There are certain winter mornings when you feel impelled to put the walking boots on and venture forth – the sky is clear and blue, the air clean and fresh, the ground a blanket of early morning frost and the Chiltern hills are at their most inviting. Thankfully, Sunday 2 December was just such a day as a small but select group of AIM members gathered at the church in Bradenham village to explore two of the local archaeological sites.
Our purpose was to visit Naphill Common and Park Wood to explore sites that have, at least on paper, some similarities with the enclosures at Warren Wood that we have been investigating and excavating over the last few years. By so doing, we hoped to be able to better understand Warren Wood as possibly part of a pattern of similar settlements across the Chiltern hills.
The site at Naphill Common (grid reference SU 8365 9687) consists of a simple rectangular enclosure approximately one kilometre east of the Bradenham church. It is reached quite easily via footpaths up a relatively steep incline from Bradenham village and is on open access land.
While it lacks the complexity of the double-enclosure structure of Warren Wood, the site at Naphill Common does have a number of similarities with the former – it is at a similar height above sea level, is of a similar size and is in dense, most likely old, woodland. It consists of a ditch with some remains of a slight rampart and, in places, both inner and outer banks. The archaeological finds there have included a portion of a broad swordblade, iron slag suggesting industrial activity at the site and Romano-British pottery sherds. There is a very helpful interpretation board (see photograph below) near the site covering the whole of Naphill Common that suggests the enclosure is Romano-British in origin, but other schools of thought argue it is more likely medieval given its rectangular form.
One of the more interesting features at the site – and notably lacking in our interpretation to date of Warren Wood – is a large dewpond next to one side of the enclosure.
The group located the site with relative ease, notwithstanding the prodigious quantities of mud on the footpath that presented something of a hurdle, and bravely fought their way through the undergrowth to follow the line of the bank and the ditch around the full extent of the enclosure. In truth, the outwardly mundane nature of the site means that it is unlikely ever to make it into anyone’s list of “top 10 places to visit in Buckinghamshire”. But for those who do venture off the path into the wood, it does pay dividends – at times the line of the bank is as clear as that at Warren Wood and the ditch occasionally surprisingly wide. All in all, the site serves as a useful reminder that such ancient enclosures are a common feature of this part of the Chilterns and that Warren Wood is far from being unique. Indeed, previous research in the 1990s by Andrew Pike identified potentially more than a dozen similar sites in the south Chilterns.
As an aside, Naphill Common is well worth a visit for other reasons – there are intriguing “clumps” of trees whose purpose remains a mystery and a wealth of flora around the common. Of particular mention must be the rare juniper tree near the enclosure site, joyfully identified by one of our more observant group members.
The site at Park Wood (SU 8265 9815) is an altogether different proposition. It is approximately one kilometre north of Bradenham and can again be reached with relative ease by footpaths from the village, although the final 100 metres or so involves a steep climb through dense and sometimes unforgiving woodland. Extensive archaeological investigations were undertaken here during the 1970s and are well-described in an article in Records of Bucks, 1979. There are a large number of small archaeological sites spread across a wide area towards the top of the slope in Park Wood. These can be located with relative ease in the woodland with the aid of a GPS system – however, on this occasion, the Chairman had unfortunately failed to charge the battery on his and the group had to resort to older forms of amateur orienteering in an attempt to interpret the site!
The site has been identified as the remains of a medieval homestead, probably dating from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. Amidst a complex series of banks, a number of buildings have been identified, most notably a raised rectangular house, approximately 5m wide and 10m long and with seemingly substantial flint walls (see photograph below).
Also recorded on the site are possible dewponds and potentially even a dovecote. The existence of the latter, alongside the nature of the pottery finds at the site, suggest some refinement, possibly even touches of luxury, in the lives of the occupants of the settlement. Other finds at the site have included tiles, iron objects, iron nails, copper alloy pan, slag and animal bones, all pointing to medieval occupation, as does the find of coin from 1205 or soon after.
There are strong similarities between the dating of the finds at Park Wood and the dating of some of the finds at Warren Wood which also point to medieval occupation at a very similar time. If nothing else, the clear existence of a medieval flint-walled dwelling at Park Wood should give us further hope that we may have found a similar building in our work to date at Warren Wood – and help to focus further our investigations next year and beyond.
It is also worth noting that it is possible that the dwelling at Park Wood was associated with hunting in the area. The name alone suggests the existence of a deer park in the vicinity and there are certainly records of the existence of one in Bradenham, albeit nothing that definitively predates the Tudor period. The investigations in the 1970s did also identify the potential boundary of a possible deer park surrounding Park Wood and much of the nearby area to the north and west of Bradenham village. All of which does leave open the possibility that the house at Park Wood was the dwelling of the local park-keeper, a theory that has also been put forward to explain the purpose of Warren Wood.
After much wandering through the wood, the group took great solace in finding many of the sites identified in the 1970s’ investigations – although there remained much confusion about whether they had found them all in anything like the right order! A further visit at some point in the future with the aid of a GPS might assist – but at least we know for sure now where the key medieval dwelling is located.
The journey back to Bradenham village was further enhanced by our resident flora expert (aka Gerry Platten) identifying what was undeniably an impressive fungal circle around a beech tree near the path – later identified as a collection of trooping funnels. In short, an educational and rewarding expedition on many levels!
So in summary, these two sites provide strong evidence that Warren Wood is far from unique as well as helping us with more clues as to its purpose(s). There are other sites in the vicinity that warrant similar investigations and we will therefore look into arranging further visits for some time in 2013.
by Andy Ford