Castles, community, and John Clare


Today has been divided between multiple tasks on two different projects. I’ve already talked about my viking food culture project here, but my other job relates to a community archaeology project I’ve been involved in with my colleague (and wife) Aleks McClain.

For the last few years, we have been assisting the local community of the village of Helpston in west Cambridgeshire as they investigate the history and archaeology of their area. Helpston is most famous as the birthplace of John Clare, a 19th-century agricultural labourer, who went in to become arguably England’s greatest rural poet. However, on the edge of Helpston village lies Torpel Manor Field: an enigmatic series of earthworks that has been little explored. The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and as the remains of an Anglo-Norman ringwork, represents one of the first fortifications constructed in the area following the Norman Conquest. However, it is clear that the site is a more complicated, multi-phase phenomenon than this.

The site is stewarded by the Langdyke Countryside Trust, who have successfully won Heritage Lottery Funding to care for the site as both a heritage monument and  a wildlife preserve. We have been working the the Trust, leading to the foundation of the Helpston History and Archaeological Group, assisting them in topographic and geophysical survey across the site, and in providing information for display in their newly constructed on-site Interpretation Centre. The group have also undertaken fieldwalking and testpitting at a number of sites across the village, as well as engaging in extensive documentary and archive research.

13 torpel bw small Torpel survey

Earthwork and magnetometry survey at Torpel Manor Field.  Note the mound in the south of the earthwork survey, the complex of perimeter ditches and banks, and a number of outlying structures and building platforms to the north. Geophysics has demonstrated that many of these earthworks conceal the remains of walls and robbing trenches, as well as identifying a number of previously unsuspected features. 

As a result of all this work, a number of gaps in the village’s history are starting to be filled in, so that Helpston is no longer thought of solely as the home of John Clare, and a narrative can now be written that extends from later prehistory, via the Norman Conquest, through to the present day.  There will be numerous academic outputs from this work, but right now we are working on the production of a popular-interest book that explores the biography of Torpel’s landscape.  We hope to self-publish this within the year, and this afternoon was a busy and productive editorial meeting involving myself and Aleks.

IMG_0695Hard at work on the Torpel Story….

I’m not going to give away our findings here, but keep your eye out for further updates later in the year.

Check out our project here (we have a new website in development, to be linked from the same site).