All posts by Gerry Palmer

Pottery Analysis from Warren Woods –

Pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn
Pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn

(extracted from) Paul Blinkhorn’s Report to AiM

The pottery assemblage comprised 296 sherds with a total weight of 4229g.  It comprised a mixture of Iron Age and medieval fabrics, indicating that there were two entirely separate phases of activity at the site, one in the Early Iron Age (C9th – 5th century BC), and the other in the early 12th – early 13th century.


The following fabric types were noted:
F1:  Sand and Flint.  Moderate to dense sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm, most 0.2mm or less.  Sparse angular white flint up to 1mm, some carbonized organic material.  94 sherds, 2423g.

Sherds from the 5-9th century BC Iron Age 300 mm diameter pot
Sherds from the 5-9th century BC Iron Age 300 mm diameter pot

F2:  Coarse flint.  Moderate to dense angular white flint up to 2mm. Moderate to dense sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm, most 0.2mm or less, some carbonized organic material.  6 sherds, 51g.

F3:  Fine flint.  Rare to sparse sub-angular flint up to 0.5mm, sparse to moderate sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm, most 0.2mm or less, some carbonized organic material.  Thin-walled, burnished vessels.  4 sherds, 17g.

 A cross-section across the Iron Age pit in Trench 6, where the pot was found
A cross-section across the Iron Age pit in Trench 6, where the pot was found

F4:  Shell.  Sparse shell fragments up to 5mm, sparse sub-rounded quartz up to 0.5mm.  Most of the calcareous inclusions had dissolved.  2 sherds, 36g.

The range of fabric types is typical of the Iron Age pottery of the region, and can be paralleled at a number of sites, such as George Street, Aylesbury (Allen and Dalwood 1983) and Oxford Road, Stone (Last, 2001).  Trench 6 produced all but three sherds of the Iron Age pottery from the site.  Most of it consisted of plain bodysherds from different vessels, but all but two sherds from Trench 6, context 3, were from a single vessel.  The pot in question is a large jar (rim diameter = 300mm, 20% complete) which was partially reconstructed, and had a fingertipped rim and two rows of fingertip impressions on the outer body between the rim and shoulder.  It is in reasonably good condition, although all the sherds are slightly abraded.  The fabric is very soft however, so the attrition seems most likely to be due to bioturbation rather than redeposition via human activity.  A large area of the lower body was also reconstructed, and it seems very likely that more of the vessel is stratified beyond the limits of the trench.  The rim-form and decoration is very typical of the pottery of the Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age period in the south of England (Knight 2002), and suggests a date of the 9th – 5th century BC for the assemblage.


Glazed tile  found on site  - dates are possibly slightly later than the dates of the associated pottery
Glazed tile found on site - dates are possibly slightly later than the dates of the associated pottery

The medieval assemblage was recorded using the coding system of the Milton Keynes Archaeological Unit type-series (e.g. Mynard and Zeepvat 1992; Zeepvat et al. 1994), as follows:

MS3:      Medieval Grey Sandy Wares.  Mid 11th – late 14th century.  188 sherds, 1662g.
MS9:      Brill/Boarstall Ware.  1200-?1600.  1 sherd, 36g.
TLMS3:  Late Medieval Reduced Ware.  Mid 14th – early 16th century.  1 sherd, 4g.

The pottery occurrence by number and weight of sherds per context by fabric type was included by Paul but is too detailed to include here. Each date should be regarded as a terminus post quem.  The bulk of the medieval pottery occurred in Trenches 6, 7 and 8.
Most of the pottery comprised unglazed, sand-tempered wares which can all be regarded as part of the fabric MS3, Medieval Grey Sandy Ware tradition of Buckinghamshire.  It

Animal bone found on site
Animal bone found on Warren Wood site

would also appear that it is mainly is of fairly local manufacture, as the fabric very similar to that of medieval wares from kiln-sites at Great Missenden (Ashworth 1983; Blinkhorn in press) and Denham (McCarthy and Brooks, 1988, 293).  A few sherds were noted with vertical or diagonal incised decoration on the outer bodies.  This is typical of the so-called ‘M40 Ware’ tradition (Hinton 1973).  Such pottery was manufactured at the Denham kiln, and also at Camley Gardens, Maidenhead (Pike 1965).  The Denham scored sherds are dated to the early 12th century in London (Vince 1985, 37), although the kiln itself produced an archaeomagnetic date for its final firing of AD1250 +/-20 (McCarthy and Brooks 1988, 293).  The Camley Gardens wares usually have noticeable flint in the fabric, which the sherds from this site lack, so Denham seems the most likely source of the scored wares, and it is entirely possible that some of the plain sandy wares also come from that source.  All the rimsherds in MS3 were from jars, and there were no obvious jug sherds anywhere amongst the assemblage.  This is a trait more typical of the earlier part of the medieval period, jugs are much more common in the later part of that era.

The largest group, from Trench 7 Context 3, is in good condition and the sherd size is fairly large.  A number of vessels in the group are represented by more than one sherd, and the group appears to be the result of primary deposition, suggesting that there was medieval occupation in the immediate vicinity of the trench.

The only pottery which can be definitely dated to the 13th century is the fragment of Brill/Boarstall ware from Trench 1 Context 1.  Such wares are usually very common on sites of the 13th – 14th century in Buckinghamshire.  For example, this was the case at George Street, Aylesbury (Yeoman 1983), and suggests that activity at Warren Wood did not extend much beyond the beginning of the 13th century.  In addition, glazed London Wares, which are known from sites in High Wycombe (eg. Thompson 2009) from the mid-late 12th century onwards, and Surrey Whitewares, which are common at places such as Maidenhead from the second quarter of the 13th century onwards (eg. Whittingham 2002, 89) are also absent, which reinforces this suggestion.  The single sherd of TLMS3, dated to the 14th century, seems likely to be a stray find.

It would appear therefore that the medieval activity at this site was from the early 12th to the early 13th century, and may have started in the late 11th century.

The four “inner enclosure” trenches at Warren Wood superimposed on our topographical and resistance surveys
The four “inner enclosure” trenches at Warren Wood superimposed on our topographical and resistance surveys

Hardicanut’s Moat in Burnham Beeches and a Speculative Parallel with Warren Wood

Local folklore has it that Hardicanut (Canute’s son and the king of England from 1040 to 1042, also known as Harthacnut) had, as one of his lodges, the intriguing double enclosure in the woods at Burnham Beeches.  After all it’s called Hardicanut’s Moat (as well as Harlequin’s palace and Hartley court).

I would like to talk a little about this intriguing Viking king, but first it is interesting to look at the double enclosure itself, as there are good physical parallels between it and our dig at Warren Wood (albeit on a smaller scale as our entire enclosure is roughly the size of their inner enclosure).  The date range for the construction of both enclosures is the same (see Warren Wood news and article).

Hardicanut’s Moat lies in ancient woodland that was probably once a part of the Royal Windsor forest; the inner enclosure covers one and a half acres, and the outer another eight.  The outer moat and ditch form a somewhat wonky fat diamond shape and the inner enclosure is sub-rectangular and sits at an angle to it.

Hardicanute's moat in Burnham Beeches
After DD and MM Miller, Records of Bucks 1978

The inner enclosure’s ditch is broken by a few gaps, though these are probably not original.  No buildings have been found within the enclosure (but as it is scheduled they may simply not have been found yet).  However, the inner enclosure is divided by several banks and it has been suggested that one may exist between two of these.  There is also evidence of a well (though I couldn’t spot it with the naked eye) and a suggestion of a second building (possibly a kitchen / brew / bake house) nearby.

There are other slightly raised areas, which may be building platforms.
Pottery and building materials are common and easy to spot laying on the surface (especially around the entrance way).  But, sadly these are modern, some probably dating from a local 19th century pottery kiln and others even more recent, from the time the Beeches was used as a vehicle depot for the D-day landings.

Hardicanute’s Moat
Hardicanute’s Moat - taken before the clean up

The ditches and banks of the outer enclosure are much smaller and in poorer condition than those of the inner.  They are believed to have enclosed an area to keep domestic animals, probably pigs and deer, as well as an area for vegetables or grain.  Evidence implies that much of the degradation of the outer banks and ditches has been in the last hundred years.

This leads to the obvious speculation that the outer enclosure at Warren Wood could also have been used for animals or crops.  Warren Wood’s inner enclosure, with its mass of flint and roof tiles, as well as its pottery is an obvious parallel to the probable dwelling in the Burnham Beeches inner enclosure.

Hardicanut’s moat is believed to date from between C12th and C14th, which ties in neatly with the new 12th to early 13th century pottery dates from Warren Wood.  This was the golden age of building moated houses – though surprisingly they were often a fashion item rather than for defence.  There are literally dozens of them in Buckinghamshire, two more lie within Burnham parish alone.

Sadly the date puts the enclosure around two hundred years after the death of Hardicanut, and so it seems that local folklore has played us false!  However, Park Lane lies just 100 metres west of the enclosure and, together with Green Lane and it formed the boundary between Burnham and Dorney.  Green, in a boundary name, is said to derive from the Old English Gemaere and indicates a Saxon origin.  So it is still, just, possible that there is a link to a time before our Viking after all!

This tenuous link was enough to set me off on the trail of Hardicanut, though I no longer believe he had a hunting lodge nearby.  Anyone who has the bad taste to die while making a toast at a wedding, is always interesting to investigate!

Hardicanut – King of England

Coin of Hardicanut
Coin of Hardicanut

Having dispelled the local story that Hardicanut ever lived in Burnham Beeches, I have to say that this is a good thing as, unlike his father Cnut (also spelled Canute) he and his brothers were not pleasant people.  When Hardicanut became king he had his half-brother’s (Harold) body disinterred from Westminster, publicly beheaded, thrown in a sewer, retrieved and then thrown into the Thames.

To be fair, Harold had not only usurped his place as king of England, but had tricked their younger brother, Prince Alfred, into capture and had six hundred of his men barbarously tortured and killed.  Alfred was then stripped naked, tied to a horse, taken from Guildford to the Isle of Ely, where his eyes were torn out and he died miserably a few days later.

Hardicanut was the son of Cnut and Emma of Normandy (who had previously been married to Æthelred the Unready and had held out against Cnut’s invasion after her husband died).  Though Hardicanut was made King of Denmark when his father died, it is unclear why he didn’t also become King of England, though it is possible that it was arranged for him to rule south of the Thames while his brother Harold would reign to the north.  Certainly the penny coin shown supports this as it was struck around at this time.  However, Harold became overall regent.

Hardicanut meeting Magnus of Norway
Hardicanut meeting Magnus of Norway

Fear of invasion from Magnus of Norway probably kept Hardicanut away from England, and two years later in 1037,Harold was accepted by the English as their king.  Having come to an agreement with Magnus, Hardicanut and his mother Emma planned an invasion of England but delayed it as Harold became ill and died.

Hardicanut was welcomed to England with open arms, (probably because he came backed with 62 warships at a time when the English navy had only 16!)  However, as these “peaceful” invaders needed payment, a geld of £21,000 was levied – a huge sum of money for the times.

Although the English were used to a king ruling with a council, Hardicanut ruled as a ruthless and feared autocrat.  He caused great hardship in 1041 by increasing taxes in order to to double the size of the navy at a time of a poor harvest.  His tax gatherers were so harsh that people in Worcester rioted and killed them.  Hardicanut reacted by imposing the legal but unpopular punishment of “harrying” and ordered his earls to burn the town and kill the population. Fortunately most fled.

After a reign of just two years Hardicanute died from a seizure at a riotous drinking bout in Clapham to celebrate the marriage of the daughter oh his Thane, Osgod Clapa. Collapsing whilst making a toast, he never spoke again and died a few days later.  As he had never married and had no children, he was succeeded by another half-brother, Edward the Confessor, restoring the Saxon line for the next quarter of a century.  Hardicanute was buried at Winchester Cathedral where he still lies along with both Cnut and his mother Emma.

By Gerry Palmer

Why is there a Neolithic Channel Islands monument in Henley? – and other questions

Archaeological conferences come up with some odd things, few more so than one on the Prehistory of the Channel islands that I just attended. The “Big Question” was to try to fix one of the “Big Problems” in Archaeology – why did the start of the Neolithic age take around 1200 years to cross the Channel from France to the UK? A smaller question was “Why is there large a Neolithic Channel Islands tomb in Henley?”

Mont de la Ville
Mont de la Ville in Henley

On the outskirts of Henley, just past the drive to Templecombe, is a thick hedge. 150 yards behind this, on private land, is a very impressive and totally genuine Neolithic Passage Grave from around 3,000 BC. There is only one tiny thing wrong with it – it was moved from Jersey lock, stock and standing stone, in the late eighteenth century.

On 12th August 1785, the militia was levelling a hilltop to act as a parade ground, in an area that was later to become Fort Regent, in the strategically placed capital of St Helier. The soldiers “discovered” a megalithic monument that came to be called the “Mont de la Ville”. (Actually, although this story has been generally accepted, it turns out that a Philip Morant read a paper about this tomb to the Society of Antiquaries in 1761, nearly twenty five years earlier!)

At that time General Marshall Conway was retiring after spending several years as the Lieutenant Governor of Jersey. The islanders decided to present him with the tomb, which was thought to be a Druid temple, as an unique gift of gratitude. Upon discovering that he would have to transport it at his own expense, he was somewhat reticent to accept. Indeed it was only when Horace Walpole wrote to him, “Pray do not disappoint me but transport the Cathedral of your island to your domain on our continent,” that he finally agreed.

In March 1788 the stones were taken up the Thames to Conway’s house outside Henley and the monument was re-erected on a hill overlooking the river. The tomb consists of a covered passage leading into a circular unroofed chamber with a number of cists, each with a capstone, arranged around the edge. No known prehistoric finds were uncovered at the site during the removal.

HERM & the Neolithic Question

It is easy to see why people would be interested in the Channel Islands – they were a half way along several of the main trade routes between France and the UK. The timing of Neolithic changes there could nudge us in the direction of an answer. Indeed, that’s why two of the UK’s most senior archaeologists – Professor Barry Cunliffe (Oxford) and Professor Chris Scarre (Durham) have been working there for many years.

  Neolithic Tomb,  Herm
Neolithic Tomb, Herm

One of the most interesting papers at the conference covered an excavation of some of the 16 Neolithic tombs on the tiny Isle of Herm. The excavations also covered the ground between tombs, where the team found a large and very clear area of ard marks (from ancient ploughing) traced in the soil. Some of the tombs are very early and include pottery from the late 5th Millennium BC. Surprisingly, none of them show much resemblance to tombs from the same period across the water in France. Indeed some seem to be unique. I visited Herm back in 2002 and 2004 and the photo shows one of the unusual tombs we found there.

The conference also covered the finds and provisional conclusions from other excavations, covering several islands over the last few years. The most recent discovery had been made just five days before! Two tentative conclusions were drawn, though only one related directly to the Neolithic question:-

The Neolithic didn’t happen overnight, nobody woke up one day and decided to give up hunter-gathering for farming. It was a slow and gradual process, with different aspects, such as arable farming, livestock domestication, permanent settlement, pottery production and social changes all happening at different times. This created a wide blurring over time and implies that the Neolithic question is perhaps too simplistic to have a meaningful answer.

This led to a profound second thought on the basic process of archaeology, where many theories have become widely accepted only to change completely on the basis of a few new finds. So, perhaps the amount of evidence we have, which is often based on chance and unrepresentative excavations in too few places, creates a limit on how accurate any conjectures might be. This highlighted the fact that any current answer to the Neolithic Question was probably formed on far too little evidence to be sound. Indeed the evidence that was used to pose the question in the first place may not be too sound either!

By Gerry Palmer

Finds identification

This is a list of simple hints and tips that can be used for identifying and dating some objects. Lack of space sadly means lack of supporting photos.  These tips are not absolute – but they are helpful.

Palaeolithic Neanderthal hand axePalaeolithic Neanderthal hand axes are subtriangular as in the photo – they date before 40K BC.

Mesolithic Tranchet axeTranchet axe: This shape is typical, in the UK they date from the Neolithic (after ~2500 BC) and Mesolithic (~12-2.5K BC). Mesolithic ones are likely to have the end cut off at an angle. Much earlier and cruder ones are found (Acheulian period) in Africa (~1.5Ma).

Neolithic polished Axe from MarlowPolished Axes: These work extreemly well as axes, they date from the Neolithic.  This example was found in Marlow.

Ceramics: are made from Earthenware (like a flowerpot) or stoneware (smoother, heavier and much harder) Stoneware dates from 16th Century onwards.

Bellarmine jarBellarmine jars (they have a grotesque face on them) date from after 1550 and become more common after 1600.

Wheel-thrown potteryWheel-thrown pottery (as opposed to coiled and smoothed) dates from either from the late Iron Age (Belgic) or from the 13th Century onwards. You can almost always see traces of the coils in non-thrown pottery.

Pottery inclusions: If local pottery inclusions are shelly they are usually from North Bucks. If inclusions are flinty it is Prehistoric. Roman inclusions were sand or (sometimes) shell. If the inclusions are grass, vegetable or grog (broken pot) it is Saxon – and the pottery will look and feel very grotty and like a soggy digestive biscuit!

Pot shape: Neolithic bowls usually have rounded bases, sometimes with a little lip at the top and occasionally two or four lugs for suspension. Medieval pots often have saggy bottoms (just like some from Warren Wood!)

Beaker potteryBeaker pottery usually accompanied a burial or cremation. They were well made and often had a herringbone pattern. Circa 2.5 – 1.5K BC. The shape in the photo is typical.

Pottery colour: This is usually a red-herring – it depended more on the firing than the date and should usually be ignored.

Pottery shape – see the Ashmolean website for an excellent section on this – then change the 1 to a 2 – 9 for more.

Samian WareRoman Samian Ware: around half of all pots have a potters identification mark. It often has a foot ring and no inclusions.

Brill Ware  Brill Ware handle(Close up of slashing in handle) Brill Ware: impressive part glazed jugs, usually green or white and often with stabbing / slashing on the handles. 13th -14th Century.

Glaze: If it is glazed it is from the 13th Century onwards (though there is some very rare Roman glazed pottery). If there is glaze inside a pot usually dates from 13th – 15th century.

Pot rims: Medieval rims are usually flat topped, Roman rims are usually curved.

Hieroglyphs: – probably Egyptian, but also found on tourist tat!

By Gerry Palmer

All photographs are of the collections in Buckinghamshire County Museum

Elizabeth’s Well at Bisham

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

Not far from the roar of traffic on the A404 Marlow by-pass above is the neglected site of a once important part of our local history. Elizabeth’s Well at Bisham carries the name of the Tudor Princess who spent some years confined at Bisham Abbey in her youth before she ascended to the throne. One may safely assume that this local example of a holy well would have already been ancient before it ever acquired the name of the Virgin Queen however.

Holy wells were frequently pagan sacred sites that had later become Christianised.* It is likely that the place where the spring that emerges from the chalk through a natural arch of tree roots on Bisham hill would have been venerated for hundreds of years, maybe far back into the Celtic past. There is evidence of brickwork around the spring, but this is now in a poor state of repair, showing how this place of significance has become neglected.

Elizabeth’s Well
Elizabeth’s Well

An early mention of the well at Bisham occurs in 1338 when its fame for cures had begun to spread across the county. Springs acquired reputations for particular healing qualities and Bisham’s well became renowned for curing eye conditions.

Much folklore grew around these locations and ceremonies or rituals were often centred on holy well sites. At Bisham a tame bird and a hermit were said to live in the tree next to the well. The miraculous nature of the cures claimed for the well attracted the attention of the 14th century Bishop Erghum of Salisbury who had a manor house not far away at Sonning. Concerned at the attention this location was attracting, and deeming it to be a threat to Mother Church, the Bishop had the spring filled in with stones and the tree associated with the well cut down. The power of the common people prevailed, however, and some ‘sons of the devil’, as they were described at the time, from Marlow and High Wycombe soon restored the well to use.

Some of the brickwork around Elizabeth’s Well
Some of the brickwork around Elizabeth’s Well

Piers Compton, the historian of Bisham Abbey writing in the 1970s, reported that people within living memory still attributed healing powers to the waters that bubble out at Elizabeth’s Well. Analysed in 1905, it appears that the spring water’s qualities match those of well-known spas. The field in which it stood had even once taken the name of Holy-well. Today, an ancient oak tree towers massively over the site of the spring, perhaps a successor to the tree that was deliberately felled. The oak, of course, was sacred to the Druids. One sees in this tree and the neglected well both a link with the distant past and a lingering belief in the curative nature of holy water down the ages.

Please note that Elizabeth’s Well is on private land.

by Jeff Griffiths

*The characteristics of such places have been described in an earlier AiM Newsletter. See Holy? – Well, Well, Well! by Gerry Palmer, AiM Newsletter April 2011.

The Story of Bisham Abbey by Piers Compton was first published by Thames Valley Press in 1973.

Some intriguing links with paranormal activity and folklore associated with wells, including that at Bisham, are recounted at

Desborough – the Castle on the Hill

Desborough Castle with lynchet in the foreground
Desborough Castle with lynchet in the foreground

Desborough Castle is a little-visited scheduled ancient monument on the edge of a housing estate on the south side of the Wye Valley, between West Wycombe and High Wycombe. From the castle there is a steep drop into the valley below, and so it has clear views in both directions along the valley. The Golden Ball, with its associated Iron Age camp, can clearly be seen, as can the town of High Wycombe. The site has been used for thousands of years and the valley has been an important routeway through the Chilterns from at least the Bronze Age.

The inner bank with the author at the top for scale
The inner bank with the author at the top for scale

Today, the main part of the monument is not, as widely believed, the remnants of a hillfort, but is a medieval ringwork castle with an east-facing entrance. A large 12 feet deep ditch and a 16 foot high bank run right around the area, which is now covered in trees. A lynchet in the open area around it runs roughly parallel to the ringwork defences and follows the contours of the hill. Part of the castle was excavated in 1968 by C. Saunders, who found the ploughed-out remains of large rampart and ditch fortifications. However, although the excavation was unable to date the lynchet, it is probably Late Bronze or Early Iron Age due to its construction and size, and so these are probably the remains of a Bronze or Iron Age hillfort.

A variety of chance finds in and around the castle gives us some idea of how long people have been using the area. The oldest is a Mesolithic flint axe, but other worked flints have been found both on the surface and during a 1987 dig that excavated the area in front of the entrance (Records of Bucks vol 30). The flints date to the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. Most finds from the dig were medieval but some were a surprise, such as Roman roof tiles and pottery, which imply there may be a yet undiscovered Roman building nearby.

The dig concentrated on the level ground between Rutland Avenue and Booker Lane. Five trenches were dug and under deep plough soil they found a variety of earthworks, including a 5m wide ditch and postholes from a simple farm building. Also uncovered was a large linear feature that was 12m wide and at least 2.75m deep. The diggers couldn’t reach the bottom for safety reasons but, although unconfirmed, it seems likely that it was a massive ditch that protected the area on its weakest side by cutting off the spur of the hill to form an outer bailey. On the west and north sides the ground falls steeply into the valley below.

Over the years other unusual artefacts have been uncovered, including two Greek coins. One, a gold coin bearing the image of Phillip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father), was donated to the British Museum. The other was a bronze coin from Ambracia (a Corinthian colony in western Greece), dating between 238 and 168 BC. An Iron Age brooch and a Roman coin were also found but perhaps the largest discovery of all was referred to by Delafield in 1743 as “an entire stone window frame like in ancient churches”. All traces of this window have disappeared, as has any building surrounding it. Delafield also reported that in the interior of the ringwork there were foundations, bricks and medieval roof tile. Mr Watts in the 1950s also saw foundations and a tile hearth within the earthwork. Today, nothing can be seen amongst the trees and undergrowth.

It was Delafield who first mentiond the name Desborough Castle – previously it was simply known as “the Roundabout”. Desborough, however, was the name of the original Saxon Hundred and the castle site has been identified as the moot or meeting place for the Hundred court. Indeed it has been suggested that the small remaining mound on the west side of the castle, which was subsequently cut across by the ringwork ditch, was the mound used as the moot. There is the possibility that it is also the remains of a Bronze Age barrow.

All that remains of the possible moot mound at Desborough Castle
This small bump is all that remains of the possible moot mound at Desborough Castle

The castle lay in the manor of West Wycombe and was occasionally mentioned in the manorial rent records. In 1350 “John ate Castel” died there from the pestilence and in 1389 there were tenements in Dustleburgh. Other names for the area were Chasteleye, Castle field, Castel Garden and Dusteburgh Meadow.

It seems that the ringwork was built in the Norman period and it may have been a siege castle at the time of the Anarchy (the Civil War between Stephen and Matilda 1135-1154). However, the earliest pottery found dates to the early 12th century – later than one would expect if it was contemporary with the construction of the Castle. As it was part of the manor of West Wycombe it would have been owned by the Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and King Stephen’s brother and greatest ally. He is known to have built seven castles during 1138 and Desborough could easily have been one of them. It must have been an impressive sight perched up on the hillside with its massive ditch and bank, presumably topped by a palisade.

From the records it is known that Stephen was “apud Wycumbam in obsidione” (i.e. “in the siege at Wycumbam”) at some time during the Civil War. It is most likely that he was there to lay siege to the motte on Castle Hill, which belonged to Brian Fitz Count, one of Matilda’s most important supporters. From the hillside Stephen and his followers were in an ideal position to control the valley and the road to Oxford and Wallingford, as well as to observe the activities in Maud’s Wycombe castle.

dapted from Bucks Records,  the southern extent of the site is unknown and under housing
dapted from Bucks Records, the southern extent of the site is unknown and under housing

The archaeological dig, the manorial records and the Pipe Rolls (the records of the Royal exchequer) seem to indicate that the castle was abandoned in the early thirteenth century. The animal remains and the pottery found show the occupants were high status, as does the evidence for large buildings within the ringwork, but nothing can be certainwithout further excavation.

Finally, as the castle became ruinous the outer defences were deliberately filled in to provide arable land for a local farmer – and they were used this way until the demand for homes became overwhelming and much of the area was covered with housing. Fortunately, the castle and the grassy slope have been left as open space for us to enjoy and explore.

by Rose Palmer

A Guided Walk around Hurley

A well-attended walking tour of Hurley was held for the Marlow Society Local History Group on 5th July. It began at the Olde Bell hotel, which lays claim to being the oldest hostelry in continuous use in the country, having originally been the guest house of Hurley Priory. While it carries the date 1135 above the front entrance, the buildings seen today date from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Hurley mapAll four sites visited on the walk were once part of the Benedictine Priory, whose foundation around 1086 was arguably the most significant event that has happened to Hurley. This riverside village has a colourful history. As well as the many visitors that the Priory’s guest house, with its proximity to Windsor and London, would have attracted over its 450 years of existence, the village shared a racy reputation with Maidenhead in the early 20th century.

Giulio Trapani, the owner of the famed Skindles hotel in Maidenhead, the focus for the ‘fast set’ who would travel out from London to cavort at these riverside locations, later became the patron at the Olde Bell, which also attracted its own bevy of celebrity figures over the years. Another owner was a Mr Brock of the Brock Fireworks Company, who also owned the well-known Mirabelle nightclub in London. On the front of the hotel are the entwined letters O and W, the monogram of Lt.-General Owen Williams, who had also once owned the Olde Bell. The Williams family were the ‘Copper Kings’ who resided at the now-demolished Temple House close to the village. Owen Williams was an Equerry to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and he and other family members abetted this royal’s wayward lifestyle.

Hurley played a significant role in World War II. US Naval Intelligence and other American units were based in the village, which also housed British General Post Office personnel looking after vital telecommunications links. Just across the Thames is Danesfield House, home to the aerial reconnaissance interpretation centre. A BBC documentary first screened earlier this year, ‘Operation Crossbow’, showed how 3D photos, analysed at what was for many years known as RAF Medmenham, thwarted Hitler’s weapons of mass destruction at the end of WWII. Churchill and Eisenhower are both reputed to have stayed in the village over the course of the war.

Ladye Place Crypt
Ladye Place Crypt

The second location visited was the old Ladye Place crypt. It was originally the crypt to the Priory and, following its dissolution in 1536, a fine Tudor mansion called Ladye Place was erected on the same site. The crypt is mentioned in Macaulay’s History of England as a centre where conspirators met to ensure the succession to the throne of William of Orange in the ‘Bloodless Revolution’ of 1688. William of Orange and George III both visited this crypt where commemorative tablets record this significant event in England’s history.

It has traditionally been believed that an underground tunnel runs between the Olde Bell and the site of the Priory. Macaulay himself mentions that the anti-Catholic plotters against James II would enter the Ladye Place crypt via a tunnel from the riverside to avoid detection. The author of this article knows of a number of accounts of villagers exploring this tunnel system. A member of the tour party, who was raised at Hurley House, right next door to the Olde Bell, told how family members had entered the tunnel below this property via a trap door. All the accounts suggest that the tunnel’s dimensions required explorers to crawl along it. A photograph of the tunnel hangs in the bar of the Olde Bell next to an inglenook. Beside the fireplace is a door that reputedly once gave access to the tunnel. The author believes from his investigations as an archaeological dowser that there are, in fact, two separate tunnels running from the Olde Bell to the site of the former Priory (see map).

The parish church was also visited. Its long narrow nave, with mainly Norman windows and doorways, is a remnant of the Priory church. It contains a tomb to members of the Lovelace family, the lords of the manor after the dissolution of the Priory. Sir Richard Lovelace had sailed with Sir Francis Drake and greatly improved his mansion, erected in 1545, with his share of the Spanish booty. There are also memorials to later lords of the manor, the Clayton Easts of Hall Place, now the Berkshire College of Agriculture. If ever a family seemed to be cursed, it was the owners of Hall Place. Among the litany of premature deaths in the family, one was drowned off the Isle of Wight in 1866. Ten days later his brother also died and their joint funeral was held at Hurley church where a monument commemorates this sad event.

DovecotWe then had access to the Refectory and the Cloisters, two private houses behind the church. We were shown the soaring roof of the former frater range and the extensive grounds to the rear of the church, a building that once extended a further 90 feet when the Priory existed. Here is also to be found the old monastic fish pond and a remaining portion of moat on which Nicholas Straussler, a Hungarian-born inventor and former resident of the Refectory, tested models of the amphibious tank that was used in the D-Day landings at Normandy. Also of interest within these grounds is the pillared water gate of the original Ladye Place. While this Tudor mansion – one of the finest in the county – had been pulled down by 1838, another large house which took the same name was later erected close by. This was purchased in 1924 by Colonel Rivers-Moore, a retired Royal Engineer, who determined to undertake archaeological investigations as the old Priory site had hardly ever been touched. He was particularly intrigued by the prospect of finding the tomb of Editha, Edward the Confessor’s sister, whose ghost, the Grey Lady, was supposed to haunt the place. By good luck, a dry summer revealed the outline of the old Lovelace mansion, which had stood on the remains of Hurley Priory, and trial excavations started. It’s reputed that family members then began to have visions of a monk instructing them where to make discoveries and that they held séances to seek guidance as to where they should dig, work that was carried out between 1930-1938.

The group also looked at the circular dovecote and two large barns dating from around the fourteenth century to the west of the church. The one now turned into a private, walled residence, Tithecote Manor, is reputed to have been refurbished with York stone slabs from Blitz-damaged London streets.

An article on ‘Hurley’s Hidden History which provides a fuller account of the village, can be found on the Archaeology in Marlow website at

A version of the above article was written for the Marlow Society Summer Newsletter, Number 87, August 2011. Its author has also provided the accompanying photographs.

By Jeff Griffiths

Horse and Coach routes from and to Marlow

Following the AiM Walk on Sunday the 13th of March, AIM has conducted some research that provides a few more pieces in the jig-saw.

In the last AiM newsletter we speculated on various possible coach routes that might have left Marlow bound for Oxford and/or High Wycombe and vice-versa. These routes were from Chapel Street to Seymour Court, via the Dell, through Henley, via Watlington, up the Wycombe road towards Handy Cross, along Berwick Road and Mundaydean Lane, until it joined the Lane End road south of Lane End and the along Oxford road towards Frieth.

Another possible route avoiding any hills, would have taken the Bourne End, Wooburn, Loudwater roads to High Wycombe.

Marlow Coach and horses

There are various directories at Wycombe library and the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies that throw a little light on transportation before automobiles. A selection is listed below.

1794 – The ‘Bye Post’ was a postal coach that travelled from Wycombe and arrived at the Upper Crown in Marlow at 9.00am.

1830 – Pigot’s Directory, “Thomas Hall’s Sociable’’ first left his House, then the White Hart Inn Henley, leaving for Wycombe, via Marlow, every Tuesday and Friday at 9 am.

1831/32 – Pigot’s Directory, ‘The Industry’, went from Wycombe to Reading, via Marlow (Red Lion, 8 o’clock, every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday) and Henley; ‘The Industry’ from Reading via Marlow (the Crown) to Wycombe arrived at 7 pm, every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

1831/32 – Pigot’s Directory, ‘Hall’s’ departed from the Falcon in Wycombe to Marlow and Henley every Tuesday and Friday afternoon; and Chs Busby departed from his house in Wycombe to Marlow every Wednesday and Saturday night.

1842 – Pigot’s Directory, ‘Loftin’s Van’, travelled from Marlow to Wycombe from the 3 Tuns and the Greyhound, Tuesdays and Fridays, about 11 am.

1847 – Kelly’s Directory, Omnibus from Henley to Wycombe, through Marlow, every Tuesday and Friday.

1850 – Slater’s Directory, an Omnibus from the Falcon Inn in Wycombe departed every Tuesday and Friday at 3 pm. via Marlow to Henley

We have also investigated main roads and toll roads. From the Jefferey’s map of 1766/68, a turnpike road existed from Marlow to High Wycombe along the Wycombe Road/Handy Cross route. This route also appears on the 1 inch OS map of the 1870s. The turnpike road to Wycombe, via Bourne End, Wooburn and Loudwater is present on the 1940/47 1 inch OS map, but not on the 1870s version.

Again if members (and non-members) have any additional information they would like to pass on, please let us know, so that we can build up and put together a better and more accurate record of Marlow transport before the age of the train and motor car.

Many thanks to Julian Hunt, the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Bath Postal Museum and Gerry Palmer for their help in furthering our research.

by John Laker

Into the Iron Age: 15 Years of the Silchester Roman Town Excavation project

Amanda Clarke, Field Director at Silchester and Research Fellow at Reading University, spoke to AiM on 24th January 2012, providing an excellent overview of this major excavation project.

Amanda explained the importance of the ‘Insula IX Town Life’ project, an excavation of a small part of the large Roman town at Silchester, which is situated between Reading and Basingstoke.  The Society of Antiquaries had first excavated the site between 1890 and 1909 using local labour.  The current project is using the latest techniques to trace the site’s development from its origins before the Roman Conquest to its abandonment in the fifth or sixth century A.D.

This is one of the UK’s most complex and long-running archaeological investigations having begun in 1997.  In these days when ‘short, sharp’ rescue archaeology predominates, such extended investigations at a single site are now very rare.  It’s envisaged that it might finally run to twenty years or more.  It is both a research and a training excavation, principally for Reading University’s students.

The Silchester site is one of the largest and best-preserved towns in the south of Britain with walls that still stand up to almost five metres high.  It is a ‘greenfield’ site, one of only half a dozen towns that has had no modern successor built upon it.  Silchester is wonderfully preserved and the site’s features lie relatively shallowly below the surface.

The project is also a major training scheme, which provides students with a basic knowledge of archaeological techniques and site research methods, as well as more general skills. The prospects for graduates of this discipline have changed greatly since the project’s beginnings in 1997.  Then, employment could readily be found in the many commercial units.  Now, it’s important to inculcate transferable skills, like team working and communication skills, which can assist the employability prospects of those enrolled on the Silchester Field School Training Module.  All students are also expected to ‘meet and greet’ the visitors that the site receives in large numbers with Open Days being held annually.  The site has received extensive media coverage including Time Team, Digging for Britain and The History of Celtic Britain.

The logistics of organizing the annual encampment of students and other voluntary helpers, now well over a hundred each season, were impressive.  We learned of the exponential growth from the four Portaloos in the beginning to the 56 now delivered annually to the site – and sympathized over the difficulties of competing demands for such facilities in the Queen’s Jubilee year!

Digital techniques, such as GPS, hand-held computers and video recording are now being increasingly deployed in this project.  A huge amount of data has been accumulated and at the core of their recording is their Integrated Archaeological Database, a bespoke product that has greatly assisted their ability to publish results in a timely way.  There is now also a Silchester Blog and Twitter account.

The interior of the walled settlement is divided into ‘Insulae’ and the project has concentrated on examining only a small part of the site.  Insula IX was chosen  because it lies adjacent to the north-south and west-east principal thoroughfares that bisect the site.  The project seeks to discover how people lived in the town.  The Victorian excavators had thought Silchester was a classical ‘garden city’ but they had missed the evidence of the multitude of small workshops and structures that exist on the site.

Under the Roman town of Silchester there also lies an Iron Age settlement which was known as Calleva, the centre of the Atrebates tribe.  There are thought to be links with the ‘Age of Kngs’ in the late 1st century BC and early 1st century AD and three of these kings, Tincomarus, Eppillus and Verica, may have had Calleva as their base.  In 1893, the Victorian excavators had found a stone with an Ogham inscription (See the AiM Feb 2011 Newsletter).  Calleva already had strong trade links with the Continent and political allegiances to Rome before the Conquest.  While Roman Silchester is laid out with the typical N-S, W-E alignment, underlying this is the more diagonal Iron Age alignment which is based on the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset.

It appears that Calleva was a well-organised Iron Age town.  The earliest feature is a late 1st century BC Iron Age ditch.  Finds in the ditch could be military and might point to Caesar’s invasion.  There is also a large rectangular Iron Age building, not the traditional round house, which has a dog buried in one corner.

The site has no natural surface water and so there are numerous wells.  In these have been found four holed pots, perhaps evidence that they had been ritually disfigured.  Samian ware from Italy and France is also to be found together with amphorae in this period, providing evidence of Calleva’s trading links.

Invading forces put in a road with a north-south alignment through the settlement but it appears that the native population was not driven out, giving the town a hybrid character.  Professor Mike Fulford, the Academic Director for the site, is now reevaluating whether there was a military presence.  A military-type latrine has been found as have horse harnesses and pieces of armour.  Significant finds include a figurine of Harpocrates, the god of secrecy and silence, and an intaglio brooch stone with the figure of Minerva.  Early Roman buildings burnt down in the period 60 – 70 A.D. could be evidence of the Boudiccan rebellion.

For reasons unknown, Calleva was abandoned shortly after the end of the Roman era.  There is no evidence of a cataclysmic event.  Maybe the water supply ran out.  It has been suggested that the Saxons deliberately avoided Calleva after it was abandoned, preferring to maintain their existing centres at Winchester and Dorchester.  There was then a gap of perhaps a century before the twin Saxon towns of Basing and Reading were founded on rivers either side of Calleva.

The 16th season of work on Insula IX at the Roman town of Silchester will take place between 2 July and 12 August 2012.  For further information see  It is hoped that AiM will organise a visit to Silchester in the summer of 2012.
by Jeff Griffiths