A ‘Regency love-nest’?

A ‘Regency love-nest’!


Is it a dovecot? Is it a water tower? Is it an ice house? Nope, it’s (said BBC Midlands Today) a Regency love-nest. And they’re probably right.

The mystery building at Attingham has given up its secrets (well, some of them) to yours truly and a hard-working team of National Trust volunteers who opted for a spell of archaeological training between August 13th and 24th on the mystery building. Even by the end of the first Monday enough pieces of imitation marble had been found to demonstrate conclusively that this was a truly fancy, completely O.T.T., structure – even before excavation within the sunken interior (from which a suspended wooden floor had been removed) began to yield pieces of black, polished, Purbeck marble that had covered its corner fireplace and pieces of painted glass from the windows in its side walls. Until the ceramics have been dated (by someone who knows 19th-century pottery better than I do) the archaeological evidence for its date of construction is vague, though the indications suggest early in the 19th century. And the story of Attingham Hall points to just one episode when it’s likely to have taken place – the lifetime of the spendthrift second Lord Berwick and his 17-year-old bride Sophia, sometime between the production of an estate map in 1807 (on which the building doesn’t appear) and the sale of the hall’s entire contents in 1827 to pay off LB2’s (as he’s known to National Trust aficionados) accrued debts – while the happy couple fled to Naples.

The building itself consists of a five-metre square brick room with stone-clad walls (with thanks to former NT builder Graham Sherman for identifying the signs of robbed-away stone cladding), and a marble-clad interior. To it were added east and west wings, each about four metres square, then ground level was raised, probably to disguise its brick base under the cladding. Then, it seems, building the wings was discontinued, their foundations were robbed down to the raised surface and a lightweight, probably timber, portico or veranda built around at least two sides of the square building. Perhaps a last-ditch attempt to economise. But it was, in short, a summerhouse. But one that was not obviously built to be seen from afar (it’s in woodland), or to have great views out (it’s below the crest of a slope). Privacy seems paramount, so a Regency love nest isn’t perhaps too far from the truth. A memorable excavation experience too. Fantastic support from the Trust, a couple of thousand visitors and an extra page to write on Attingham’s most colourful historical episode ever. And you know you’re onto a good thing when the excavation goes quiet and you look up to find the volunteers all clustering around something in the ground pointing their phones at it to take pictures. Not to mention finding the inscription ‘I Thomas Truman’ scratched in superb handwriting onto the Purbeck marble mantlepeice, probably by a guy of that name from Dawley, maybe in the 1830s. Mysteries remain. It appears on no maps at all, ever….so can it really be the ‘summerhouse in the woods’ mentioned as a source of salvageable stonework as late as 1909? And do the cellars of the hall still contain some of the marble reported found by a tenant of the hall in the 1920s?

Post-excavation begins…watch this space!

ATT18 film 2 035

ATT18 film 2 045

New books, new discoveries…

Six months is a big gap between blogs, but it’s been a busy six months. First, there was the hallowed archaeological tradition of end-of-the-financial-year meltdown crisis panic as clients want reports completed for April. Even that was not without surprises, as Longtown Castle in the Black Mountains turned out to have been installed in an old Roman fort – and the rampart colleagues and I had dug a section through in 2016 turned out to be 1st century and not 12th-century. No such great surprises at Clifford Castle (also Herefordshire), surveyed and excavated last year, but that had added novelty-value in the sense of discovering archaeological deposits on the top of an eight-metre high inaccessible wall top. Someone in the past had accessed it and taken soil up there, maybe for planting? Could wall-top archaeology become a new sub-discipline? Definitely one for the drones.



New books


And then, last month (June), gave birth to twins! So to speak. Two books, both published by Oxbow and co-authored by your correspondent, finally appeared simultaneously after years in production. Houses of Hereford 1200-1700 started as a stalled volume of buildings casework by Ron Shoesmith’s Hereford City Unit in the mid-90s (co-authors Pat Hughes and Richard K Morriss). The other, Bristol, a worshipful town and famous city has come out just over a decade after its inception, and after the untimely death of its principal author, Jon Brett. Weighing-in at what seems like half a ton, it looks amazing, thanks to full colour throughout and Bob Jones’s brilliant selection of illustrations, many of which are from the early 19th-century Braikenridge collection. The book is what the late Charles Mundy would have called (approvingly) serious head-banging urban archaeology, it would make a great coffee-table book (if you could find a strong enough coffee table) and for ageing urban archaeologists, the book brings with it just the faintest whiff of distant chocolate factories, breweries and broken drains.


But – two books in press simultaneously – pretty horrible, six sets of proofs, a gazillion queries. But now, there’s two launches to look forward to in late August or September in Bristol and Hereford. Dates tba.



New discovery in Attingham Park

Attingham excavs 6-18 109
The mystery five-metre-square building in Attingham Park

The beginning of June was spent on an evaluation for the National Trust in Attingham Park, near the Walled Garden, establishing old road positions in two trenches with the help of NT volunteers Judy, Mervyn, Nick and Terry, who’d signed up for archaeological duties. And then, there was the other trench, trench 3, where what had been a rough crater with some brickwork sticking out, in an area of recently-felled woodland, was investigated with the JCB… Which resolved it in a couple of hours into a five-metre square building with thick brick walls, a sunken floor, and a corridor running around three sides and extending off-site east and west. What is it? It looks mid- 19th-century, but is recorded on no map editions, no estate plans, and no estate documents so far seen. Suggestions as to what it could have been include a dovecot, water-tower, ice-house or a folly. Isn’t archaeology great? To find out what it really is, we’re returning to excavate it properly, with visitors able to see the excavation, in August.

You’d think that well-known, much-visited, Attingham Park would have given up all its secrets by now. In the last three years there’s been underwater archaeology (the medieval Tern bridge – see elsewhere on this site), aerial archaeology (LiDAR survey showing dozens of medieval open fields), and now, a completely undocumented building complex? Whatever next?



Back to paddling


With the big blockbuster volumes out of the way, it’s probably time to get back to Paddling into the Past. In the sense of river-loop tours of Shrewsbury (now incorporating ‘Dr Baker’s Shit Tour of Shrewsbury’) with Drummond Outdoor on July 5th, August 9th and September 6th. Also in the sense that there’s the next book that needs attention. And also in the sense that the level on the Severn is at its summer low, and there’s going to be more archaeology out there…

“Straight into the gutter again, Dr Baker?”

The New Year seems like a good time for a first-ever blog, so here goes, and a very Happy New Year to all my reader.

2017 – old books and a new discovery

The past year began firmly indoors with the final stages of two books that have been in progress for upwards of five years each – the Bristol Archaeological Assessment volume (co-editing, with Bob Jones, the late John Brett’s book) and the Houses of Hereford 1200-1700, edited and written with Pat Hughes and Richard K Morriss. Both are now at Oxbow and the best part of any book production cycle begins – knowing there’s absolutely nothing more to be done by you, looking forward to the arrival of the finished product and to drinks, canapés and congratulations at the launch. Though – given there’s no such thing as a free launch – there’s also the ‘how long will it take to spot the first typo’ competition to look forward to…and then the reviewers. Has anyone ever greeted the publication of a book they’ve worked on with unalloyed satisfaction or without some feeling of anti-climax?

The summer of 2017 saw your correspondent spending more time excavating than at any time since the 70s, for community projects in Herefordshire (Longtown Castle and the Bartonsham Row Ditch outside Hereford). And also, along with Anwen J Baker, excavating an evaluation trench on the suspected site of Meole Brace Castle – surely the most obscure castle in Shropshire – in Shrewsbury’s southern suburbs.

Meole Brace Castle 8-17 021
The remains of one wing of Meole Brace Castle

The trench hit the corner of a cellared building, made of early (Tudor?) brick and re-used medieval stonework, that was probably a cross-wing to the medieval fortified manor house (occasionally dignified by the name ‘castle’) that burnt down in 1669. Its remains were glimpsed once, in the early 19th century. You occasionally get asked, particularly on building sites, ‘what’s the best discovery you’ve ever made?’ My standard answer used to be ‘a medieval bridge’ (the Old Tern Bridge in Attingham Park). Now it’s ‘a lost castle’. Or, better still, tell a local resident who knows Meole Brace (a roundabout, Sainsbury’s, council estate), that you’ve found Meole Brace Castle – and enjoy that jaw dropping.

2018 – offensive street-names and the medieval mindset of Donald Trump

The first working week of the New Year opens with an enquiry from a TV production company wanting an opinion on a current news story regarding the residents of Bell End Lane in Rowley Regis pressing their local authority to change the street name. My response: if it’s historical, keep it; if it’s recently named after, say, a Councillor Belle End, by all means change it.

My identity as the go-to-guy for offensive street names dates back to 2001 and the paper ‘Towards a geography of sexual encounter’ co-written with friend and historical colleague Richard Holt, on the Gropecunt Lane street-names of medieval England. Many or even most towns had one, adjacent to the main market place or public quay, in a way that suggests they were patronised more by incomers than by local residents, and that they represented just one more dimension, albeit of the most desperate character, of what would now be called the contemporary ‘commercial offer’. Only Shrewsbury now retains a ‘Grope Lane’. The full, medieval, version of the street name is heard for the last time in Shrewsbury in a property deed in 1561, Newcastle’s in 1588. After that, even ‘Grope Lane’ was too much for most places, like York, where Grope Lane became Grape, or Wells, Somerset, where Grope became Grove. The point is, absolutely nowhere did the old offensive usage survive the 16th century, and it was probably regarded as luridly obsolete even then: it was consigned to the medieval past, a relic of a sensibility and a set of attitudes that civic pride had expunged.

But not, of course, defeated. So here we are in 2018, watching the antics of the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief, while simultaneously processing last year’s ‘MeToo’ revelations. At least the market-traders, farmers and sailors of medieval England knew they had to pay: they didn’t assume a right to sexual assault as a perk of office-holding or power over other people. Perhaps someone should start a petition to de-modernise (or re-modernise?) Shrewsbury town-centre’s Grope Lane and rename it Pussy-Grab Lane? Come on Shropshire Council – you could invite the U.S. President to open it when he’s over here on his state visit. Hands (little ones) Across the Sea and all that. Expect a surge in local sales of pink wool.