Time Travel

I’m sinking almost imperceptibly into the mud, which means that I’m travelling very very slowly back through time. On Monday, we raced back 6 or 7 centuries in as many hours but now I’m down to perhaps a year every hour as the ground slowly swallows my boots. I’m not helping by gently digging into the ground around me. No this is not an episode of Dr Who, it’s an archaeological dig.

I saw a Tweet about some community Archaeological projects being run in Rhossili by the Gower Landscape Project, Black Mountain Archaeology and ArchaeoDomus and although I’d missed many of them, a dig at the site of the medieval village in Rhossili was yet to happen. Last year I took part in a field walk on ‘The Vile’, part of the medieval field system at Rhossili. The purpose was to try and find evidence of flint working in relation to the near by hill fort. At that event, there was mention of a possible dig at the old village and I was keen to take part. Now was my opportunity. I rushed off an email to express my interest, and I was accepted onto the dig.

I turned up on day one not sure what to expect. The weather was perfect, the location stunning and very soon I was off down to the Warren, the bracken covered dune system just above the beach level. I joined a number of other volunteers from the area, the four professional archaeologists and the National Trust ranger for a safety briefing and overview of the project, it’s aims and objectives.

The basic idea was to involve members of the local community in investigating the extent of the medieval village. In the early 80s, the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust had excavated in the middle of the village site and uncovered a church and a house. These were recorded and covered over to preserve them and the site scheduled as an ancient monument, meaning it couldn’t be dug. We would be looking outside that area, which was carefully marked out before any digging took place.

The first objective was to clear away the great mass of sand that had accumulated and may well have been the cause of the abandonment of the old village for the new. Archaeologists and volunteers watched as the mechanical digger stripped away the sand, making sure that the digger kept to the line of the plan, and ensuring that no archaeology was accidentally lost to the big metal bucket. This took most of the day and only at the very end were we able to get into the trenches and see what was going on. In the last few minutes we found the medieval land surface in trench 2.

Day two was hotter and now we were in the trenches, as much as 2 metres below surface level, there was no cooling onshore breeze. But I found that I was completely distracted from the conditions by the activities and the fact that we’d just got our first find, a medieval dog or fox jaw bone, complete with teeth. Today, I was using an augur to bore holes beneath the bottom of the trenches to identify what was going on and whether it was worth the time and effort to go deeper. It was tough going, even in sand, to get the augur down more than 50cm but eventually, with people hanging off the handles, twisting and turning the augur, we managed to get a few samples from nearly 2m below the base of the trench, perhaps 3.5m deep in total. These were telling us that we were just beginning to reach the natural medieval layer. The decision was taken to concentrate on just two trenches and the other was filled back in.

On day three and four I was cleaning the edges of our latest trench to provide a clear record of the soil levels, cleaning off the surface of the trench itself and then gently scraping back the sand and earth from a section of stones at one end of the trench. The latter was remarkably calming work, and time went quickly as I slowly lowered the level of the surface of the trench, revealing more of the stones. Next to me, a colleague was picking out bits of pottery and shell but I seemed to be on the wrong side as there was nothing in my bit.

At the end of day four we had found animal bone, cow’s teeth, several large bits of pottery and a deeper level of loam and shell fragments, which was most likely a midden, or rubbish deposit. A large piece of pottery remained within it and as would this need careful work to retrieve it, we decided to leave it until the next day so that it wasn’t rushed. It was protected with a bucket and we headed home.

Day five was a controlled rush to get the pottery, dig carefully but quickly below it to see what was going on, collect samples of the shell-filled loam and to record the trench features accurately for future reference. And all of this was being done in humid conditions which threatened and then did turn into rain, and in clouds of midges. As the rain fell, the clay levels at the bottom of the trench got wetter, supporting an earlier suggestion that there may have been a water course here. With all the recording done, the areas of interest in the trench were protected with plastic and the trench was filled in. It took considerably less time to cover them up that it did to dig them out. At the end of the day, all that was left were patches of sand in the bracken, and these would soon be covered by foliage.

I’ve always been interested in archaeology but I never expected to be able to take part in a dig. For me, the experience was amazing, and a bonus was the involvement of professional archaeologists who were prepared to give time and effort to share knowledge and skills with the volunteers. Not only did I learn what to do, but I was able to understand why it was done that way. I’ve always found that the part of history that interests me most is the stuff that happens to individuals. During this week I was able to handle pottery that was used by real people more than 600 years ago, walk on the land surface they would have trodden on and rummage through their rubbish dump. And all this reasonably close to my own home.

I think I may be hooked on this time travel lark!

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A little bit of local.

On Friday, I was reading a book about childhood experiences in Swansea during the war. This morning, I was sliding and slipping in mud in Dunvant. There’s a link.

I’ve been researching Swansea during WW2 as a result of some of the stories my mum told me of the bombing, the anti-aircraft guns and the Americans stationed here just before D-Day. I found a book in the local library and read with some interest the first mention of anti-invasion defences in Swansea Bay that I’d ever see. The bay would have been an ideal landing place for enemy troops if it wasn’t for the long journey they would have to make down the Bristol Channel. But Swansea had a big port, an airfield near by and a sheltered bay and it may well have been worth the risk. In fact, Swansea Bay was used (along with other beaches on Gower) to practice beach landings prior to the Normandy landings.

My interest has been in finding any evidence of other defensive plans. One of the threats to Britain during the early part of the war was invasion from the west. It was thought that the Germans would make a pact with neutral Eire and come across to West Wales. Lines of fortifications, known as Command Stop Lines were built all over Britain and there is one stretching north from Pembrey to New Quay that would have been used to delay or block any advance eastwards. I had explored parts of this line north of Carmarthen, on one occasion finding myself at the end of a shotgun when I accidentally strayed on to private land. Fortunately, after explaining to the landowner why I was there and pointing out that there were no fences or signs, he let me explore the particular pill box and told me of several more relics of the war hidden from the road.

This stop line reaches the south coast at RAF Pembrey, which is now a bombing range and private airport. There are remains of pillboxes and anti-tank defences near the estuary and they merge into the defences of the airfield itself, and the fortifications and minefields that protected Cefn Sidan and the Pembrey munitions factory.

Swansea had it’s own defences. With the port, bay and airfield in close proximity, and reasonably good transport links, it needed it’s own protection. The beach had several pill boxes and minefields along it’s length and on the low tide mark, iron girders set in concrete were ready to rip the hulls of craft trying to land. There is a suggestion that flame weapons (either oil to be poured on the water or fougasse firebombs) were available, too. Inland, there were anti landing trenches on the hills north of Morriston, anti-aircraft sites on Mumbles Hill and around Kilvey Hill and decoy bombing targets north of the docks.

I found several pillboxes on the Swansea to Llanelli railway line, now disused, that used to run through Clyne Valley. One overlooks the main road through Killay to Gower. Two more protect a bridge over the railway line some 200 yards further south. I would have expected more but I could find none. The book I read said that there were two more pillboxes at the entrance to the Clyne Valley where it meets the sea at Blackpill. Anti Tank blocks also shielded access to the railway and some parts of an old wall made of wartime concrete (with more aggregate as it was cheaper and quicker to make) line the sea front near by. Much of the land between Blackpill and Killay is marshy and undulating and would have needed little extra protection.

Further north at the Loughor Estuary, there is a line of concrete anti-tank blocks stretching out into the water. They are covered by a gun emplacement near the Chinese restaurant, and the estuary also had artillery as it was at one end of a firing range. When you look at a map, the railway cutting (it’s mostly below ground level) makes an ideal obstacle for tanks and runs across Gower. To be most effective, extra fortification at weak points would be necessary. Infantry trenches would be hard to spot after so long as the ground is wet and overgrown. I expected there to be more pillboxes but knew of none between the estuary and Killay.

I went online to see if I could find more about the Clyne pillboxes and found a reference to Dunvant Brickworks. Dunvant lies north of Killay along the same railway line and an archaeological survey had been done in 2009, showing the site of several small scale collieries and a brickworks. The survey also described two more pillboxes and a spigot mortar site in the area and mentioned the ‘Gower Stop Line’. Suddenly it was all making a bit more sense.

And so this morning, I was scrabbling about in the mud in completely the wrong place trying to find one of the pillboxes. I slipped, skidded, squelched and was nearly tripped up by brambles. I climbed, descended and all the while got wet in the drizzle. But it was all worth it (for me, anyway) as I finally came across the pillbox I was looking for. It was high up overlooking the railway line. And even better, it was an unusual design that was used mainly for observation. It was hard to visualise the context as in the nearly 80 years since it was built, trees and bushes have grown around it obscuring it’s original field of fire. It was impossible to enter as bars had been placed in the entrance tunnel. I later found out that it has become a home for bats so I’m glad I didn’t try to disturb it.

For the pillbox geeks, it was a type 22, modified with a longer entrance tunnel and no embrasures or a roof. This one had railway sleepers over the top to provide shelter for the bats.

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Castle Graig

In the late 18th Century, the lower Swansea Valley was one of the centres of copper working in the UK. Great quantities of cheap coal from further up the valley provided the power and the ore was brought in from other parts of the country. Swansea copper lined the hulls of Royal Navy ships, making them faster and more manoeuvrable.

Sir John Morris, who owned much of the industry along the Lower Tawe in the Swansea Valley, had a planned town built for his workers, originally Morris’ Town, which became Morriston. Between 1768 and 1774 he built Europe’s first purpose built, multi-occupancy dwelling place on the hill overlooking the metal works. It was a three storey block of flats with four 4 storey towers at the corners.

Today, the remains of two of the towers survive, the rest having fallen as a result of open cast mining, subsidence and in 1990, high winds. The local youth take the challenge to climb the ruins and leave their marks in the form of graffiti. More than one has ended up in the local hospital.

The ruins have seen great change in the Swansea Valley. The industry is long gone and replaced with a mixture of retail, leisure and housing. Where once smoke obscured the view and pollutants killed vegetation, now the view to the bay is clear and some of the flora is returning. (Time Team excavated a few years ago and found the level of toxins in the ground where the metals works were was still high enough to warrant taking precautions for the diggers.) Mother nature will always win despite or arrogant view that we are the shapers of the world.

Rufus and I were the guests of friends who showed us to the top of Castle Graig, where the ruins stand guard over the valley. The route is not easy to find, which is good because we had the hill to ourselves. Although they are under the care of CADW, the towers are in danger of further decay and even total collapse as they sit precariously close to the edge of a steep drop into the old mine workings.

Next time you’re shopping in Morfa, or taking coffee there, look up to the northern skyline and you’ll see the castle, watching you.

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