When St John’s lads carried swords

In classical parlance I am ‘knackered’. In recent days there’s been a double funeral in France, a christening in South Wigston, an orchestral concert and film on the Somme at Leicester Cathedral, and an archaeological dig at Castle Hill Country Park.

Which is why I am sat in my comfies, supping herbal tea.

First off, the dig. Castle Hill Country Park is a beautiful and untamed green space on the edge of Beaumont Leys. It’s Leicester’s largest park and it separates Beaumont Leys from Anstey, Cropston and Thurcaston.

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What’s it got? It has the late 17th century King William’s bridge, which spans the gentle babble of Rothley Brook and crosses to the splendid village of Anstey, which is not only the gateway to Charnwood Forest, it’s also where, apparently, England’s last wolf was killed.

The park also has an impressive ancient oak and a community orchard which grows loads of rare Leicestershire apples. This tumbling green space has, in the fairly recent past, coughed up Neolithic flints, pottery sherds dating from Roman, Iron Age and Medieval periods, and there’s also a Medieval fishpond dating to at least the 14th century. *King William III

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The ancient oak is ace.

We were there with a mattock and shovel because right here, back in the 1200s, the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem had a farmstead. They were better known as the Knights Hospitallers. Today we known them as the St John Ambulance.

Back in the day they spent the coin they made here on causing merry hell in Jerusalem i.e. The Crusades.

So, among the volunteers getting muddy with the bods of the University of Leicester’s Archaeological Services department, we dug, scraped, dusted, charted and got rained on. At break I went off and ate apples.

I’ve always been interested in archaeology. Although I did learn that digging down to the past is actually a lot of physical graft, often tedious in nature. But there’s quite a buzz when you find 13th century roof tiles, replete with nail holes, and sherds of terracotta pottery, and rocks which likely once formed an outside yard. Laid by hands, presumably, long since turned to dust. It was also nice meeting fellow volunteers, and recording the finds in keeping with the subject.

This is what we know about Castle Hill Country Park in Beaumont Leys…

Archaeological finds suggest the area has been settled since the Neolithic (Circa 4000 to 2,500 BCE) and throughout the Iron Age (Circa 700 BCE to AD 100) and Roman period (Circa AD 40 to AD 410)

‘Leys’ is an Anglo Saxon word for an area infrequently used for pasture suggesting settlement.

1066 – Given by William I to Robert de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Leicester

1086 – Beaumont Leys is mentioned in the Domesday Book

1252 – Earl Simon de Montfort gave the land (including the site) to Leicester Abbey and the land is then used by the Knights Hospitallers.

1482 – Exchanged by King Edward IV for land at the Rectory of Boston.

Henry VIII granted the right of pasturage for cows and horses of the poor.

At the end of the 17th century, the land passed to John Aislabie, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1714) who was disgraced and imprisoned for his role in the South Sea Bubble affair.

In 1844 the land belonged to Admiral Cornwallis Rickettes and then to Sir Robert Tempest who sells it to the Leicester Corporation.

Leicester Corporation builds a sewage system on the site and it was shut in 1964.

In 1980 the site is designated Registered Monument status.

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I actually plotted the course of the drain on this chart with the help of another volunteer reading the dimensions. Woo. Get me.

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This was my canvas.

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Some of the bounty from the first week of the dig.

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Scraping away at a patch of earth, for hours and hours, gives you new insight into the patience required to be an archaeologist. And then you add rain.

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The remains of a 13th C terracotta pot, where close by we found some green glaze and the bones of an animal.

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In the centre, in the distance, that’s where we were.

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Base camp.

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A collection of flora from the park.

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Nothing quite as satisfying as mud on your boots.

 

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