A Day in the life of an archaeological HARPO

My name is Sarah Howard and I am a Historic England Heritage at Risk Project Officer (HARPO, not to be confused with a harpy, although it does depend on what kind of mood you get me in). My day to day job involves looking after nationally designated sites that are threatened within the North West of England and particularly within the counties of Lancashire and Cumbria. Every year the North West Heritage at Risk Team update the Heritage at Risk Register with some sites coming off, some added and others indicating progress towards their removal. In many cases, historic buildings and archaeological sites are at risk due to general decay from neglect or lack of maintenance, but many of the sites I deal with are in the uplands and here we have a particular problem with bracken. In the Lake District, this vegetation was once used for a multitude of purposes, but is now growing out of control and quickly spreading across the landscape, not only obscuring archaeological sites, but also potentially causing mayhem to below-ground deposits due to their robust root systems or rhizomes. Many of my sites are quite off the beaten track, so I had the challenge to get all my site visits in western Cumbria and the central Lake District done in 3 days (to borrow the Time Team trope ?). It was also a great opportunity to have a bit of an adventure, to rediscover the excitement and wonder of my field, actually in the field!

The video below is a recap of June 15th 2017 when I visited two Romano-British sites (The Hawk near Torver and Tongue House Barn near Kentmere). Thanks to the hard work of Lake District National Park volunteers, these sites have been cleared of bracken and are once again prominent features within the cultural landscape of the recently inscribed Lake District World Heritage Site.

Wednesday 14th June

After a few hours of driving from my home in Huddersfield, my first site visit was a coke oven at Maryport which I was checking for the County Archaeologist for Cumbria. The site had been recorded as suffering from vandalism and anti-social behaviour in recent years, but it looked like the local council had given the site a bit of attention and it was looking much less neglected. It still needed a bit of consolidation work to address a bit of decay, but by working with the local council this might be addressed through the general maintenance of the site.

Maryport Coke Ovens © Sarah Howard

My next stop after Maryport was the Saltom Coal Pit site at Whitehaven. The site is of national significance as the oldest surviving undersea coal mine in the North West of England and was in operation between 1729 and 1848. This site was on the HAR register because it is located on the coast and is vulnerable to landslips associated with coastal erosion. From what I could see the land around the site was stable, but that it had been fenced off from public access due to the risk of further landslips. There are many sites like this along the NW coast and really all that can be done in the face of eventual loss is record in detail what is there so that when they are finally claimed by the sea the stories of industrial innovation in this part of Cumbria can continue.

Saltom coal pit undersea coal mine engine house © Sarah Howard

My last site of the day was a lovely little packhorse bridge that had been affected by the flooding during winter 2015/16. The Monk’s Bridge is located on National Trust land and the rangers, under the instruction of archaeologist Jamie Lund, had repaired the bridge so that it was ready to come off the HAR 2017 register. Although the bridge was thought to be associated with the nearby site of Calder Abbey, it is likely that it was constructed or even rebuilt in the 17th or 18th century. The reason why the bridge had survived previous historic and modern flooding events was its high arch above the highest water level of the beck (in Cumbria a beck is a stream).

The Monk’s Bridge single span post-medieval packhorse bridge © Sarah Howard

After a long day on the road I drove to Boot in Eskdale and pitched my tent next to a little stream at a lovely campsite. At this point it had been at least 10 years since I last camped, and that was in canvas army tents in South West Turkey at the archaeological site of Domuztepe. But thanks to a practice run in my back garden, I managed to get my little one person tent up and was also thrilled that there are now petite sleeping bags so there wasn’t a cold spare foot at the end of my sleeping back, very snug (as you can see at the start of the recap video! ?).

After a short walk to the Brook House Inn for dinner on the way back to the campsite I was admiring the extremely wide stone wall along the side of the road. Back at the campsite I got chatting to some fellow campers and they too were speculating as to the age of the boundary walls, which were quite distinct in their construction, being much wider than the other walls and utilising rounded river boulders. After a little detective work I confirmed that these were ‘consumption walls’ that dated from the medieval period – essentially wide walls to accommodate the large number of glacial boulders that would have been strewn across the Eskdale glacial valley to prepare the land for cultivation whilst also serving to enclose it. <bonus points for historic environment knowledge and impromptu public engagement!>

‘Consumption wall’ alongside the road to Boot, Eskdale © Sarah Howard


Thursday 15th June

After being convinced that I was going to wake up with a bad back, I woke up extremely refreshed and even had the good fortune that the rain stopped just long enough for me to get showered and put my tent away. I set off to my first site of the day The Hawk Romano-British settlement located on Forestry Commission land near to Torver. I met with the Lake District National Park (LDNP) volunteers and I was thrilled to discover that some of them had been volunteering when I worked for the National Park Authority, which was my first archaeological job after graduating from my masters in 2007. It is wonderful to once again be working in the Lake District with the National Park archaeologists Eleanor Kingston and John Hodgson, whose mentoring in 2007/8 gave me a firm foundation for the my early career in archaeology.

Here I am vanishing into the Silver Gill Lead mine on the cover of the HLF workplace learning bursary final report. What a fantastic scheme, it certainly helped to launch my career in archaeology! Image of report front cover © Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA)

But getting back to bracken – we got stuck in with our bracken bashers (yes even me! I don’t really do petty bureaucrat that merely observes!) and within an hour and a half The Hawk site was clear of bracken!

Volunteers bracken bashing at The Hawk Romano-British enclosed settlement near Torver, Lake District © Sarah Howard

In the afternoon I set off to see another Romano-British enclosed settlement at Tongue House Barn in Kentmere. The site is a c.30min walk along the River Kent. I was making good time until I managed to drop my mobile phone (rookie mistake but thankfully after 10 mins found it in the rushes) and I encountered a huge cow that absolutely refused to move off the path. I wasn’t going to chance getting too close as there were young cows around and so I went through the boggy bit next to the path and got soaked. N.B. Goretex is great for outdoor shoes, that is until the water comes up and over the top of your boots, then it is squelchy feet until you get back to dry them out ☹ (this is captured in the less than enthusiastic final selfie).

Cows causing havoc is a running theme in my HAR work, but at least it meant I got to speak briefly to Alan Bennett (see Yorkshire Dales website and ITV borders video only available on IOS).

Tongue House Barn Romano-British enclosed settlement, Kentmere, Lake District © Sarah Howard

I also managed on the way back to take a slight wrong turn and, although I could see where I parked the car, I ended up on the wrong side of the river. However, I was meant to be training for the York 10k to raise money for Mind so I thought running back to the car with my massive backpack seemed like a good plan (this was now fluorescent orange due to its rain cover – if anything had happened to me, I would have been okay, as I am pretty certain I was visible from space!). I managed to get back to the car on time and the reason why this was particularly important was to a.) to phone the office before everyone left for the day and let them know I was still alive (there is patchy/no reception in many Lakeland valleys), and b.) to get back to my hotel in Coniston to Skype the lead researcher on a project I was helping out with for the University of Birmingham Law School.  <bonus points for extra-curricular activities in addition to my own PhD research and for also successfully drying out my boots for the next day of bracken bashing>

So that was 24hrs in a (not so) usual day as a HARPO.

For more information about my work for Historic England as well as my doctoral research on sustainability and archaeology you can follow me on Twitter @SusHeritage