A report of the archaeological excavations over the last year by Peter Hobbs of Old St. Alban’s Court, Nonington
The very title at the head of this piece just shows our age. The Dover Archaeological Group began digging at Old St Albans Court about 1996 and having excavated there, proceeded onto two Anglo Saxon burial grounds, a C17 th brick making site, a C14 th manor house and its environs and an Anglo-Saxon chalk quarry. History is not something Nonington is short of and that is admirably conveyed on Clive Webb’s website in a multiplicity of articles. But was the Big Dig in Canterbury really last century? Time Team certainly seem a faint memory now..
The last time I wrote, I pointed out that Beauchamps Wood was full of trenches, that massive amounts of clay and flint had been excavated but we were still left with too many enigmas. Not a great deal has changed since. Of course, one has to remember that Beauchamps Wood is a late arrival on the scene, having been created as a coppicing wood only in the late 1790s by William Hammond of St Albans Court and before that the area was mostly reasonably open terrain similar to what is now Ruins Field.
The chalk quarry should have been very visible but it does not appear on even our earliest 1629 map nor is it identified as any sort of land marker in the earlier documents we have. We have established by digging the shape and extent of the perimeter and it was over two metres deep. So what happened? The evidence suggests that it was probably Anglo-Saxon and use seems abruptly to stop allowing weather to erode the sides and fill the interior. In the silt that accumulated naturally we have evidence of small hearths and early Norman pottery. Did Harold on his march back from his successes in York to Hastings in 1066 gather all the able bodied men available locally to supplement his depleted army? Perhaps few if any returned from that battle and only women and children remained to carry on a basic subsistence existence so that the chalk quarry simply fell out of use.
The later hearths present no evidence of dwellings and were perhaps only wood shelters below ground level for day workers to mitigate the winter winds across the site. The occupants left no evidence of their presence other than oyster shells reflecting the food of the poor and enough bits of broken pottery to allow some dating.
We did find a land boundary, a ditch cut through the untouched chalk beds as well as the infill of the chalk quarry itself. This ran approximately SE – NW some 20 – 30 metres to the East of Beauchamps Lane. The positioning made no sense to us but it must have donein the 12 th /13thC when the bits of pottery in it suggest it was dug. Between it and the Lane we had assumed from the present topography that there had been a roadway but substantial trenching ultimately concluded that this was not the case – flint and gravel surfaces uncovered below the present surface were ultimately determined to be natural deposits with no evidence of human footfall.
One exciting find but of absolutely no relevance to the site was a flint axe head which fell out of the debris within the quarry silt. Approximately 500,000 years old, it was made before the Ice Age before the last Ice Age, not by us but perhaps by Neanderthal man or one of the other competing species then. Lost or abandoned, subsequent glacier activity dropped it here.
Early on in our excavations within the wood, we had explored the mound over which the present foot path runs at the SE end of the wood. We had then determined that this was a chalk cut ditch and mound probably topped by an hedge which marked the SE boundary of that piece of estate. We knew from the St Alban’s monastic accounts that the land further to the SE was rented out as agricultural land, and even the rent as well. However at the Beauchamps Lane end we were keen to find out what was its relationship if any with Beauchamps Lane itself and the other SE-NW land boundary that we had excavated.. That trench came to a clear end before the other ditch thus confirming that that the SE boundary was earlier and in existence when our other boundary was dug. To our surprise, we found the SE mound and ditch had been dug and again re-dug only feet apart. Re digging boundaries is not unusual in itself but the labour involved for such a slight gain is not. Maps and observation showed that there was no continuity of boundary across Beauchamps Lane so we can assume therefore that Beauchamps Lane was in existence before that particular land boundary was dug.
We then turned to the flank of the wood facing NE onto Ruins Field and drove a series of trenches along almost its entirety within the wood between the land boundary at the SE end of the wood and the trench and mound dug at the NW end by Sir John de Beauchamp in 1348. Beautiful trenches hacked through nettles , tree roots and undergrowth, straight sided and clean bottomed, a joy to look at. Sadly, despite all our effort through the winter months, this revealed absolutely nothing at all. No sign of human activity of any kind and one can only assume that the land was used as pasture.
During this time, our archaeologist/metal detectorist was roaming Ruins Field to see lf there was further evidence worth excavating. Imagine our excitement when he recovered an apparently ancient clay encased dog tag. These tags came into use in the Civil Wars of the 17thC. Did this belong to one of the fighting Hammonds? Or some later scion of that family? A celebrity visitor perhaps? Washing proved the latter: it carried the name of Any Tee, our Parish Council Chairman although it looked as though it dated from somewhat earlier in his career.
Our efforts then focussed on exploring the NW end of Beauchamps Wood beyond the mound and ditch we think dug by Sir John de Beauchamps when he acquired the site as a base to separate himself and his entourage from the Black Death already arrived in Southern Europe. We excavated the end of his mound and ditch and confirmed there was indeed a roadway at that point heading South through the gap between it and the very large mound that then runs to Beuachamps Lane. There was some evidence of perhaps a building having been there – some form of guard house ? which was subsequently dismantled?
We also put trenches going further North Westwards confirming the presence of a flint and gravel yard over much of the area However, we also found that the hollow on the NW edge of the wood was a genuine doline, a natural saucer shaped depression in the chalk where the chalk has dissolved from water action – we had a number including one very large one in Ruins Field. Trenching closer to Beauchamps Lane produced no evidence of human activity or other soil disturbance.
However, in one of the trenches across the yard surface, we have excavated a circular area cut into the chalk in the centre of which is a well. From the evidence we have so far, it seems that this well was dismantled and filled in when the yard was created in 1348. Exploration is only beginning but such a well would confirm that there were earlier buildings on site we have yet to find. Possibly they were demolished when the yard was created and the new mansion which we have excavated was built out in what is now field.
Another theory then arises. Was the large mound was created in part from the top soil and rubbish excavated to provide a firm base on chalk for the large quantities of flint and gravel then brought on site. Only trenching will confirm that but we still believe the rest of the mound closer to Beauchamps Lane is earlier because Beauchamps Lane goes round it. We know Beauchamps Lane is much earlier than Sir John de Beauchamp but the diversion suggests the mound itself may have preceded it. All to dig for !
The Dover Archaeological Group will have a stall at Old St Albans Court on the Open Garden Days in June, and those interested in digging normally meet at 1030on Sundays ( with their lunch) at Old St Albans Court. All are welcome – phone 01304 841692.
Meanwhile after the long break caused by Covid, it is hoped that coppicing will soon be underway again in Beauchamps Wood, and not before time given the increasing numbers of fallen trees.
Finally, we also hope that we have a candidate for already the fully funded MSc advertised around the village from Christ Church University to take up the Nonington Landscape Project.