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).


From Bricks to the Baptist: A Day of Archaeology in Peterborough.

The Day of Archaeology seems to have unintentionally have been a day spent in ecclesiastical settings for me. It started with a visit to St Michaels and All Angels Church in Sutton near Peterborough for the Cambridgeshire Conservation Officer Forum meeting. This gathering happens every three months or so and allows Conservation Officers across the region to share best practice. It is hosted by a different authority each time, and this time it was our turn! Sutton Church was chosen as it has recently had works to create a new meeting space and kitchen within the 12th century fabric.

Douglas from SPAB giving his presentation in the evening. Photo by Toby Wood

Built as a chapel of ease to Castor St Kyneburgha (a stunning church as well), it has lovely Norman period carvings and some great gargoyles! Each meeting has a specialist building conservation presenter and for this meeting we had Peter Minter of Cambridge Brick and Tile Company (and Bulmer Brick & Tile), who brought some samples with him to show issues affecting tiles (make sure you ventilate your roofs, was the overarching message). Following this we visited Sacrewell Farm and Country Centre, just a mile up the road, to see their Grade II* listed Watermill, recently the recipient of a first round pass from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In the evening I was back to a church, this time St John the Baptist in Peterborough City Centre, for the celebration event for Peterborough Buildings in Need, a project I have been running for the last nine months. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund this project has had a series of masterclasses and lectures on the theme of valuing the historic environment, alongside volunteer surveys of Peterborough City Centre Conservation Area. The website and end of project report and toolkit are here. The evening had some great talks, including from Douglas Kent from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings or SPAB (in the photo above), and some performance poets reading their poetry about the city (including a poem just for the project, on the front page of the website, and well worth a read!).

Alice Kershaw, Heritage Regeneration Officer

Opportunity Peterborough and Peterborough City Council