Monday 9 January 2017

Digging The Countryside

My last post mysteriously re-publishing itself has set me thinking about other snippets that I've written in the past which might be worth re-visiting. At present I'm taking care of my mother and I'm not able to get out and about as much as usual, so this is also a way to keep putting the occasional post out there for your perusal and, I hope, entertainment and edification. For those who've read some of this before there's a bit more info on coprolites, or "dinosaur dung", at the end of the post.....

A Mound On The Ground

This neat little mound stands beside a footpath just a mile or so from my back door, though I was completely unaware of its existence till I was looking at a map of my local area. It's a burial mound constructed in the Bronze Age, probably for some local chieftain. These things were dotted all over the countryside at one time but many have disappeared beneath the plough. The farmers here have been dutifully ploughing around it for centuries. 

At one time it may have contained grave goods - earthenware pots and such like to help the dead person on their journey into the next world - though most of these mounds were excavated by enthusiastic archaeologists in the nineteenth century. You can find examples in almost any museum in the land.

Just A Ditch?

The Fens of North Cambridgeshire were once a large area of low-lying ground used for wildfowling, fishing and summer grazing. Despite their unpromising appearance they have been important to mankind since earliest times and many important archaeological sites have been discovered there recently - more of them some other time, I hope. 

The channel shown above is right on the edge of the Fens, one of the earliest areas to be drained. Its dead-straight course might make you think that it's a modern construction, but in fact it dates from the time when the Romans were occupying these islands. 

It not only served to drain the land but also acted as a canal allowing boats to bring goods in to the fen-edge villages. In fact pretty much all the drainage channels in the Fens are ruler-straight regardless of their age - you don't need to ask a mathematician or even a Roman engineer the shortest route between two points, any man armed with a shovel seems to know instinctively!

The Fleam Dyke

Stretching across the Cambridgeshire landscape for a distance of 5 Km, just over 3 miles, looking to the casual observer like an abandoned railway cutting is The Fleam Dyke. But it was actually constructed in at least three distinct phases between 330 AD and 620 AD and is a bank and ditch some 7 metres (23 feet) in height - an awful lot of men with shovels needed for that! 

As if that Herculean effort were not enough there are two less substantial linear earthworks to the south west and the even more massive Devil's Dyke stretching for some six miles to the east. All of them are thought to have been defensive lines constructed by the Anglo-Saxons of East Anglia against possible invasion by the Romano-British to the west.

To construct these huge defences must have taken a high degree of co-operation and organisation amongst the inhabitants. 

Hummocks On The Hillside

Just a short bike-ride from home there's the nearest thing we have to a hill around here and on it is a grassy meadow filled with hummocks and shallow trenches. Most people might pass by without comment but it's actually the site of the lost village of Clopton. Back in 1292 this place was large enough to have its own market, but numbers gradually dwindled till the land was sold off and the new owners reckoned sheep would be more profitable than people. The remaining villagers were evicted and the land laid down to pasture. 

An Odd-Looking Pond

In the little village of Harlton there's a large, oblong, shallow pond. In spring and summer it's an attractive, peaceful corner, though in the past it must have been a much busier place. There's a clue in the name of the lane, but just what was washed here?

Here's a description from of a similar task being undertaken in the valley of the River Thames:

"Near this ferry there is a sheep-wash;  the sheep-washing generally takes place about the end of May, before the summer shearing.  It is great fun to look on at this performance;  there are generally two pens above the wash, two divisions in the wash, and a large dripping-pen for the sheep as they come out.  At the wash at Ewelme the men seize the sheep by the wool,  and raising them up in the air, drop them on their backs into the water, where they float at first like huge corks;  very soon, however, nothing but their heads remains above.  They are progged along with sheep-hooks to a narrow place, on each side of which a man seizes them and ransacks their wool;  he then slips their heads underneath a bar, when they are allowed to swim away to the dripping ground.  On their first landing they stagger and fall with the immense weight of water carried in their wool;  but they soon get all right, and dry up beautifully white and clean.  The whole scene, with the dogs and men, is very lively and amusing."  - George Leslie Wallingford.

"Dinosaur Dung" - at last!

In my previous "accidentally published" post there was mention of the Coprolite mining rush of the nineteenth century. I'm not going to publish it for a third time (!) though you can read it here if you missed it.

But I did mention that these rounded phosphatic nodules which were mined from the fields around here were not actually dinosaur dung, as was first assumed, though I failed to say how they were formed for the very good reason that I'm not entirely sure! 

But though coprolites are found in other places which may well be dinosaur dung, our ones are not. Disappointing but true. Our Cambridgeshire ones are thought to have been formed by decaying matter on the floor of ancient oceans which then became embedded in later formations of clay. I've never found a clear account of this process though you can read about it here should you so desire:

Have fun.


Take care.

Friday 6 January 2017

Some Entertaining Lamp Posts

(I was updating some information on this post and for some reason it's re-published itself with today's date. I've no idea why it did that, or how to change it, so here (with apologies to those who've read it all before) is a rather ancient post for your delight!)

.....the world seems so amusing everywhere that it is hardly worthwhile to travel. When I start out for the ends of the earth, I am stopped on the road by an entertaining lamp post.....
                                                                                                                              G K Chesterton.

That seems to be my problem sometimes. I keep having to stop and investigate something that any normal person would pass by. Here are just a few more things that I have encountered on my travels.

The Clock Tower

A well-known feature of the Cambridgeshire village of Fenstanton. It started off as a Market Hall in the 17th century. Later the building was converted to the parish lock-up, that is a cell where local miscreants could be detained until they could be dealt with by the local magistrates or, where appropriate, until they'd sobered up! Can you imagine that? Being locked up with a big clock ticking above you and chiming every hour - when you've got a hangover! Now that's what I call making the punishment fit the crime. Now of course it's just used for telling the time, not doing time.

Ron's Farm Shop

Quite nearby the clock tower is this establishment selling locally-produced vegetables. No supermarket shelves ever looked this attractive. The doors at first floor level suggest that the building was originally a hayloft.

Digging for Dinosaur Dung??

Well, no, not quite. But that's what the men who dug this hole thought they were doing. In the mid-19th century 'coprolites' were discovered throughout a large part of Cambridgeshire. These were rounded nodules of rock which were high in phosphate and which occurred perhaps 8 to 20 feet below the surface. These rocks could be ground down to make an excellent artificial fertilizer. It was suggested that they must be fossilized dinosaur dung and the word "coprolite" was coined, derived from the Greek for "dung-stone". It was later proved that this was not their origin, but the idea has persisted.

The method of mining was to dig a deep trench, then to dig away at one side of the trench and fill in from behind - much the same as digging the garden but on a much larger scale. Gradually the trench crept across the field and the coprolites were removed. Once they'd reached the other side of the field, of course, nobody could be bothered to fill the trench in, so several water-filled trenches are still to be seen in the landscape today, though very few people know what they are.

The industry formed the basis of the agrochemical industry in this part of the world. But the coprolite mining itself ceased as quickly as it had begun when guano (seabird droppings) began to be imported from the tropics.

An Old Sign

Up on a wall, beside a narrow alley in Cambridge is this sign. It catches the eye of the occasional tourist though most walk straight past. The age of the sign is somewhat debatable; it's been repainted at least once in my memory. But the name of the lane is perhaps more interesting. It recalls the time when the women of Cambridge could earn extra money by doing the laundry for the colleges. Laundress Lane is one place where they worked. Nearby Laundress Green, now a riverside park, was where the washing was hung to dry.

Henry VIII's Wooden Leg

High above the entrance to Trinity College stands this statue of the founder of the college. Look closely - in his hand, instead of a mace, is a wooden chair-leg. It was put there many years ago by students intent on an end of term prank. More recently another group of students climbed up and replaced the chair-leg with a bicycle pump. The authorities took a very dim view of this and arranged for a replacement chair-leg to take its rightful place in the monarch's right hand.

Take care.