A green and pleasant parish

4 mins read

Mick AstonIn CA 274, Mick explained how his local research project examining the origins of Winscombe in Somerset got off the ground. Now he gives us an overview of the area itself, and how he proposed to tackle its archaeology.  

Winscombe is a parish in the north of Somerset, lying towards the western end of the limestone hills of Mendip. The Medieval parish is a strange shape — composed of two triangles, the northern one (the Sandford area) symmetrically balanced on the pinnacle of the southern triangle (Winscombe), looking like a butterfly lying on its side. As Mendip runs westwards towards the coast, it splits at the eastern end of the parish, with one arm forming the southern boundary and the other arm creating the boundary between Winscombe and Sandford, with a gap where the two halves of the parish join. At its western end, the parish runs up to the M5 motorway where it cuts through the end of Mendip, just south of the Weston-super-Mare junction.

Travellers stationary in summer traffic jams can look east up the Winscombe valley towards Dolebury Warren hillfort on the higher part of Mendip. This end of Winscombe is still farmland, mostly worked from the appropriately named hamlet of Barton — or ‘barley tun’ (meaning settlement). At the eastern edge of Winscombe, the A38 makes its way from Bristol southwards towards Bridgwater. This part of the parish is much more built-up and there are pockets of housing estates as well as a small centre with local shops. The modern 1:25000 Ordnance Survey map names this built-up area as Winscombe, but in fact it grew out of the hamlet of Woodborough. Winscombe itself is another small village clustered around the church, which sits prominently on the side of Mendip just above the 60m contour line. On the other side of the A38 lies another hamlet — that of Sidcot, where the famous Quaker Meeting House and School are based.

Aerial picture of Sandford, looking south, with Sandford quarry at the top of the picture and the ciderworks at the bottom

Moving through the gap in Mendip, past a large, defunct limestone quarry, you arrive in Sandford, the village that lies at the northern part of the parish. Historically this has always been considered separately, and was at one time a chapelry of Winscombe. The village of Sandford, now mostly modern housing, is strung out along the road which heads from the traffic lights at Churchill on the A38 (the north-east corner of the parish) towards Banwell and finally Weston-super-Mare on the coast. North of this road there is still farmland on an area of slightly raised land, much of which is now given over to orchards supplying apples for the nationally known and quaffed Thatchers Cider. The ciderworks itself lies in the village. Beyond this area the land drops down onto the watery pastures of the north Somerset levels, cut through by ‘rhynes’, the local dialect word for the drainage ditches that criss-cross the lowland.

Unravelling a landscape

So how best to investigate this landscape? Our experiences at Shapwick (see CA 272) gave us a number of pointers about the best way to proceed. We decided that test-pits in the settlements would provide us with the pottery needed to date the various phases of development. Even so, the dispersed settlement pattern at Winscombe brought far more problems than the single village of Shapwick — I have noted at least 20 hamlets in the Winscombe documents, all of which need a representative coverage of test-pits. Unlike Shapwick, for the present we have no plans to undertake a comprehensive fieldwalking exercise. This is partly because we are in a more pastoral landscape with fewer ploughed fields, and partly because of the vast quantity of material this produced at Shapwick. We are simply not in a position to analyse and process finds on that scale.

A test-pit in Sandford village, with the Railway Inn in the background

For similar reasons, large-scale excavations have been ruled out for now. We might, however, undertake some small trenches across field boundaries as this produced particularly useful and revealing results at Shapwick. More manageable, however, is the survey of buildings, which represents the first layer of archaeology. The Somerset Vernacular Buildings Research Group, who worked at Shapwick, readily agreed to undertake this in a programme extending over a couple of years. We have also called upon other expertise: James Bond, a very experienced surveyor and interpreter of earthworks, has surveyed some of the areas of intriguing lumps and bumps; while John Gater and Jimmy Adcock have conducted geophysical surveys over various parts of the parish, mainly using magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar.

The project has very little funding, and so most of the work is being tackled by volunteers. We are undertaking some aspects of the work ourselves with help from others: Teresa is learning about the pottery in consultation with local pottery experts in the south-west such as John Allan and David Dawson, and Phil Knibb is looking into the clay pipes over discussions with Marek Lewcun. We have a small fund (managed by Nick Corcos) that I have built up over many years, mainly on the back of the lectures I gave to societies, museums, and organisations about Time Team, Shapwick, and other topics. The donations from these events will eventually run out, of course, but at present they enable us to pay for expertise and advice where necessary, as well as other expenses such as radiocarbon dating.

A finds surgery in Winscombe Community Centre, where items found in people’s gardens are identified, photographed, and catalogued.

We have received a small grant from the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) towards the cost of equipment and materials. Mick was told we could apply for Heritage Lottery money — indeed, he was encouraged to do so by the Heritage Lottery Fund in Exeter. In the event, we were then advised that we would be ineligible because work had already started. I also wonder if this is because it is a research project led by myself, Teresa, Maria and others, and therefore not truly generated by the local community itself. If this is an unfavourable factor there is a certain irony to it. A project with little direction or expertise, but which is entirely run by locals probably would have attracted funds, although the quality of the research and indeed any published results might end up being far less authoritative.

As in most parishes in England, work of one form or another had already taken place in Winscombe, and it was going to be important to round up as much information as possible on any earlier finds or excavations that had taken place. One of the methods we employed to do this was to hold surgeries in the village hall to which locals could bring pottery and other finds from their gardens. This would supplement the pottery distribution picture we would be creating through test-pitting and our own garden collection policy.

So, now that we have covered the genesis of the project and the area it would explore, it is time to look at how our research has progressed and evolved.

This article was published in issue 276 of Current Archaeology.

Click here to read our  exclusive interview with Mick Aston  – published in  CA  271

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