ReculverThis striking ruin perched on the shore of Herne Bay in Kent is all that remains of a 12th century church which once stood here, itself constructed on the ruins of a Saxon monastery and, earlier still, a Roman era fort.

The site once faced the now swallowed up Isle of Thanet across a narrow waterway to the east and it was this location which made it a prime spot for the Romans, in the early to middle years of the 3rd century AD, to build one of what became known as Saxon Shore forts, constructed to watch over waterways and resist raiders from across the sea. The square fort – known as Regulbium – featured walls supported by earthen ramparts containing a range of military buildings including a headquarters building at the centre. It’s main entrance was located in the north wall.

Reculver-smallThe fort ceased to be garrisoned by regular troops by the end of the 4th century and archaeologists have found little sign of any activity there at the start of the next century.

Following the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD and the conversion of local Saxon kings to Christianity, Egbert, the King of Kent, gave land which included Reculver (Raculf) to one Bassa for the foundation of a church or minster (this has been dated to 669 AD). A monastery was subsequently founded on the site which remained there until the 10th century after which the church, which stood roughly at what was the middle of the Roman fort and which had been enlarged during the Saxon period, became a parish church of Reculver.

Remodelled in the 12th century (from which period the towers date), it was visited by Leland in 1540 who wrote of a stone cross which stood at the entrance to the choir and was carved with painted images of Christ and the 12 Apostles (fragments of the cross are now in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral).

The encroaching sea, meanwhile, continued to move closer and closer to the northern side of the church, seriously so by the end of the 18th century when the vicar persuaded parishioners to demolish the church and build a new one at nearby Hillsborough. Thankfully, while much of the stone from the church was used in the new building, the twin west towers were left standing.

Their value as a landmark was recognised in 1809 when the ruin was bought by Trinity House as a navigation marker. They subsequently strengthened the towers’ foundations to ensure they weren’t undermined any further. Further strengthening measures took place in later years. About half of the Roman fort remains. The site is now managed by English Heritage.

Reculver is a site richly evocative of England’s past with a history going back more than 1,700 years. The remains may only be fragments of what once stood there but they nonetheless tell a myriad of stories.

WHERE: At Reculver, three miles east of Herne Bay (nearest train station is Herne Bay (four miles); WHEN: Any reasonable time in daylight hours; COST:Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/reculver-towers-and-roman-fort/.

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Fan-Bay-Deep-Shelter,-main-tunnel---credit-National-Trust,Barry-Stewart

A series of secret tunnels, built behind the famous White Cliffs of Dover on the orders of former British PM Winston Churchill, have opened to the public for the first time.

More than 50 volunteers along with archaeologists, engineers, mine consultants and a geologist, spent two years excavating and restoring the tunnels which, known as the Fan Bay Deep Shelter, were aimed at housing men manning gun batteries designed to prevent German ships from moving freely in the English Channel.

The shelter, which was personally inspected by Churchill in June, 1941, provided accommodation for four officers and up to 185 men in five bomb-proof chambers for use during bombardments as well as a hospital and a store room. It was originally dug by Royal Engineers from the 172nd Tunnelling Company in just 100 days.

The tunnels, which were decommissioned in the 1950s and then filled in during the 1970s, were discovered after the National Trust bought the land above in 2012. More than 100 tonnes of soil and rubble were removed during the excavation.

Specialist guides now take visitors on 45 minute, torch-lit, hard hat tours into the shelter – the largest of its kind in Dover, taking visitors down the original 125 steps into the tunnels 23 metres below the surface. Inside can be seen graffiti dating from the war which includes the names of men stationed there as well as ditties and drawings. Other personal mementoes include homemade wire hooks, a needle and thread and ammunition.

Back above ground, there are two World War I sound mirrors which were originally designed to give advance warning of approaching aircraft but which had become obsolete when radar technology was invented in 1935 (pictured in action below).

The tunnels complement those which are already open at Dover Castle (managed by English Heritage).

WHERE: Fan Bay Deep Shelter, Langdon Cliffs, Upper Road, Dover (nearest train station is Dover Priory (two miles); WHEN: Guided tours only – from 9.30am daily until 6th September – tours then on weekdays only until 30th September); COST:£10 adults/£5 children (aged 12-16) (free for National Trust members); WEBSITE: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-cliffs-dover

 PICTURE: Top – National Trust/Barry Stewart/; Bottom – National Trust/Crown Copyright.

Example-of-sound-mirror-in-use,-Abbots-Cliff-near-White-Cliffs-of-Dover---Crown-Copyright

Rochester-Castle

We’ve visited Rochester before but given it’s the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta we thought it would be good to take a more in-depth look at Rochester Castle and the events that took place there after the sealing of the “Great Charter”.

Rochester Castle was first built in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings as a Norman stronghold to control the Medway and the Roman road – Watling Street – which crossed it at that point. There was a Roman-era town on the site and it’s likely the first castle – surrounded by a deep ditch and featuring walls of earth topped with timber – was  built within the town’s walls – possibly on the site of the existing castle.

Rochester-Castle2Work on a stone castle was started in the late 1080s by Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester (he also built the first Tower of London), and the castle precincts outer walls still largely follow the line of his original curtain walls. The keep was built by William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was granted the castle by King Henry I in 1127. It remained in the custody of the archbishops until the events of 1215.

Following the sealing of the Magna Carta in May, relations between King John and the barons soured again into outright civil war with the castle declared for the rebels. In October and November, 1215, it was held for some seven weeks by a force of knights – accounts suggest between 95 and 140 – against the forces of King John. These eventually breached the south curtain wall and after the forces of the knights – who were led by William de Albini and Reginald de Cornhill – retreated to the keep, the king ordered his sappers to work.

The miners were successful in undermining the south-west tower which collapsed along with a large section of the keep (the fat of 40 pigs were apparently used to make sure the fire in the mine was hot enough). The defenders nonetheless kept fighting, retreating further into the remains of the keep, until they were eventually forced to surrender when faced with starvation. King John’s fury at their resistance was said to be great but while some of the defenders lost their hands and feet when they were apparently lopped off on his orders after surrendering, he was convinced to spare the holdouts from being hanged on the spot and merely had them imprisoned.

The tower was later rebuilt by King John’s long ruling son, King Henry III, and you can see its distinct round shape (in contrast with the earlier, square towers) when looking at the keep today. (Incidentally, King John’s siege was the castle’s second major siege – the first had taken place in 1088 when the forces of King William II (Rufus) had besieged the castle which was then held by the rebellious Odo, Bishop of Bayeaux, who was involved in an attempt to put William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert, Duke of Normandy, on the throne in place of William (who was the second son). Odo was forced to come to terms and exiled as a result of the siege).

Rochester-Castle3In the hands of the Crown after King John’s siege, the castle was again the site of a siege in 1264 – this time unsuccessful when rebels under the command of Simon de Montfort failed to take it from those of King Henry III (although the garrison was later forced to surrender following events elsewhere).

It was rebuilt and repaired a number of times, including during the reigns of King Edward III and that of King Richard II (during whose reign it was also ransacked in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381). Other kings to visit it over the years included King Henry VII and King Henry VIII.

Already much deteriorated and neglected, in 1610, King James I gave the castle to Sir Anthony Weldon whose family sold off some of the timber and stone to local builders. It survived the Civil War without incident and was used as a public pleasure garden from the 1870s onward before, in 1884, it was sold to the City of Rochester. In 1965 responsibility for its care was given to the Ministry of Public Building and Works. Current managers, English Heritage, took over the site in 1984.

The castle remains an imposing site in Rochester and the outer walls of the keep remain intact even if it’s no more than a shell. Worth the climb to the top simply to take advantage of the spectacular views of the town and cathedral below!

WHERE: Rochester Castle, Rochester, Kent – nearest train station is Rochester (half a mile); WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily (until 30th September); COST:£6.20 adults/£3.90 children (aged 5-15) and concessions (free for English Heritage members); WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rochester-castle.

Maiden-Castle

Located just outside the town of Dorchester in southern Dorset to the south-west of London, Maiden Castle is the largest extant Iron Age hillfort known to have been built in Britain and among the largest and most complex in all of Europe.

Featuring multiple earthen ramparts (pictured above is the ditch between two of them) – from the top of which you can see spectacular views of the surrounding countryside – and well-defended entrances, it would have once been home to several hundred people. It’s been speculated the name may come from the Celtic word “mai-dun”, meaning a great hill.

Maiden-Castle2The first archaeological excavations were carried out here in the 1930s by Mortimer Wheeler and then later in the 1980s.

Initially built between 800 and 550 BC, the first Iron Age hillfort – built on the site of an earlier Neolithic enclosure with settlement dating back some 6000 years – was enclosed by a single rampart.

In the middle Iron Age, between 550 and 300 BC, it was extended to some 19 hectares or 50 football fields and, apparently densely populated with “round houses” which over time were organised into an increasingly regimented layout, eventually become the pre-eminent settlement in southern Dorset.

In the late Iron Age, the settlement became focused on the eastern end of the fort and with the arrival of the Romans and their establishment of the town of Dorchester (Durnovaria), it was finally abandoned.

Among the features identified within the hillfort’s precincts are well-defended and complex entrances at the western and eastern ends and a large Iron Age cemetery just outside the eastern entrance.

Discovered by Sir Mortimer, the cemetery contained more than 52 burials, some of which held the remains of males with terrible injuries. While Sir Mortimer believed it was a war cemetery created following a battle between the locals and the Roman, it is now thought to have been used as a more general cemetery over a longer period of time.

The remains of a Romano-British temple (pictured above right), dating from the late 4th century AD – about 200 years after the site was abandoned, has also been found inside the hillfort’s boundaries. It consisted of a central room surrounded by a passage with a portico open to the weather. Nearby is what is believed to have been a shrine and a two roomed building thought to have been a priest’s house. A bronze plaque depicting the goddess Minerva has been found on the site, suggesting the temple have been dedicated to her.

The site is managed by English Heritage who have an MP3 audio tour you can download from the website and play on an iPod, smart phone or MP3 player to give an extra dimension to your visit!

WHERE: Maiden Castle, two miles south of Dorchester, off A354, north of bypass or train – two miles from Dorchester South/West; WHEN: Any reasonable time in daylight hours; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/maiden-castle/

For more on Iron Age Britain, check out Barry Cunliffe’s Iron Age Britain (English Heritage).