A few years ago I undertook a MOOC (massive open on-line course) in archaeology. I did it all from home, no digging! We had various assignments, and here is one I very much enjoyed, which involved ‘researching’ a familiar environment with archaeological eyes!
For this assignment I went on an archaeology walk round my village. Uphill is a very small village just south of Weston-super-Mare on the coast of the Bristol Channel where the Axe flows into the sea. This area has been inhabited since Neolithic times; there were caves containing 40,000 year-old flint tools and worked and butchered bones of animals including the woolly mammoth and cave lion, there is a Bronze Age field system on nearby Walborough, the Romans are likely to have used the Axe to ship out minerals mined on the nearby Mendip Hills, and the area has been home to fishing and farming families over the millennia.
So… there is a lot of history in Uphill, but I want to explore the little village’s industrial past. If you visit Uphill you’ll think it a delightful and peaceful little village with nothing to hear but birdsong and the tide coming in. There are a few businesses here, two pubs, a restaurant, a sign-writers shop, an osteopath, the village shop… there’s the boatyard and marina and camp-site and a little tea-room. The only through traffic is going down to the beach… so really we are a quiet little place.
It wasn’t always so; there’s a wharf in Uphill which was busy for boats bringing coal and sheep from Wales, for example, and boats departing loaded with limestone and lime. There was also a quarry; Uphill is on the last of the Mendip Hills, a limestone range of undulating uplands, and limestone in past times was a valuable commodity.
Limestone was used extensively for building, and with the arrival of railways it was used for ballast (railways came to Weston in 1841); it was also made into lime by being burned in a kiln. Lime was used to ‘sweeten’ acidic arable land; it was used as a whitewash, in the steel industry and as mortar for building. It was particularly used from the mid 1700’s and limestone was quarried here in Uphill from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Not only was the limestone quarried, but lime was made in a lime kiln here at the quarry. The kiln was fed with Welsh coal, brought into Uphill from across the Bristol Channel, and no doubt the same ships took the product away.
You can’t imagine that a kiln would make much more than a roaring noise, but getting the limestone to put in the kiln was very noisy… the quarrymen weren’t just there with pick axes and chisels, they had gunpowder and later dynamite. For safety reasons the explosives were kept in a special store, set into the rock face, built of limestone and with a special metal door, known as “a sacrificial wall’ which acted as a safety valve if there was an accident, the door would blow out, rather than the powder house itself blowing up.
The powder-house probably went out of use by 1930 and now there is little left to see, just some tumbled walls and stone shelves against the cliff face, overgrown with ivy, brambles and nettles… and we can only imagine the noise of the industry, the explosions, the crashing rocks, the wagons rolling backwards and forwards, now all is peaceful in Uphill!
I chose this activity because I wanted to put into practice what I had learned from the course in a meaningful and relevant way to my everyday life; I often walk this way on winter’s mornings or sunny afternoons, out with my camera for some exercise. I did enjoy it because it put into context some of the skills that I’ve gained, observation, deduction, looking for evidence, trying to take in the whole picture not just a particular small detail.
I would like to do this again on another part of the village, maybe exploring the field system on the slopes of the hill, maybe looking at the ruined church built just after the Norman Conquest (1066) and its graveyard, or maybe trying to find the different little streams (rhynes in local dialect) and ditches which have been hidden by modern building (modern meaning nineteenth and twentieth century)
My featured image is of a real archaeological dig which happened a couple of years ago!