. Stonehenge has many Bronze Age burial mounds but as the antiquarian William Stukely said, after a Ridgeway visit in 1724, ‘For sight of barrows I believe not to be equalled’ (and he’d spent a lot of time at those Wiltshire places). Walk the ridge on a misty October evening and the burial mounds loom across your path… many have deep clefts, evidence of barrow diggers, treasure hunters and the curious who left their mark centuries ago.

Between the parishes of Poxwell in the east and Abbotsbury in the west there are over 600 burial mounds of various shapes and sizes.. on the ridge itself and in groups on spurs of land running north towards the county town. At either end, the cemetery is defined by further bank barrows and the view to the south takes in the great shingle bank of Chesil Beach as though between the coast and Maiden Castle the whole cemetery is enclosed as a massive ‘cursus’ designed out of the natural landscape.

The Tulks Hill barrows near Abbotsbury Castle.

The Tulks Hill barrows near Abbotsbury Castle.

What’s all this got to do with the National Trust? At the west end it has a group of barrows at Tulks Head near Abbotsbury Castle. Then there’s Hardy’s Monument (built as a memorial to Thomas Masterman Hardy, Nelson’s admiral). This is a small property with just a bit of land around Hardy’s tower but includes a barrow and a half. It’s small but can claim to be the highest and near central point of the vast Ridgeway barrow cemetery.

Hardy's Monument. The highest point on the Ridgeway.

Hardy’s Monument. The highest point on the Ridgeway.

But this blog is about Max Gate, Thomas Hardy, the writer’s, house which lies between the Waitrose circle and Mount Pleasant. All sorts of famous people visited Thomas here, Laurence of Arabia on his motor bike, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Rudyard Kipling. To get to Max Gate, they all had to walk across the c.3000 BC Neolithic enclosure, which is equivalent in size and date to the earthwork that encloses Stonehenge.

The refurbished resistivity meter beside the stone found during the 1980s excavations.

The refurbished resistivity meter beside the stone found during the 1980s excavations.

Last week Dave and I went there for the day to survey the north garden.. to see whether we could map the buried circle and find remains of any later features. These include Iron Age and Roman burials which have been discovered around Max Gate, both by Thomas Hardy himself and as recently as last year (see bodies in trenches).

Caps the gardener had prepared the site for us and showed us where the tea making facilities were.. but geophysics likes large open areas.. small gardens are full of obstacles and for Dave’s magnetometer there was a lot of metal in the form of water pipes, fences, fruit cages and a shepherd’s hut.

A busy garden of fruit cages, sheds and bonfires the Neolithic enclosure lies beneath.

A busy garden of fruit cages, sheds and bonfires the Neolithic enclosure lies beneath.

The resistivity meter is now mended and worked well (see upon Cley Hill 2).. once it was reassembled properly. The readings were quite bland but we hoped to find buried megaliths like the two in the garden. One was found by Thomas Hardy and the other during the building development that swept away the western part of the site in the 1980s. All that remains of the ancient circle lies beneath Max Gate.. and that, as we found when we downloaded the data, is largely hidden from view.

The outline of the excavated part of the Neolithic circular enclosure of c.3000 BC with Max Gate and Dave' survey placed over it.

The outline of the excavated part of the Neolithic circular enclosure of c.3000 BC with Max Gate and Dave’ survey placed over it.

Conservation Audit

A few years ago we carried out an archaeology audit for NT Wessex. We gave a significance grade for all the properties A* to D (we are renewing it this year).

There were some obvious top hitters, like the famous Wiltshire World Heritage site(s) but there were the other A* places like Whitesheet Hill on the Stourhead Estate and Brean Down jutting out into the Severn Estuary. Collections of concentrated archaeology spanning the Palaeolithic to the Cold War.

The Cottage in which Thomas Hardy wrote his first poems and novels near Dorchester

The Cottage in which Thomas Hardy wrote his first poems and novels near Dorchester

Many properties were acquired with no thought of archaeological significance but it is hard to find a place that has nothing worthy of interest. Thomas Hardy’s cottage near Dorchester is perhaps just another 19th century cottage, a new build on heathland. I try to grade it low but when a trench uncovers a scythe, a medicine bottle and a marmalade pot used by his family, there is suddenly a physical link to the great Dorset writer that is difficult to ignore (he wrote “Far from the Madding Crowd” here).

19th century debris, once used by Hardy's family and found during an excavation last year.

19th century debris, once used by Hardy’s family and found during an excavation last year.

As for Max Gate, the nearby house he designed and lived in later in life, the property is massively important. Not for the Victorian house (unless by association with the great man) but because it lies above a Middle Neolithic enclosure almost 5000 years old. It is one of the closest matches to the earthwork around Stonehenge. It was discovered in the 1980s when the Dorchester bypass was constructed and all that remains (over 50%) lies under Max Gate.

Snowshill in Gloucestershire, is also not known for its archaeology. It’s about a unique collection of stuff put together by eccentric Charles Wade in the early 20th century, but it occupies a medieval monastic lodge converted to a manor house.

Snowshill Manor. The site of Wolf's Cove lies on the left side of the main house.

Snowshill Manor. The site of Wolf’s Cove lies on the left side of the main house.

Snowshill was the last Conservation Performance Indicator meeting (see March 16th “Shall we Stack the Naked Acres”) for old Wessex this year. Strangely it was not held in the Cotswolds but in a wooden hut in Leigh Woods (just as nice).

Snowshill has a lost village called Wolf’s Cove which will be excavated this year. It will then be completely reconstructed based on documents and archaeological evidence.

Quirky and true to Snowshill’s spirit of place. Wolf’s Cove was a model village with canals, harbour and railway created and developed into the 1930s and then removed in the 1970s. It’s still archaeology.

Finished by lunch time, I was then released into the Spring. Leigh Woods is a fabulous place on the edge of Bristol. Purchased and given to NT over 100 years ago by the Wills family to prevent it being developed. It is fringed by grand Edwardian houses (a clue to what might have been) but it survives as a quiet haven.

The view across the gorge to Clifton hillfort from Stokeleigh. Brunel's famous bridge on the right.

The view across the gorge to Clifton hillfort from Stokeleigh. Brunel’s famous bridge on the right.

I asked Bill the ranger how the uncovering of Stokeleigh Camp was progressing and he told me about the work on revealing the outer rampart. I took my lunch and prepared myself for the view. On a day like this, with the fresh leaves all around, it was great to sit on the edge of one of the lesser known but massive Iron Age hillforts in the south west. I chose a good vantage point and looked down into the Bristol Avon Gorge towards Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. Stokeleigh is the best preserved of the cluster of three forts guarding the gorge. Burwalls Camp has been largely destroyed by a housing development and Clifton, across the gorge, has been partly built on and gardened.

A freestanding copy of an Iron Age roundhouse built within the hillfort in 2009 as part of the celebrations for  the centenary of acquisition. Newly cleared ramparts behind.

A freestanding copy of an Iron Age roundhouse built within the hillfort in 2009 as part of the celebrations for the centenary of acquisition. Newly cleared ramparts behind.

Stokeleigh Camp is a conservation success story. Let to another organisation for many years it became overgrown and difficult to see and understand. The NT took it back in hand. In the last few years, the rangers and volunteers have returned it to woodland pasture leaving only the ancient pollarded oaks. No good clearing scrub from a site without grazing. A higher level stewardship scheme has provided the funds to introduce a few Red Devon cattle that keep the regrowth down. The place is now as it was in the early 19th century, when artists would come out from the city and sketch the landscape from the ramparts.