Monday, 29 June 2009

Binchester landscapes

I went exploring the environs of Binchester last week. Primarily I was interested in getting a feeling for the extent that there might be surviving Romano-British field archaeology in the area that surrounded the fort. Whilst I did find some interesting features, it was also a fascinating exercise in the exploring a post-medieval and modern landscape. Most of the fields appear to be a product of 18th or 19th century parliamentary enclosure, although there are areas of ridge and furrow in many of the fields. I’m intrigued by possible areas of what appear to be ridge and furrow in the low-lying area around the Bell Burn, but these can’t be medieval ploughing can they? More likely they are linked to the management of water meadows. The woods along the Bell Burn are probably ancient woodland and are rich in birch and sycamore, although there are clearly many features within them. There are a series of leats and small stone bridges linked along the course of the stream. These are probably post-medieval and perhaps connected with a lot of investment put into the lands owned by the Bishops of Durham in this area in the late 18th century.

Walking through the woods I also stumbled across a recent ‘shrine’ clearly to someone who had died and been remembered by his family at a place he’d loved. It was rather an eerie experience to discover it tucked away in a thick wood. Strangely enough, I came across another similar example a little further on by a bench on the old railway track (now a footpath). Is this a Bishop Auckland tradition?

The railway track was a reminder that this part of Durham was a heavily industrialised area, with many collieries; Lodge Farm just to the south of the wood was once where all the pit ponies in Durham were bred- according to a visitor to site whose grandfather had worked there, there were sometimes thousands of ponies there; I wonder if some of the features along the burn were connected to the need to water them?

Friday, 19 June 2009

Drowned Lands

Last week we took the nipper down to Hull to visit The Deep (an excellent afternoon out for all those who love combining looking at fish with colossal sensory overload). Afterwards we headed out east into Holderness, the slice of land that lies in between the Humber estuary, the Wolds and the North Sea. This part of Yorkshire feels very like East Anglia, with its low-lying wetlands, shallow coastlines and insistent presence of the North Sea. One of my favourite parts is Spurn Head which juts out into the mouth of the Humber, and has a vaguely post-Apocalyptic feel, and reminds me of places like Dungeness, combining raw nature, ruins and traces of industry. At Spurn you can watch waders feed on the mud flats whilst in the background the lights from the petrochemical factories at Immingham twinkle on the other side of the estuary.

Like much of the east coast, Holderness has been in a constant struggle with the sea. Estimates vary, but its reckoned that between 3 and 4 miles of land have been lost to the North Sea since the Roman period. Villages with evocative names such as Frismersk, Orwith Fleet, Ravenser Odd, Dimlington, Hoton and Turmarr amongst others have all disappeared since the Middle Ages. South of the Humber many other villages have slipped beneath the waves, perhaps the best known being Dunwich in Suffolk, once a thriving coastal trading town, but now largely consigned to the sea (not to be mistaken of course with the Dunwich which appears in the works of HP Lovecraft…). I like the idea of these missing villages and towns lying beneath the waves of the German Sea These are the last traces of the land bridge that once linked Britain the Continent. Along the west coast of Britain, there are myths of other drowned lands, such as Lyonesse (off Cornwall) and Cantre'r Gwaelod (in Cardigan Bay), but, as far as I know, the lost villages of the East coast have never stimulated similar legends. Although there have been fantastic archaeological and geomorphological projects to map these drowned lands, of the North Sea, I like the idea of mapping the lost histories of these drowned villages. It would have to be an entirely speculative and creative exercise, certainly not something rigorous or methodological; perhaps more like a collaborative work of fiction. Something else for the ‘to do’ list.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Road to ruin

One of my first professional archaeology jobs after I completed my undergraduate degree was as a site assistant on an English Heritage fieldwork project along the edge of the A1 (‘The Great North Road’) around Catterick. This involved fieldwalking and excavation on the site of the Roman town of Cataractonium, in advance of a scheme for widening the road to three lanes. My abiding memories of this job are the joys of fieldwalking in light snow cover and digging in shin deep mud.

Little did I know that I would later come to know this stretch of road extremely well. Having variously worked in Northumberland and Durham for the last eight years, I must have now driven up and down this section of the A1 hundreds of times. As it happens the road widening scheme is only now just beginning (a mere 16 years after I was working on the site). What has surprised me is how attached I’ve become to the landscape along the road, including not just the farmhouse, copses and fields, but also the garages and service stations. They’ve all become embedded in my own personal landscape of the commute to work; as such its rather strange to see these private landmarks and distance markers being bulldozed away Its also a shame to see some important aspects of the modern (post-medieval landscape) disappearing. The Great North Road was the main road north from London to Edinburgh since the medieval period, and became particularly important as the route that the mail coaches ran in the 18th and 19th century. It is only with the advent of the railways and more recently the construction of the M1 in the late 1950s and early 1960s that its key role has been circumvented. Even now, it is still the main road north from York to Edinburgh (and once north of Newcastle, is still single carriage way in places).

Its history has meant that it has created its own distinct landscape. Although it now by-passes the centres of most villages and towns, many of which still contain historic coaching inns, many farms still lie close to the road (and at a microtopgrapic level are clearly aligned on it). It’s still crossed by B roads and farm tracks, and in several places former bridges can be seen just beyond the edge of the road. On top of this more ‘historic’ landscape, there is also the post-war infrastructure of a main road, including petrol stations, caf├ęs and service stations. Much of these features are now being sacrificed to the need for a few additional lanes of road. Whilst I would not argue that the Little Chef at Dishforth is of the same historic value as the Roman town at Catterick, it is sad to see the erosion of these elements of an historic landscape. I suspect that there has been little recording of these structures (though I might be wrong).

These ‘modern’ road landscapes aren’t entirely overlooked; Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital explores the M250- the kind of inbetween landscape so loved of the late JG Ballard; there’s also Edward Platt’s Leadville: A Biography of the A40 (a road I spent a lot of time staring at blankly at the Oxford Tube ferried me into London in the mid-1990s. This kind of writing is not even a particularly modern phenomenon: the artist John Piper wrote a long description of the modern and ancient sites along the old Bath Road (A4) as long ago as 1939 (Architectural Review (May 1939), 229-46).

Postscript: a link to the wonderful website Pathetic Motorways