Funny ha-ha? Excavations at Eastcote House Gardens

On the Day of Archaeology 2014, AOC Archaeology Group is working once again with London Borough of Hillingdon (LBH) and the Friends of Eastcote House Gardens (FEHG) to deliver an exciting programme of public archaeology in this lovely park. I’m Charlotte, AOC’s Public Archaeologist. AOC first worked at Eastcote House Gardens in 2012, when we ran a smaller evaluation excavation as part of the development phase of this project. You can read our Day of Archaeology 2012 post at: http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/community-excavations-at-eastcote-house-gardens-hillingdon/.

The excavations at Eastcote House Gardens form just one part of a larger project, which is being supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund, through their Parks for People programme. This project, led by LBH and FEHG, will see significant changes to the Park including the repair and re-use of the historic buildings, the building of ancillary facilities, with a cafe, toilets and manager’s office, and the improvement and upgrading of the Gardens for educational and community use. The archaeological programme includes public excavations, training workshops, an open day, and a schools programme involving hundreds (literally!) of young people from local schools (primary, secondary and special), uniformed groups (Guides, Cubs and Beavers) and one youth charity. FEHG has a small army of volunteers who are passionate about the park and its past, and they play a key role in the school visits, giving learners a tour of the historic dovecot and stables as well as the smaller trenches current being excavated. Most days onsite are very busy, with lots of volunteers and young people working to explore the past at Eastcote House Gardens.

The Gardens, and its historic buildings, are all that have survived from Eastcote House and its outbuildings, which were demolished in 1964.  Eastcote House was a big white stuccoed house of many different periods, part of which dated from the 16th century. However historic records suggest that there was previously an even earlier building on the site, known as Hopkyttes. During the evaluation excavations in 2012 we opened only small trenches, confirming the location of the remains of Eastcote House, establishing the condition of any archaeological features, and assessing the value of any future work. This year, we have opened a much larger area, so that we can gain a better understanding of the layout and phasing of the house. We are very excited to have found (we believe) the remains of Hopkyttes, overlain by the Tudor structure.

However, on to our activities on the Day of Archaeology! As well as our lovely, ever-cheerful project participants – some old hands and some newbies – today we welcomed to site three classes from a local primary school, and a group of young people from The Challenge, a charity aimed at building a more integrated society. The primary schools and The Challenge group concentrated today on excavating the remains of Eastcote House and washing some of the finds, and we also focussed on the site’s funniest feature – the ha-ha.

Les, who is directing excavations onsite, informs me that his Chambers dictionary defines ‘ha-ha’ as a representation of a laugh. The second definition is ‘a ditch or vertical drop…between a garden and surrounding parkland’. We have one of these features in one of our smaller trenches, which is placed to investigate the southern end of a sunken flint wall with a steep sided ditch dropping towards it.

The upper levels of soil that had collected in the ditch contained 20th century finds, as we might expect.  We have a Tizer bottle with 3p due on return, a bottle which contained a chocolate milk drink – the ingredients include shagreen (sharkskin) – a stoneware mineral bottle, and smaller, broken pieces. Some of the finds are the result of accumulation, while others are probably from people seeing a handy ditch to throw rubbish, rather than recycling or taking it to the nearest bin. Fizzy drinks seem to be a theme on this site: last week we found a bottle marked ‘Eiffel Tower Lemonade’. After a bit of online research, we’ve discovered that this was a lemonade powder – tasty!

The ha-ha

The ha-ha


It looks as though our ha-ha ditch was originally 2m wide and 1.5m deep, and was probably a grassy slope. Some of the local historians think that this may be less of a ha-ha and more of a drainage ditch. At the moment, we think it may be both. In our excavation is a flat slab with flint blocks on top of it. This may be a secured entry to a drain inserted into the ditch: it looks later. We do wonder whether the slab may have been placed over the burial of a favoured pet though. We will know tomorrow.

Hard at work in the ha-ha

Hard at work in the ha-ha

This is just a small taster of everything we’ve been discovering at Eastcote House Gardens. Please do head over to the project website to find out more about the excavations: www.aocarchaeology.com/eastcote






Community Excavations at Eastcote House Gardens, Hillingdon

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.

AOC’s Chris leads the end-of-day tour on Saturday

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.

Trench 2: the major northern wall

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