Summerdown excavations

The excavation at Summerdown


A short excavation was carried out in the woods in the valley of Summerdown for a week at the end of March 2010.  It was directed by Hazel Riley, and was part of a Parishscapes Community Project, which was part of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Indeed I have since found the full report of the excavation on their website,  under Conservation and then Culture and Heritage, and then Parishscapes. The Parishscapes project was masterminded by Philippe Planel, who lectured to the CIA at their Wimborne meeting, reported by me on the CIA website. Indeed when I sought for him on the web, the onloy reference I found was his photo taken by me.


The main function of the Parishscapes project appears to have been the digitisation of the tithe maps of East Devon, but there is also a nice report on the excavations at Blackbury Castle. The Summerdown excavation appear to have been the only excavation that they carried out. The report concludes with a poem.

The site was as I remember it was overgrown woodland with rather spindly trees. They did some trial trenches and then excavated two halves of what appears to be a single cottage which they decided was Lee’s cottage.

At one end was the kitchen with a bread oven, and presumably a chimney above it. This is the right-hand end of the rather nice painting by Anne Leaver. The middle part of the house is not excavated, but they did excavate the far end where there appears to have been a storeroom.

The finds were a few. There is only one datable find, the base of a plate with the inscription Sirius, which appears to have been made by the Llanelli pottery in south Wales between 1839 and 1855. The biggest piece of pottery was a storage jar which when reconstructed  was nearly complete, which was found in the storeroom.  There is also an iron kettle handle found on the base of the bread oven.

The most interesting information comes from the tithe map of 1840, which shows four smallholdings with Lee’s cottage running between them. Some of the inhabitants are recorded in the censuses of 1841, and 1861  The first edition OS map of 1888 shows that there are no longer any domestically occupied buildings in the area — which presumably marks the end of the occupation.

The dating all seems to be around the middle of the 19th century. The settlement appears to begin somewhere around 1820 to 1830, and it appears to have died out around 1870. It is interesting to compare this with the stories that I have found in the Highlands of Scotland and in Ireland where habitations begin somewhat earlier around 1800 and then die out with the great famine of the 1840s. This appears to have been later and he would be interesting to know why it was founded. But it could never have been viable:  the holdings were only a couple of acres each, so presumably the occupants were working on other farms.  Presumably it did not become viable with the beginning of the agricultural depression from 1872 to 1890. There is an excellent report by Hazel Riley who runs a herd of Dexter cattle in Offwell. It  ends with a poem by the distinguished local poet, John Torrance:


This valley wilderness of seemingly
millennial woods is a dark tangle of lies.
Now, what’s this? A crime scene? Investigators
have pitched a tent, taped off a suspect area,
and dig and sieve the claggy soil for clues.
Here’s a brass button with a merry sunburst
stamped upon it; there’s a broken stone
carved with a name and half a date —‘Lee,
18 …’ So meaning what? Living or leaving?

Bread-oven, chimney —one of a dozen, once,
which on a cold spring day like this would send
their wood-smoke signals round the neighbourhood.
When tithe surveyors were pacing out these hedgerows
(banks tumbled now, brambled and wrecked by roots)
they walked through orchards, among cows and sheep,
and saw wheat standing in the tended fields.
They drew a tidy web of little holdings —
Lee’s cottage too, in this triangular close.

But each tenth year enumerators found
more farmsteads derelict, and in the fields
wild daffodils already under scrub,
until, with none to count, they ceased to come.
Searching goes on: stone with a hole —why this?
Why that? Why any of this? Mankind, for sure,
were losers here, yet what defeated them
was not just oak and ash, hazel and thorn,
but something more. So what unleashed this cleansing?

A landlord’s greed? Factory wages? Gold Rush?
Abstractions drift in the air like small snow —
the Great Depression, History, Time itself.
Was it the common tale of suffering here —
hunger, squalor, children dying and dying?
A trowel which scrapes and probes will often strike
the hardest question, beyond why this or that —
why anything? Or why not nothing? —but finds
no answer here. Tomorrow always beckons.


Back to Summerdown


On to Lower Holditch


8th February 2018



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