I’m Charlotte Douglas, public archaeologist for AOC Archaeology Group. I live in Edinburgh and am usually based in our northern office, but I spent Friday 29th and Saturday 30th June in London, helping our southern team in the delivery of a community project in Eastcote.
Eastcote House Gardens were once home to Eastcote House. Records suggest that there was a building on the site from as early as the 16th century. Eastcote House itself was demolished in the 1960s after falling into disrepair. The remaining park is maintained by the Friends of Eastcote House Gardens, and they, along with London Borough of Hillingdon (LBH) council, were recently awarded funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help them progress their plans for the gardens. They aim to apply for further HLF funding in the future so that they can improve the gardens’ facilities, repair and improve the historic buildings, and excavate the site of Eastcote House. This preliminary phase of the project involved excavating four 2m x 10m trial trenches on the site of the house to confirm its location and assess the condition of the remains, as well as testing the community involvement and outreach. Paul Mason, one of AOC’s project managers, has been working closely with the Friends of Eastcote House Gardens and London Borough of Hillingdon council to ensure that the project turns out exactly as they want it. My role as public archaeologist varies from project to project but my main role at Eastcote was to deliver a programme of activities for local children when they visited the site.
A team of around 40 volunteers, mostly members of the Friends of Eastcote House Gardens, took part in the excavations which were directed by Les Capon and supervised by Chris Clarke of AOC. Saturday was the official Open Day, with the Friends offering tea and biscuits and bounteous local knowledge, and with AOC’s Fitz manning a finds-handling table under a gazebo clearly not designed to withstand a bit of a breeze! Many people visited the gardens to check out the excavations over the two days, and the end-of-day tour on Saturday saw about 60 people of all ages peering into the trenches and finding out about the weekend’s findings.
Around 65 local children participated in the excavations: Year 5 and 6 pupils fromWarrenderSchool, Ruislip, came to the gardens on Friday morning and Cubs and Beavers from the local Scout Group visited on Saturday afternoon. The children explored the gardens with Lesley from the Friends, learning about the gardens’ history and visiting the dovecote and the herb garden. Funnily enough, the part of the garden tour that seems to have stuck in their minds the most is the fact that the poo in the bottom of the dovecote would have been collected and used in the production of gunpowder! Their second favourite fact was that strong herbs were sometimes used in sauces in the past to disguise the pungent smell of off fish… Delicious!
The children also participated in an archaeology workshop, learning about archaeologists and excavation, and played a timelines game. My job is to make archaeology fun – to engage with the children in a meaningful way, so that what they learn sticks in the mind. And of course, it’s essential that they enjoy themselves! I encourage the children to ask lots of questions and to steer the conversation – if they’d rather talk about bog bodies than pottery morphologies, so be it! Activities tend to be interactive and informal, allowing the children to move around and make a bit of noise. The timelines game also involves doing a bit of maths. I was really impressed by how much the children knew about some of the historical figures and archaeological sites featured in the timelines game.
After completing the workshop and game, I took the children onto the site itself. Here they donned high vis vests (essential for any archaeologist) and gloves, and armed with trowels and sieves they carefully looked through the loose soil generated by the excavations, retrieving mostly metal, pottery and glass related to the house demolished in the 1960s. The children seemed to have a great time, and I always really enjoy having them onsite – not least because they often ask questions that make you scratch your head and think about archaeology differently! I often have a sore throat at the end of a day involving lots of school children from talking as loudly and enthusiastically as I can, but its great fun nonetheless.
In terms of the archaeological findings, the massively thick foundations (up to 4ft) of the house were revealed in each of the three trenches and the walls of the coach house in the fourth; two trenches also revealed the remains of a basement/cellar level. The discovery of a series of steps that led down to a vaulted cellar in Trench 3 promoted an easily imaginable flow of people around the building. Most of the brickwork appeared to be 18th century in date, but pieces of 16th century brick indicate that the remains of the medieval house are not too distant from our reach. The most significant finds recovered were fragments of pottery that date from the 14th to 20th centuries. These finds show the site to have been inhabited for over 700 years.
The volume of attendance and participation in Friday and Saturday’s activities demonstrate the high level of local passion and support for the gardens and their past, and will surely bolster the Friends’ and LBH’s case in any further application for funding.
One of AOC’s archaeologists will present the results of the excavations at a public lecture sometime soon (date and venue TBC). For more information and event updates please see www.hillingdon.gov.uk
For more information on the gardens please see www.eastcoteparkestate.org.uk