Caption: Volunteers sit round the hearth in the remains of a woodland hut.
A great wood ran up the hillside on the eastern shore of the lake. Far up it they could see smoke curling slowly above the trees, a thin trickle of smoke climbing straight up.
’ Swallows and Amazons’ by Arthur Ransome
If you look on the OS English Lakes SE map you will see the River Crake running south out of Coniston Water and above it a series of steeply inclined woods with romantic names such as Arklid Great Wood. The hidden secrets of these woods are gradually being discovered as a part of the Rusland Horizons Scheme. The Woodland Archaeology Survey commenced recruiting online for volunteers in April. “Looks interesting” I think and set off for the Forestry Commission car park above Nibthwaite to join other archaeological volunteers some of whom were familiar to me from previous ‘archvol’ expeditions. For me it would be all too easy to get carried away with the prospect of wandering through sun-dappled woodland carpeted in bluebells, hoping to trip over a bit of archaeology. I need to remember that this is going to be a ‘Level One Survey’ i.e. a systematic investigation to establish what is there and what is of possible significance.
Clare Henderson, the professional archaeologist guiding the volunteers, explains how to use current and past OS maps to establish the boundaries of the woods to be surveyed and, using these, the best way to achieve a comprehensive coverage. It is decided to do a line search on an agreed compass bearing with people 20 paces apart. In the event of one member discovering something the line stops and plants flags then gathers to discuss its significance (which is the exciting bit) and it is recorded. This is done by pinpointing its location using GPS, measuring it using a ranging pole and tape measure, then photographing it and describing it on its own numbered recording sheet. The line re-establishes itself by returning to the flags and everybody moves forward again. Hacking through head-high brambles and rock climbing up the odd precipice can put pay to this routine but regrouping is usually possible. To my knowledge only one person has been lost so far and he was found safe back at the car park!
Spring is a good time of year to go surveying, prior to the growth of greenery which will eventually shroud any earthworks or structures. Three weeks of surveying has so far revealed the skeleton of a once thriving, but little known, industry producing charcoal, a product essential to the early iron industry. A huge network of pitsteads, which were hacked out of the hillside to provide platforms for burning coppiced wood can now be mapped accurately as can the zigzagging tracks connecting them. The footprint of tiny shelters containing tumbled stones which once formed a hearth and chimney makes real the fact that people both lived and worked in these remote places. What were their daily lives like? How did their societies work? The archaeological volunteers will hopefully be able to return for some more detailed Level 2 surveys of the shelters and other structures. Documentary evidence will provide further insights into the workings of a way of life so remote from our own yet taking place in a landscape we would still find familiar. Meanwhile we have Arthur Ransome’s vivid account to start inspiring our imaginations.
Suddenly high in the darkness they saw a flicker of bright flame. There was another and then another then a pale blaze lighting a cloud of smoke……..as they watched the figure of a man jumped into the middle of the smoke, a black, active figure, beating at the flames.
As published in the CWAAS Newsletter, No. 85, Summer 2017