Philip Minchom (volunteer)
Living in the Lake District and walking the fells and woodland, an awareness of historic heritage is a constant companion. Rock art and axe factories in Langdale, copper mining in Coniston and slate mining at Honister are well known via information boards and leaflets. But even the less observant may notice subtler signs of human activity in piles of tumbled stone in the woods or well-formed tracks alongside bogs on remote fell sides. Joining the Lake District National Park Archaeology Volunteer Network has given me the opportunity to discover some of what I was missing and start to understand it.
Systematic Level 1 surveys have been carried out by the volunteers led by trained archaeologists from Northern Archaeological Associates (NAA). Surveying in line across Cumbrian bog or through dense thorn and bramble infested woods is a challenge for all, especially for the archaeologist, as their volunteer team can be as errant as an audience of curious Herdwick sheep. As each feature is discovered, it is discussed, debated and recorded. The knowledge and expertise of the archaeologist is essential to ensure the quality of interpretation (volunteers with knowledge can be as opinionated as anyone). Gradually one develops an eye for the hidden and an understanding of what it may represent. Of course, it becomes even more interesting when the professionals disagree, and uncertainties are debated.
What has proved most interesting has been re-exploring my local countryside, which I thought I knew so well. This came about through the Rusland Horizons Project with the Lake District National Park Authority. Led by NAA, a series of surveys was carried out in woodland of the Rusland Valley and on the fells above. On a survey, one is initially excited simply to 'discover' individual monuments. A bark peeler's hut, a charcoal burning pitstead or signs of a bloomery may individually have some interest, but it is as the features accumulate a new, more interesting overall picture emerges.
Disentangling the archaeology and gaining new perceptions of it allows one to reimagine the terrain and the human activity within it. The familiar quiet valley of farms and woodland, apparently timeless and never changing, has clearly been very different in the past and the clues are half hidden all around. Of course, many aspects have continued, particularly on the farms where old walls are maintained with skill and hog holes are still used for stock management. But in its time, it has been a busy industrial complex. The coppices were expertly managed to produce innumerable products, from pill boxes and bobbins to brush handles and, of course, charcoal. The charcoal went to fuel homes and iron production on a large scale. Mills lined the river wherever water power could be utilised to turn wood or manufacture iron. Now the coppice is largely overgrown, and the mills have disappeared into the bracken and are easily missed.
"Disentangling the archaeology and gaining new perceptions of it allows one to reimagine the terrain and the human activity within it. The familiar quiet valley of farms and woodland, apparently timeless and never changing, has clearly been very different in the past and the clues are half hidden all around."
The signs of activity linked to people who lived and worked in this environment can be subtle and evocative: a finely crafted sheepfold with the stones used to bar its entrance still lying as left by the shepherd long ago;
the tumbled chimney of a bark peeler's hut; rabbit smoots and hog holes in dry stone walls.
Now awareness of the archaeology makes every walk an exploration. The stone topping of a neighbour's wall is bloomery slag from an industry that was active here from medieval times.
Further afield, the unfrequented footpath curiously marked with boulders transforms into a busy pack horse route carrying iron and peat across the Lakeland fells.
Spending time working alongside archaeologists and my volunteer colleagues has certainly changed my perception of what has always been visible but rarely noticed and my understanding of the changing environment I live in. That of course raises a further conundrum. I spot what my eye has learned to see. What further fascination is there still to be discovered that I overlook as I walk past?