Sunday, 15 May 2016

Trackside dreams: The Vale and model railways

The Priory and Godfreys – Vale Scene - © Tony Wright
The landscapes and buildings of the Vale have been captured in many different ways. Not surprisingly, there is a long tradition of painting and photographing its views. But in this post I want to look at a more unusual way in which people have tried to represent the area – model railways.

The best known example of this is the Vale Scene at Pendon Museum in Long Wittenham . This is centred on a fictional Vale village ‘Pendon Parva’ and attempts to represent an idealised version of the landscape as it was in the 1930s. As an archaeologist, I have a great fondness for the loving rendered hillfort. Although, it is at heart a railway layout, as much thought has been put into representing the landscape and, in particular, the historic buildings of the Vale, as the railway itself. Nearly all the buildings shown are based on actual building that stood or stand in the area.

Letcombe Cottage – Vale Scene © Stephen Williams
The model itself has a fascinating history – it has its origins with the modelling work of Roye England, who arrived in England from Australia in the 1920s. Already deeply involved in railway modelling, he spent time living in Swindon, close to the western end of the Vale, and he soon fell in love with the landscape and buildings. His first attempts at modelling the buildings began in the 1930s, and after a pause due to the war, he set up in Long Wittenham  and established what became the Pendon Modern Railway Museum in the 1950s. He expanded into new premises in the 1970s and work began on what eventually became the Vale Scene – although he died in 1995, work on the scene continues.

It’s a beautiful and committed piece of work- it’s steeped in a love for a pre-lapsarian landscape and for the railways. I love the way in which it’s still, and likely always will be, a work in progress. There is something profoundly meditative about model buildings. This kind of small-scale act of creation is something I have only tinkered round the edges with, but I can see how it draws people in. There is an intriguing mix of an insistence on accuracy when it comes to the rolling stock and architectural detailing, but it is all set in a fictional condensed countryside setting, which aims to represent all facets of the Vale, from the Downs with their hillforts and strip lynchets to the pasture and arable of the vale itself. Of course, it is set in late summer, with the crops ripe unto harvest and the chalk tracks at their dustiest. In its own way, the model is part of that distinctly English topographic recording tradition, which has its roots in the chorographic writing of the 17th and 18th century, and in the 1930s and 1940s, when the idea of the Vale Scene was germinating, materialised in the form of the Recording Britain Project and the National Buildings Record. Indeed, the Vale Scene was initially intended to capture a landscape and way of life that was seen by Roye England to be under threat ; his first model was the pub, the Calley Arms in Wanborough, which was being renovated and updated.

Kingston Lisle - Corfe Castle Line- Ormesby Hall
In its own right, the Vale Scene, indeed the entire Pendon Museum, is wonderful and worthy of a blog entry. You can imagine my surprise though when I stumbled across a second public model railway layout which contained model buildings based on real structures in the Vale. I chanced upon it when I was visiting Ormesby Hall, a National Trust property in Middlesborough. I’d taken the family to visit because it was home of the Pennyman family, who I had an interest in due to their work on social relief schemes in the 1930s, so I wasn’t remotely thinking about the Vale or model railways. However, at the end of the usual tramp round drawing rooms and halls, it was a pleasant surprise to come upon a series of model railway layouts run by Ormesby Hall Model Railway Group. One (Pilmoor Junction) was based on the East Coast mainline (bah, I’ve never liked the LNER…), the other was clearly a southern landscape and was in fact based broadly on the branch line from Wareham to Swanage. However, when looking at it more closely, I realised that some of the buildings were from elsewhere. Indeed, it turns out that although the man who created the model, Mr Ron Rising, has set it in Dorset, it also contained model buildings based on real examples across the south of England, including the Vale. For example, there is lovely set of cottages based on a group in Kingston Lisle (see picture).

There cannot be many parts of the country which have been captured in this form, not once, but twice. There may even be other examples of Vale landscapes and building lurking in lofts and clubhouses elsewhere in the country. Why the Vale should have caught the imagination in this way I am not certain. The originators of the two models, Roye England and Ron Rising, had different relationships between the Vale, one a local, one not so. In both cases though, there is this fascinating juxtaposition of incredible levels of detail (in the Corfe Castle layout all the roof tiles on all the buildings were individually cut out) with a creative mixing and reorganising of these perfect miniatures within semi-fictional landscapes. I find this approach to fascinating as, in some way, it mirrors my own perception and attitude to writing about and exploring the Vale of the White Horse. I want to focus in on little vignettes, case studies and keyhole views of the region’s history,  yet despite my fascination with the detail, I can’t help but set them in a landscape that is probably more my own imagining than reality. The buildings provide the ballast, but the tracks take us somewhere else.

All images of the railway layouts taken from the websites of the relevant organisations - Pendon Museum and Ormesby Hall Model Railway Group

Watercress beds - Letcombe Bassett

Nice piece of rural industrial archaeology here- the watercress beds at Letcombe Bassett. Fallen out of use now, but the concrete blocks forming the beds and leats are still visible on the Letcombe Brook between Letcombe Bassett and Letcombe Regis. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a native herb and grows in on cold, running water. In the 19th century there was quite a trade in it, with many growers in the south of England sending it up to Covent Garden where it was sold. Elsewhere in Oxfordshire, there were important beds at Ewelme – there were also beds on the down edge at Ramsbury in Wiltshire  The chalk stream at Letcombe was also used for growing cress. I can’t find out much about the chronology of the watercress growing in the village- the beds seem to be shown on the 1st Edition OS map, but are not marked as such. The beds are clearly labelled though from the 1870s. The use of concrete for bunds and channels which can still be seen presumably indicates a phase of 20th century investment. It was still active into the 1970s and several newspaper reports from the time write about the threat posed by the drought of 1976, and I think the beds were still being worked until the 1980s? 

Friday, 15 January 2016

Notes from the field: Letcombe Bassett

Over Christmas I got a chance to go out for a short walk with my wife and the nippers up at Letcombe Bassett, a village I’d not been to before. It has got a lovely little church and some good solid box-frame late medieval box-frame houses (which I'm planning to blog about another time).  However, what caught my eye as we headed up the hill following a footpath past the church was a series of earthworks to the south of the church. The trusty OS 1:10 000 map did not show the actual features and it wasn't clear whether the ‘Old Quarry’ label referred to that area or other adjacent lumps and bumps.

Later on I chased up the earlier OS maps, and nothing is shown even on the 19th century First Edition map, although it was clear that the church and the earthwork sat together in a larger roughly rectangular enclosure defined by field boundaries and the edge of the churchyard. Pleasingly, with the recent freely available access to Lidar data I was able to get a better sense of the shape of the earthworks I saw. The lidar plot showed a roughly square embanked enclosure approximately the same width as the churchyard.

Stupidly it was only at this point that I thought of checking the Historic Environment Record (doh!), which indeed flagged up these earthworks describing them as an enclosure and house platforms of probable medieval date. I’d suggest that we can go a little further than that- the distinct smaller embanked enclosure and its juxtaposition immediately next to the church at the top of the village make it more likely that we are looking at the site of the manor.  The manor of Letcombe Bassett went through various hands in the medieval period, and ended up in the hands of Queen’s College (Oxford University) in the mid-16th century. I've not had a chance to do much research, but there is a College Farm in the village. I'm guessing that as an absentee landlord, the College no longer required a manor house, and the Letcombe estates were farmed from College Farm. This would give the 16th century as a possible point at which the putative manorial enclosure fell out of use. 

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Downs and Vale: Landscape archaeology and boundaries

Lidar image of Segsbury hillfort 
Whilst rifling through the piles of British Archaeological Reports in the library the other day I came across Paula Levick's recent Later Prehistoric and Roman Landscapes on the Berkshire Downs (2015). I had to have a peek as I've long flirted with the archaeology of the Downs. When I did my Masters many moons ago I did a long essay on Iron Age/Roman field systems on the Berkshire Downs, and my first ever conference paper (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference – Reading -1995) was a critique of Vince Gaffney and Martin Tingle's Maddle Farm Survey (the realisation that Vince was sitting in the front row did nothing for my first night nerves...). I'd spent time digging with Oxford Archaeology on the Neolithic/Bronze Age site at Tower Hill and been tangentially involved with a project at Beedon as well.

However, I hadn't really kept up to date with scholarship on the area since then late 1990s - and there has been a lot, particularly with Gary Lock's Hillforts of the Ridgeway project. The discovery of Levick's volume gave me a serendipitous opportunity to catch up. This blog entry though isn't so much about the work itself, rather an opportunity to ponder more generally about how this kind of big landscape archaeology is framed, with particular reference to the neighbouring Vale of the White Horse.

The report is based on Levick's PhD carried out in the Dept. of Continuing Education at Oxford, and is a good, thorough analysis of the Iron Age and Roman landscapes of an area of the central Downs, which includes the substantial univallate hillfort at Segsbury. She uses the immensely detailed cropmark dataset generated by English Heritage's Lambourn Down Mapping Project, which she supplements with Lidar data, geophysical survey, the traditional historic mapping resources (tithe maps/enclosure maps etc), as well as some interesting work integrating the results of metal detecting surveys carried out with the support and oversight of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The results are a thoughtful reanalysis of the conventional LBA-RB chronology of the area, suggesting that some areas were not as empty in the BA as previously thought.

However, reading it, as someone who now situates themselves as medievalist rather than a Romanist, and someone with an interest in Vale I became increasingly aware of the incredible influence of chronological and geographic boundaries on the way these kind of landscape studies are carried out.

My first qualm is with physical edges. This work and the Maddle Farm survey both focus on the chalk uplands with very little engagement with the neighbouring Vale. There are perfectly good reasons for this- the research agenda of the MVS was to look at the hinterland of a Roman villa situated within the Downs. In the case of Levick, the key dataset was the cropmark survey – cropmarks are far better defined on the chalk downs than they are on the greensands at the Vale-Downs interface. This inevitably means that the focus of this kind of landscape study is on the area with the greatest data, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. PhD theses have to be pragmatic about defining their datasets and study regions.

Yet, the one thing we know about the use of the Downs in the medieval and post-medieval period is that administrative units and agricultural regimes crossed the topographic boundaries between Downland and Vale (between chalk and cheese). The parish boundaries of the villages along the northern scarp all extend from the greensands up to the top of the Downs – and had complex patterns of arable and pasture, with the ploughing up of much of the downland only happening relatively recently. I don't think there is any a priori reason to assume that these kinds of relationships did not exist in deeper antiquity. But by focussing in on specific topographic regions (however understandable) we miss the chance to draw out this crucial relationship. Inevitably, the different topography has meant that the archaeological record itself varies significantly, both due to differences in land-use and agriculture in the past, different geologies and environmental processes (e.g. colluvium build up etc), as well as the different impact of medieval/post-medieval post-depositional processes. To some extent, the Vale of the White Horse survey, Martin Tingle's follow-up to the Maddle Farm Survey attempted to address this issue, but there was no real integration of the two data sets.

A second implicit boundary in so much landscape work is that formed by the Romans. For many archaeologists (and I include some work I've done myself), the 1st to 4th century is a conceptual 'fold' in the landscape palimpsest. Many studies run from the Neolithic through to the Roman period, and others take the early medieval period as their point of departure. Although there are honourable exceptions (e.g. Peter Fowler's West Overton work and Chris Gerrard and Mick Aston's Shapwick project spring to mind, as well as Steve Rippon's Fields of Britain project) there are all too few attempts to take the longue durée approach and follow through the long-term narrative presented by the landscape. There is seemingly an underlying assumption that the arrival of the open-field systems of the central province in the later Anglo-Saxon period creates a profound point of rupture, with an erasure of earlier field systems so thorough that there is a de facto blank slate. This is a pretty major assumption (as the Fields of Britain project has outlined), but even if it was true, it begs the question, what field systems and settlement patterns were being used in the early to mid-Anglo-Saxon period? If there is continuity and development from IA to RB, why should there not be similar continuity from RB-AS? And crucially, can we recognise this in the field archaeology? Of course, there are methodological problems; as with topographic boundaries, the archaeological footprint varies- most noticeably in the massive decline in datable pottery, the chronological marker most used for analysing field walking survey and excavation work. But with the growth of OSL techniques, we should (in theory at least) be able to move beyond this limitation. There are also other data sources available, most strikingly AS charter boundaries (of which there are some good examples from this part of Berkshire). As Paula Levick has also shown there is also some potential from drawing on PAS data.

There is surely the potential for a more integrated approach to looking at the landscape of the Down and the Vale, one that tries to cross these chronological and topographic boundaries. It would be a challenge bringing together the diverse data sets, but that is half of the fun of archaeology.