To the Rampart!

After a gap of a year, here’s a blog to celebrate the imminent arrival of another season of work at Shrewsbury Castle. Visitors to this website (both of them) may well be wondering why there’s been radio silence for so long. The answer is in part sheer idleness. That accounts for the end of 2019, and then it seemed wise to hang on until the result of a second application for Season 2 at the castle to the Castle Studies Trust became known. That takes us to the end of January 2020 when they said ‘yes’ to a second excavation at Shrewsbury Castle! Fantastic. Thank-you CST. Preparations began.


And then…Covid struck. All bets were off. A July date for the dig seemed madly optimistic. And then, as time went on and the stats got better, a September date was mooted, received with enthusiasm, risks were assessed, and it looks like we have an excavation on our hands.


And then…lightning struck! Taking out my router and, with it (indirectly) my old computer. Only now, with less than a week to go, does it seem safe to stick one’s head over the digital parapet and announce: Season 2 at Shrewsbury Castle, running September 1st to 18th (closed on the 11th for a wedding at the castle (and all sincere best wishes to the determined bride who’s sticking to her plans!); backfilling on the 17th and 18th.  And with that, here’s some thoughts on the forthcoming excavation that have recently appeared on the Castle Studies Trust’s own website…



Shrewsbury Castle: a 2020 vision


Last year, the Castle Studies Trust excavation – the first ever to have taken place within the walls of Shrewsbury Castle – produced three headline conclusions. The first was that the work of the young Thomas Telford there for his client, William Pountney M.P. in 1786-90 was, sadly, more destructive of the medieval original than had previously been recognised. The extent of his restoration of the house (now the Soldiers of Shropshire Museum) and the curtain walls has long been known. What wasn’t appreciated was that standing walls of ruined buildings and a 13th-century tower on the motte top were destroyed and reduced to their footings, and the interior of the inner bailey was, it seems, scraped flat, producing a lovely level lawn at the expense of any archaeological deposits overlying the natural gravel of the hilltop. Despite this, infilled negative features (pits and ditches) cut into the gravel survived and were found by our excavation trench. As a result, our second headline conclusion was that the motte was ringed on its landward side by a massive ditch, twelve metres wide: what we know as the inner bailey must, in the early Middle Ages, have been little more than a barbican defending the end of the bridge giving access up the motte.


But the extent of Telford’s work raises a question, first put to the archaeological team by Martin Roseveare, our geophysicist: if Telford had the inner bailey levelled flat, where did he put the proceeds, meaning the scraped-up earth and debris? Could the apparently well-preserved medieval ramparts ringing the bailey actually be down to the young Scottish civil engineer, rather than impressed English labour under the whip-hand of William the Conqueror’s henchmen? This is one of the leading questions that a second season of excavation at Shrewsbury Castle hopes to be able to answer, by digging on part of the western rampart known to be already disturbed by former Victorian greenhouses.


There are, however, other at least equally compelling reasons for excavating on this site. The third headline conclusion of the 2019 trench was that there was pre-Conquest activity within the area of the inner bailey. This was demonstrated by a pit, pit 20, containing Stafford-type ware (well known in late pre-Conquest Shrewsbury) and a type of pottery known as TF41a, an import up the Severn from Gloucester, never seen before in Shrewsbury. The question is, what was it doing there?


Shrewsbury is one of those castles listed in Domesday along with the destruction it caused to its ‘host’ shire town. Construction of Shrewsbury Castle took out 51 tax-paying tenements, a quarter or a fifth of the total built-up area, to the economic distress of the remaining inhabitants. Many of the destroyed plots will have lined the strategically important Chester to Hereford road that passes through the outer bailey. However, looming over the road and its plots, and the main gate through the pre-Conquest defences, was the hilltop on which the castle would come to be built. And on it, overlooking the gate, most likely on the Victorian greenhouse site, was the Church of St Michael, a church that became the castle chapel, but was listed in Domesday between the entries for two of the town’s pre-Conquest minsters and was served by two priests later in the Middle Ages, when it was a royal peculiar, exempt from episcopal oversight. This need not necessarily all add up to a pre-Conquest church – but the chances are very strong that it does, and that this church, which, overlooking the town defences,  may have had some kind of defensive role, was part of the context of pit 20.


The clues are beginning to point to a high-status site, probably enclosed, with its interior ground level two metres above that of its neighbours, and its own church. For an analogy, one could do worse than look to Wallingford, whose castle in the north-east corner of the Saxon burh had probably taken over and re-fortified a royal site of some kind, possibly housing government functions, perhaps a mint, and a garrison of housecarls. Or one might look to Oxford, where St George’s Tower is now generally thought to be of pre-Conquest date. Shrewsbury seems to be joining the list of Norman town castles established on sites of political, not just tactical, importance.


But archaeology can be frustrating. While we hope that excavation of the Victorian greenhouse site in the west rampart may yield insights into the extent of Thomas Telford’s landscape gardening, the foundations of a pre-Conquest church and further clues to a high-status or even royal site preceding the castle, by 2021 the excavation team may well be singularly well-informed experts on…Victorian greenhouses.

Blog 7 Shrewsbury Castle end-of-dig report

This was an excavation of the unexpected. Before the dig began two weeks ago our geophysics survey showed (with complete accuracy as it turned out) a spread of hard material just under the grass directly opposite the castle hall – possibly the remains of demolished buildings. Almost immediately the turf was off it became apparent that the hard material was not rubble but a low ridge of gravel, curving slightly as it headed south towards the main gate. Cut into this road surface (as we took it to be) were round, flat-bottomed Victorian and later flower beds. Excavating through the gravel immediately revealed further, cleaner gravel, that appeared to be of natural/geological origin; further testing demonstrated that all the gravel was natural – the natural/geological top of the hill. It had been levelled, perhaps even bulldozed, in the fairly recent past, possibly in 1925-6 when the castle was restored, and any archaeological layers or building remains above the gravel would have been removed.

However, at the east end of the trench the gravel was found dug away at a 45-degree angle by a single, massive cut, with medieval pottery in its fills. The cut was recognised as the edge of the great defensive ditch that formerly encircled the base of the Norman motte. This would have been about 12 metres wide; the geophysics suggests there was probably a bridge over it, just north of the excavation, opposite the present hall entrance. The objects found in the ditch include pottery – cooking pots and glazed jugs – from the period roughly 1100-1400, and a large quantity of animal bone from food waste. There were also two arrow heads or crossbow-bolt heads, both of the ‘bodkin’ type: sharp, square-edged heavy points designed to penetrate armour and clearly for military use rather than hunting.

The principal conclusion of the excavation was that, when the castle was first built by the Normans in or just before 1069, the motte, with its defensive ditch, was enormous, and the inner bailey was tiny – it was little more than an extra layer of fortification wrapped around the approach up to the motte. One cynical commentator on social media remarked ‘military artefacts from a castle ditch?? Who’d have guessed?’ The point is though that Shrewsbury’s castle saw serious action and bloodshed in 1069, 1138, 1215 and 1645 and we’ve never had any objects to represent that history. Now we do. And thanks to the geophysics, we also have a list of other targets that will, one day, further revolutionise the history of our castle and our town.

And so, onwards to post-excavation…! But not without first paying tribute to the truly awe-inspiring work done by the entire team – the staff and students of University Centre Shrewsbury, the volunteers that came to the dig through the County Museums service, the National Trust, and individually. They faced the hottest day of the year, and some of the wettest, and kept on regardless, a truly impressive amount of earth was moved – and put back again. Thanks also to the members of our informal steering committee, Shropshire Museums, and the S.C. Communications guys. Special thanks also to Ian Pritchard, Castle Custodian for services way, way, beyond the call of duty, and to my colleague Dai Williams who kept the machinery going through all the media madness.

But now, it’s back to the quiet life here in Lower Brompton. Unless one of the cats would care to interview me??? Or would that be fake mews?


Shrewsbury Castle 2 015
Busy excavation with motte in background, finds department and displays, and visitors
Shrewsbury Castle 3 030
Formal shot of excavation, motte ditch in foreground
Shrewsbury Castle 3 049
The deck-chairs are arranged along the edge of the motte ditch
Shrewsbury Castle 4 009
Team backfill – the last day! Completely exhausting

BLOG 6 July 2019




Welcome to another blog (or blarrg if you’re one of my U.S. in-laws), this one marking Season 2 for the National Trust in Attingham Park on the lost Georgian summer-house. This season was dominated by training and raining, sometimes simultaneously, but we completed the excavation of the east wing and satisfied our curiosity as to what happened in the back (south-east) corner where it almost joined the wall of the enclosure around it. It wasn’t attached to it, instead some kind of wing-wall or screen joined diagonally onto the corner, matching a similar one on the opposite (south-west) corner. Exactly what was intended isn’t clear, though it was probably something to do with gardening and was probably never completed anyway. Meanwhile, documentary researchers continue to delve into estate papers in Shropshire Archives but without, so far, producing a smoking gun in the form of a contract for a summerhouse between (say) Lord Berwick 2 and John Nash. There’s still a big gap in the archaeology too: just what was in the rest of the enclosure around the summerhouse? Where were the servants? Were there any loos? What happened if LB2 wanted a bottle of wine opening? What happened if Sophia, Lady Berwick, wanted a cup of tea? Surely they didn’t have to undertake such onerous tasks themselves poor things? That doesn’t sound like the English way…


Maybe we haven’t quite got our heads round the nineteenth century yet as a nation. Factory Acts, Public Health reforms, that 19th-century legacy – what we need surely is David Cameron’s bonfire of red tape? And, if only someone could think of a way of undoing the so-called Great Reform Bill of 1832 (political correctness gone mad!). Like, having just a couple of hundred thousand well-off people choose the direction of the next government. Surely it’ll never happen. Happy Peterloo Bicentenary everyone.




Meanwhile, Shrewsbury Castle begins to yield its secrets


Thanks to Herefordshire-based geophysical survey specialists Tiger Geo for getting the report on their survey of the inner bailey out in good time to help plan the dig starting tomorrow, July 22nd (open to the public most days [not Aug 1] over the following two weeks). What have we got? What might be a very big stone building 16cms under the grass right opposite the Great Hall/Regimental Museum – that’s the excavation target for this year. But this is archaeology (and geophysics). So – Henry II’s Great Hall…or Thomas Telford’s builder’s yard? Check out also the Castle Studies Trust and Shropshire Council websites for more information too. Or watch the dig, later in the year, on Digging for Britain, with Professor Alice Roberts. The team of nineteen volunteers and students and staff from University Centre Shrewsbury are poised, ready to finally lift the lid off Shrewsbury Castle’s inner bailey….



Summerhouse seq v.3.2 7-19Castle resistivity with trench loc 001

Blog 5

Typical. You wait six months for a blog (this is addressed to my imaginary reader) and then two come along at once. But this is for the very good reason that, already, Shrewsbury Castle is yielding what I persist in calling Groovy Archaeology*

*(technical note: by ‘Groovy Archaeology’ is meant: significant, interesting, satisfying to investigate, tells-a-story, photogenic. And, as a jazz fiend, I’m attached to the word groovy – it means something but it’s a bit of linguistic dad-dancing…and it is after all a parent’s statutory responsibility to be an embarrassment to their grown-up children).

Phase 1 of the super soaraway 2019 Shrewsbury Castle project – with thanks once more to the Castle Studies Trust – got off to an amazing start with specialist geophysics contractors Tiger Geo mowing the inner bailey lawns with ground-penetrating radar and resistivity, and, within just a few hours of setting up, the first results came on the screen. So now we know that there was originally a large ditch around the foot of the motte, within the inner bailey. Which means that, as first conceived, the flat area within the defences would have measured only around 30 metres square. The second important result to emerge is that there is indeed a building range lying under the grass opposite the so-called Great Hall (the Regimental Museum). In fact there was only just room for this range, which would almost have backed on to the motte ditch.

What it was, only excavation can tell. As I’m a slow learner, I will keep on saying out loud that it must be a ground-floor hall range – the real Great Hall – opposite which the standing royal chamber block was built in the 1230s-40s. But, at the moment, it’s just an electronic indication of hard stuff under the grass. So, archaeology being what it is, we could equally turn out to be the first explorers of – Thomas Telford’s builders’ yard of the 1790s?

While Tiger Geo trundled their gear back and forth in diabolical weather, I freed-up a long sealed manhole cover and descended two metres into a brick inspection chamber which gives access to the castle well! Unknown to Science, I’d seen this just briefly in the late 90s, thanks to a sympathetic gardener, but not been able to record it. But seen again it looks late medieval, or at least pre-Telford, and was measured at 21 metres deep (70 feet 6 inches) down to the water at the bottom. It’s beautifully built and in fine condition, looking like it’s never been exposed to the elements. It just so happens that the only building still roofed shown inside the castle on the Burghley Map of c.1575 was in just this spot. The well house?

And finally. It’s been confirmed that Shrewsbury Castle will feature in this year’s Digging for Britain TV series with Professor Alice Roberts. So, as Gil Scott Heron nearly said – the excavation will be televised.


Blog 4

Welcome to blog no.4, intended to be the 2019 New Year blog, then the 2019 Spring Blog (sprog?), but, now only four months late, here it is…

Shrewsbury Castle

Possibly the best-preserved Norman shire-town earthwork castle anywhere in the country, Shrewsbury Castle has never been excavated. Until now…

The Castle Studies Trust awarded £10k for a research project at Shrewsbury Castle this year, kicking off with a geophysical survey by Tiger Geo on May 9th, then a community excavation, July 22nd to August 2nd. A full team of volunteers has been recruited, Dai Williams lured out of Herefordshire to supervise, Shropshire Council are fully on board and the University of Chester are involved too, offering every prospect of a project that will yield a fair bit more than a ‘grey literature’ dig report. It will be open to the public for 11 out of 12 days, fully accessible, lots of media interest. Watch the next blog for the results of the geophysical survey…and maybe some additional exploration. What are we looking for? Everything. We have absolutely no idea how the medieval castle interior was planned. Nor what was on the site before the castle. The plan is however to concentrate on the uppermost archaeological surfaces of significance – to maximise understanding of what’s below the grass but minimise damage to otherwise unthreatened deposits and to not generate a cataclysmic quantity of post-excavation. BUT, this is archaeology so, having predicted (maybe ever so slightly whimsically) that the trench will alight on the service end of Henry II’s Great Hall, it feels inevitable that we’ll actually spend two weeks investigating Thomas Telford’s little-known abandoned career as a landscape gardener in the 1790s.

But the geophysics survey day is almost upon us…what will it reveal? And the ‘additional exploration’ referred to mysteriously? All I’ll say is that Wellness should be on everyone’s agenda…answers in Blog 5, coming soon.


Attingham Park and Dr Baker’s Regency love-nest

The last blog covered the excavation of a previously-unknown Regency summer-house near the Walled Garden in Attingham Park, just down the road, for the National Trust. The report (revised version here as a PDF) suggested that it was probably built for the spendthrift second Lord Berwick, sometime in the period c. 1812-20, perhaps for his young wife Sophia Dubochet, who he married in 1812 (hence the BBC’s ‘Regency love-nest’ label). It appears to have been started as a simple square stone-faced building, very probably in the neoclassical style of the other Attingham Park buildings. Then flanking rooms were added, perhaps for servants, and the original building was made taller. And then, in another design change, the flanking rooms were taken down and a lightweight portico built instead, wrapping around three sides.

Who built it? It’s most likely to be a lost work by either John Nash (better known for Regent Street, the Brighton Pavilion and Buckingham Palace), or Humphrey Repton, landscape gardener extraordinaire, and himself an architect with a track-record building park lodges. Proof, if it still exists, probably lies in a box of uncatalogued estate papers, awaiting a National Trust historian.

Post-excavation had its fun moments – like reconstructing the pieces of the Purbeck Marble fireplace and its mantelpiece. One small chunk of the latter is missing, as is all of the overmantle. Work continues within the National Trust, and the excavation is being re-opened in late May/early June with, amongst other targets, the last unexcavated quarter of the summerhouse, partly obscured by a tree stump. Will the last bit of the mantelpiece be found there? Maybe the overmantle – though the chances are that was removed from the site.

Best of all perhaps was the earlier discovery by Kevin Trigg, for the N.T., of a letter dated 1909 and design for a new pump-house for Attingham using-up the stone and cornice from ‘the summerhouse in the woods’. Our building? Very possibly. Probable enough to be worth using the drawings on the excavated footprint to generate reconstructions of the design changes the summer-house went through before its short period of use. And bizarrely, it was never, ever, mapped.

Research does lead one in odd directions. Among the papers in the Hub library in Attingham is a page of typescript, lacking a good source reference, which purports to be an account of a punch-up between John Nash and Humphrey Repton in 1799 on the steps of Attingham Hall – watched by amazed gardeners. Nash is said to have won with a sneaky low blow. Can this be true? Should the Trust’s re-enactors take note? Should modern architects routinely practice their left hook for those awkward moments in Planning Committee?


The waster in the river

About ten years back I was kayaking on my local stretch of the Severn opposite Wroxeter Roman city and noticed a sherd of Roman Severn Valley Ware, pink pottery, on the riverbank on the Brompton side. Then noticed another piece underwater, and another, and another, over about a thirty metre length, trailing downstream into deeper water. And, collected, they all joined together and formed the top third of a large pottery jar. But what was a semi-complete pot doing there, in the floodplain, where no-one lived and no-one was buried? A possible answer lay in the wavy mis-shapen rim. Could it be a kiln waste-product? And if so, what was the clay source they’d used? A possible solution lay immediately to hand in the form of an old, prehistoric, river-channel, a palaeochannel, sealed under the floodplain silt but cut by the present river, its bottom containing a deposit of fine light grey clay, formed when the old channel had been cut off and began to silt up. But could it be proved? It was, by Viviana Culshaw, National Trust archaeologist, who made a pot from the clay, dried it and fired it, producing a bright orange vessel almost indistinguishable from the Roman original. In short – Roman pots made with prehistoric clay, in our local floodplain.

Paddling into the Past 2019: archaeological canoe-tours around Shrewsbury

Archaeology in and of the river comes in many forms –as the many hundreds of people who’ve done our Paddle into the Past tours around the Shrewsbury river-loop will know. More are planned for this year, with the first 2019 dates June 13th and July 11th. To book a place, and find out everything you ever wanted to know about ancient town streams and sewers, defences, wharves, bridges, old ferries and the pubs that went with them, book a place with Drummond Outdoor via or, or ring 01743 365022. All degrees of mobility accommodated in safe, stable, twin-hulled canoes, no experience necessary, all kit provided, qualified staff always present. In 15 years only one person has ever fallen in: me.

Summerhouse seq finalATTINGHAM 2 EXCAVS REPORT 2nd ed 5-19