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.


  1. We have a couple of burial mounds near the village of Oxton, realy want to visit them this summer.

  2. Thank you for these various gems, John. I enjoyed them.

  3. For us New World people, all the ancient remains in Britain are quite mind-boggling. A mound that's a burial site, a ditch dug by Romans - every view would raise questions and speculation. Canada is celebrating 150 years in 2017. Not quite the same.

  4. I love the story of the sheep washing. Your snippets are very interesting.

  5. Now those were some interesting tidbits of history. Obviously a lot of things in the British landscape are a lot older than you might think!

  6. I always come away from your posts feeling humbled about my minuscule knowledge of the places where I live.

  7. Hi John - I just loved reading your snippets or posts ... and am always grateful for the historical elements included in them ... and then the learning that's included - and old ways of our little country .. fascinating ...

    With thoughts to you and your mother - all the best - Hilary

  8. Thank you for one more interesting republishing. And "luckily" I had missed this one too :-)

  9. An interesting post, John! We have a number of burial mounds in the northeast of the Netherlands where we live. It's amazing if you realise how old they are.

  10. Another informative post John. I love reading them and appreciate all the effort you put in to posting and making it interesting. Thank you!
    I hope your mother is doing better.

  11. Hummocks on the Hillside gets my vote this post John, apart from the name.. Hummocks on the Hillside, which is pretty fun to say, just the fact that there used to be a village called Clopton in that very spot all those many years ago is fascinating! Hope Mum is doing ok John.

  12. I always love your posts...though this one I had to wait till this evening to read. Sometimes my mind is going haywire and I cannot focus enough to take in very much.

    I was sorry to hear your mother is ill.

  13. I forgot to say that I totally enjoyed the photos, too. Love that shallow pond.

  14. A fascinating post.
    Of course I read your text with my usual mix of interest, admiration and envy. Now why is our countryside so terribly boring? :)
    I'm trying to take care of my parents and can relate very well to your situation. (How many botanical gardens I would visit, if I was free to travel!)
    Keeping you and your mother in my thoughts.

  15. Very interesting stories. I liked the one about the poor sheep getting washed and then weighed down with wet wool. That is a bit sad.

  16. Fascinating, especially the sheep dip. Seeing them bob around on their backs would be entertaining, but not so much for the sheep. The building of the Fleam Dike by shovel must have been quite a feat. We live amongst the old rice fields here on coastal South Carolina which were all built with slave labor and it is unimaginable when you look out at the vastness of the canals, dikes, etc. that they built with shovels, tormented by insects, standing in mucky water, surrounded by snakes, alligators, and so on.

  17. These are some awesome historical places that you have found close to home. I love learning things in little snippets like this. Thanks for all the information.

  18. Wow you are so lucky to have all that history beside you! I watch shows on tv about such places and you can visit them! I wonder what it would be like to go back in time and see what it looked like then.

  19. I love the sheep wash story. The Mound on the Ground is interesting, I like that the farmers plough around it.

  20. I was wondering the other day how things were with you and then this post popped into my feed. Wonderfully fascinating, and beautifully photographed, as ever. Hope all goes well.

  21. A really interesting post, loved reading about the coprolite too at the end, so cool! I like digging back into older photos and re-visiting them again. I hope your Mother is doing OK as well, and that you're well yourself. Lovely photos and stories as always! - Tasha

  22. Interesting to see how you read the landscape. I often notice unusual features but usually am not very clear about what they might be. It's always a thrill when I realise.

  23. I keep checking to see if there is a post...I remember you were taking care of your mom. I hope things have not taken a turn for the worse.


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