A Book Is Being Published!

The exciting news is that, although Past In Mind has finished its research into Studmarsh, the project lives on.  Past In Mind was never a project that was destined to be filed away in a County archive.  Too much has been gained for that.  With this is mind, Dr. Kate Lack who was the project historian, has written a book about what has been learned from Past In Mind.  The book, due to be published on May 10th 2014, offers a glimpse into the lives and experiences of some of the inhabitants of Studmarsh and the surrounding area.  Studmarsh saw the Roman occupation, the Norman Conquest, the Black Death, famine, civil war, the Industrial Revolution and much more before the present day.  Drawing from the shared experience of volunteers and paid professionals working on the Past In Mind project, the book is a human story full of fascinating historical facts.

More details will be posted as they arise.

Past in Mind has also been entered for the Heritage Lottery Awards and if we are shortlisted I will, of course, announce it on this Blog.

I genuinely believe that Past In Mind has paved the way for future Community projects seeking to learn more about local history/archaeology whilst breaking down barriers in mental health.  The common denominator in this project was enthusiasm for research and archaeology, but everyone involved brought a unique perspective.  For those volunteers who have no experience of mental health problems, I hope that fear of ‘mad’ people has been eradicated or at least diminished.  For those volunteers who do experience mental health problems, I hope that fear of trying new things and meeting new people is now one that can be faced more regularly.  Because the emphasis of the project was on the excavation and historical research rather than mental health, it was easier to get on with the task in hand.  But one of the things that made this easier was that everyone who volunteered was accepted for who they are.  Each individual was valued.  And this ethos continues in Past In Mind.

Details of where to purchase Kate’s book will be posted when they are available.

Medieval Plough -1

one_in_four_logotrowel

Why The Rain Didn’t Drown My Summer

It’s almost a month since we finished the Studmarsh dig. I can honestly say that it was one of the best Summers of my life.  Coming back down to earth has been incredibly hard, hence a bad dose of Blogger’s Block.

We are meeting tomorrow at Whitbourne, near Bromyard, to discuss the findings of the dig and the next phase of the Past in Mind project.  This has really made me realise that I can’t put off writing any longer. I want to capture the Studmarsh Summer before it becomes obscured by Autumn mist. 

Weather-wise we faced many endurance tests throughout August.  Twice we had to abandon the site altogether because of thunderstorms and torrential rain.  It was the kind of penetrating rain that seems to make your insides wet.  But at least it showed me that “Blog from the Bog” is an apt name.  The Studmarsh site is literally a bog – and its watery underside is one reason why it was favoured by our ancestors.  We did have some days where the sun shone for us so that we could dry out before the next downpour.  These days were golden nuggets.

As time went on the daily trek to reach the site became more enjoyable.  I can’t say that for the trek back at the end of the day.  The track was uphill on the way back, and we all felt it.  But I think everyone became very attached to the field which saw most trowel activity.  It was flanked by a herd of benign cows and a seriously macho bull.  They watched us go past twice a day and even escorted us to the gate on one occasion.  (Being seen off the premises by a herd of cows is where I draw the line regarding new challenges).

In the Studmarsh field there is a huge oak tree which became our lunchtime focal point and often served as an impromptu shelter.  The oak tree (informally known as Doug) must have seen so much.  When we had a site visit from the Herefordshire Parklands project manager, Lewis Goldwater, it became clear just how ancient the oak tree is.  It has never been recorded until now, and is thought to be around 450 years old.   http://www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk/recording/tree?tree=WRbknGHzCkKsr7L%2bjicHpw 

One of the aspects of the dig which I enjoyed most was the time spent with archaeologists and fellow volunteers.  I loved the mix of banter and informative conversation.  Right from the start there was so much to learn.  Sieving and trowelling were just the start… The site archaeologists, Chris and Dai, are both talented teachers although they might not realise it.  I never thought that I’d be asked to taste and smell mud and soil to identify them – yet by using taste and smell you really can identify some of their properties.  Sometimes I found it difficult to tell the difference between silted rock and earthenware, and at first I was having many pseudo “Eureka” moments.  But I was taught how to feel the difference between them and this helped me to home in on a couple of finds.

This hands-on approach quadrupled my self-esteem.  I thought my lack of sight would be an impediment in archaeology, but we found a way round everything except how to code the colour of soil on the Munsell chart.  Even this obstacle could be overcome with the help of technology – a University Lecturer who visited the site, is on the case!

The trench that most of the volunteers worked in revealed part of a Medieval building which probably belonged to a local official.  The size of the stone, as well as the dimensions of the “rooms”, indicate considerable wealth.

At the time of the dig the theory was that the Studmarsh site had been abandoned in the 14th century.  The Black Death, political unrest and local famine would all have played their part.  As we slowly uncovered the huge stones until we reached bed rock, I felt a real sense of sadness for the people who had first placed those stones and lived in the Studmarsh field.  No matter how many centuries have gone by, when you’re removing layers of someone’s home it still feels intrusive.  That’s why I was so pleased to take part in the backfilling work at the end of the dig.  It felt like a mark of respect to place the stones back in the earth where we had found them.

Entwined in the long grass of Studmarsh there is undoubtedly personal tragedy.  This had a very profound effect on me at the time and it has not left me completely.  Having said that, this huge boggy field with the Pedunculate oak tree is one of the most peaceful places I have visited.

Many volunteers who participated in the dig are recovering from mental health troubles.  It was so refreshing to take part in a challenging physical activity with no hint of Day Care about it.  Although every part of me ached,  I felt proud of my exhaustion at the end of each day because I had earned it.  Being outdoors with a very eclectic group was so beneficial, and I relished the fact that community spirit brought everyone together no matter what their background.    It was invigorating having such a specific focus – i.e. discovering the secrets of Studmarsh.  At the point of slicing your trowel into the earth and loosening a piece of pottery there is little room for mental distress.  That has got to be worth savouring.

The Studmarsh dig has given me an archaeological bug which is not likely to diminish.  Now I know how much clout depends on the size of an archaeologist’s trowel I hope I’ll get the chance to volunteer at least once a year. 

Thank you to archaeologists Ian Bapty, Dai Williams and Chris Atkinson for giving us volunteers a Summer which the rain didn’t drown.

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Lift Off! The Official Launch

As always when planning outside events, the British weather was doing its utmost to cause disruption right up until the morning of the launch.  Thankfully we were spared the wet stuff, which kept spirits very much alive throughout the day. 

The venue was Lower Brockhampton Estate just outside Bromyard, which is owned by the National Trust.  Brockhampton literally means “the farm of the dwellers by the brook”, and the 1680 acres of parkland, woodland and fields create a tremendous feeling of continuity.  This beautiful place has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.  The first owners of the estate, the Brockhampton family (who took their name from the place) built the Norman chapel which now stands as a ruin in the grounds.  The manor, Lower Brockhampton House, was built in the 14th century by John Domulton, and although by modern standards it does not seem extravagant or luxurious, at the time of construction it was an ostentatious display of wealth and status.  Similarly the moat which once surrounded the manor was intended more as a status symbol than a defence. 

The Studmarsh site which we will be excavating is not far from the Brockhampton Estate and visiting it really helped me to connect with the location.  I was struck by its remoteness.  Even the National Trust ticket kiosk was a considerable distance from the manor.  As we trundled down the lengthy drive, I thought of the people who had made the same journey in previous centuries before the luxuries of cars and concrete paths.  Their world must have been a local world.  This time next year we may know more. 

For the project launch a huge tent had been erected to house the displays and information stands of the various Organisations supporting Past in Mind.  I thought it was impressive – but then I didn’t have the logistical headache of negotiating tent pegs, poles and limited time.  Once again I was pleasantly surprised by the high turn-out, and there were some new people in the group which was encouraging.  We began with a short talk by the Project Manager Jenny McMillan, who outlined the ethos of the project and the idea behind Past in Mind.  I still have to pinch myself every now and then to remind myself that only a few months ago we were waiting to see if Heritage Lottery would provide funding.

Ian Bapty the senior archaeologist gave a guided tour around the Brockhampton Estate.  It was a very useful exercise as it enabled us to get the feel of the area and to put the Studmarsh site into local context. I enjoyed simply standing still and absorbing the peaceful surroundings.  My Guide dog enjoyed sniffing the green grass and watching the ducks (mallards not eider ducks) out of the corner of her eye.

Obviously the main focus of this project is to carry out historical research and the excavation in August.  However alongside that we are aiming to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness.  I believe that an effective way to reduce and ultimately remove stigma is to talk about seemingly taboo subjects.  So often stigma arises out of fear and common misconceptions, so open discussion is a positive step forward.  Quite apart from anything else, sitting down and talking puts most people at ease.   One of the highlights of the launch event for me was a lively post-lunch discussion about mental health recovery in relation to the Past in Mind project. 

All the volunteers took part in the discussion regardless of their background.  It was fascinating to listen to the breadth of knowledge and experience expressed by so many different people.  Topics ranged from mental health recovery, perceptions of reality, Nature versus Nurture, history (including mental health in historical context), and archaeology.   There was an Olympic-style academic debate between the history and archaeology experts about their different approaches.  Game on!     

I felt really positive after this discussion and easily could have stayed for another hour. One of the things I like about the Past in Mind group is that everyone is very accepting of each other regardless of differing opinions (academic or otherwise).  It is a diverse group, but a united one.

A positive result for the launch was that many more volunteers signed up for the project and I can now declare Lift Off for Past in Mind.

 

The next important part of the project is the Studmarsh site survey which will take place from June 25th – June 30th.  Ian Bapty has provided details about how to get involved with this aspect of the project – please refer to his post, “Site Survey”.  As usual, anyone is welcome to join but please register as soon as possible as numbers are limited.

 

 

To Belong

Our slowly increasing band of volunteers met last week in the aptly named Volunteer Inn in Harold Street, Hereford.  We took over an inside corner of the pub, which was already filling up with dogs and humans by 4.45pm.  The atmosphere was genial and I felt heartened that so many people had turned up.

The project historian, Dr Kate Lack, gave an engaging introductory talk about how to approach historical research.  Much of our research will involve accessing County records such as the Bishop’s Register and Parish Records, and most of the volunteers have never done anything like this before.  Kate demonstrated (with the aid of an eider duck drawing) some basic principles in processing and recording information as our research progresses.  The male eider duck has unwittingly become a motif for the Past in Mind project.  Since his appearance (photographically) at the volunteer Taster Day in Bromyard, he has ventured into many conversations and demonstrations.  If I learn nothing else from this project, I hope that I shall be able to distinguish an eider duck from a mallard.

Hereford Records Office is a short walk from the Volunteer Inn.  I have never been there before and was excited at the prospect of being amongst so many ancient documents.  Once inside, it was as if we had entered an Argos store in the middle of Diagon Alley.  Now I know where Harry Potter really bought his “Magical Drafts and Potions” text-book for Hogwarts school..

This Victorian warehouse is stacked with documents, maps and historical records.  I could lose myself there quite happily and emerge in twenty years time.  We were given a talk about how the records are stored and what types of documents are kept.  So much history: so much to discover.

We came across a Record book relating to Brockhampton, which detailed all the different occupations of residents from the mid 1800’s until 2004.  In beautifully scripted handwriting the entries slowly changed from wagoners, farm labourers, millers and the odd butler – to motor vehicle drivers (1920’s) and computer analysts (post 2000).  This was an incredibly rich source of social history.  For me the thrill was intense.

Some volunteers were mesmerised by antiquarian maps of the Brockhampton area.  Everyone was starting to find their personal preferences as regards research.  I felt really at peace in the Records Office.  When you’re standing amid centuries of historical records in one sense you feel very mortal and quite vulnerable, yet in another you feel grounded.  It is strangely comforting to feel so insignificant and so human.

The historical research for the Past in Mind project will be carried out by five different groups under Kate Lack’s supervision.  Having studied Classics in the past I have agreed to assist with translating the Latin entries in the Bishop’s Register.  I am so glad I still have my Lewis and Short dictionary from the days of yore..  Although I have not done any serious translating for over twenty years, I can feel a rush of adrenalin at the thought of being reunited with Latin text (albeit Medieval).  In all seriousness, I never thought I would be translating again.  It is both daunting and exciting. 

The other groups will be studying records and documents from the Medieval, Tudor and Victorian periods.  And finally, one group will concentrate on historical maps.

It is amazing to think that this is just one aspect of the project.  Already I can feel it gathering momentum.  Today Hereford and Worcester Radio’s Andrew Easton interviewed our Project Manager Jenny McMillan, and the Senior Archaeologist Ian Bapty.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00sqc35/Andrew_Easton_06_06_2012/ 

BBC Hereford and Worcester will be covering Past in Mind’s official Launch this coming Saturday.  Anyone interested in registering as a volunteer or in finding out more, is welcome to attend the Launch which will take place from 10.30am – 4pm at the Brockhampton Estate (situated on the A44 near Bromyard).