Today I’m on what I loosely refer to as my “Summer Progress”. It’s the time of year when I try to visit some of London’s Ancient Monuments that haven’t been checked for a while. London has 157 Ancient Monuments, which are sites that have been identified as of outstanding importance, and are a mixed bunch, from the Tower of London, through to Prehistoric earthworks, like Boudicaas Mound on Hampstead Heath. I have the utterly fabulous job of helping to protect them, on behalf of Historic England and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. One of the aspects of the job is working with owners to make sure they are in a good state of preservation. The Monuments that is, not the owners!
A great many of London’s monuments are right in the urban zone, under busy streets, inside basements of office blocks or in pub cellars. But a lot of the monuments are actually out in the rural areas of Greater London and don’t tend to face the same pressures of development, tourism or damage. But they can get overgrown, too desiccated (not today though!), or if they are structural, can suffer from crumbling mortar or other problems, including graffitti. And if there is no active fieldwork or conservation, these sites can get overlooked for regular visits as I spend most of my time on in meeting rooms or on sites which have live projects where I battle to protect the archaeology and get good schemes of interpretation. This is where the summer progress comes in – summer isn’t really a less busy time of year, but the weather normally makes these sites easier to visit and monitor than in winter. So every Friday morning for a couple of months, my colleague Iain Bright, the Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments for London, and I, are going out to visit a range of our monuments (I’m very protective and not a little possessive!).
This morning we went out to Elmers End in Croydon, to visit a medieval moated site located in the South Norwood Country Park. It is a thirteenth century manor house with a double moat surrounding a house platform. It survived like this for a few centuries, once owned by Sir Robert de Retford, but has had a chequered history since then, the greatest indignity being its submersion below a Victorian sewage farm. Nothing survives above ground now, but it’s clearly visible as a crop mark and a few little humps and bumps. As we found, the vegetation clearly distinguishes the inner and outer moats, with much lusher vegetation on the lines of the moats, and small hints of the earthworks. The house platform can also be read in the landscape as it is a little elevated above the area. We met agents for the local authority who own the site and discussed management of the site, the vegetation and providing interpretation, all of which needs to be combined with management of the park which is a nature reserve. But it was a positive visit (apart from the rain) and the site is in good heart.
Last Friday we went to visit a post-medieval ice well in North London – a great big subterranean brick lined chamber for storing ice on the estate of a country house, and also a Saxon linear earthwork known as the Grims Dyke. The Friday before, the rather mysterious prehistoric earthworks on Riddlesdown Common in South London, which I think are much more extensive and probably form part of an Iron Age enclosure – we’re now looking into antiquarian records to try and get a better idea of this site. We also checked up on the immense 17th century Sutton Dovecote which has had a little graffiti but otherwise is well preserved. Next Friday, another moated site is the subject of our Progress. The survival of numerous medieval moated sites in London came as a surprise to me when I became Inspector, but of course Greater London is about so much more than the Roman city of Londinium and the seat of Royal and political power in Westminster. So many areas have still never been built over, so whilst urbanism in the core is a real issue for conserving archaeology, and takes up most of my time, away from central London, we still have exceptional survival and great potential for future archaeological discoveries that we can add to the Schedule of Monuments.