Our research covered four areas of study and each required a different approach and methodology. This is a summary for each area: documents, architecture, archaeology and biodiversity.
Having set the geographical perimeter around the area of study, our next step was to identify the properties to be investigated through documents.
Our basic criteria for inclusion were what was visible and interesting today, supplemented by a belief that this was a milling and farming area and thus we should investigate that as well, and permission from the present-day owners. At that stage, we had only a minimal amount of knowledge of a building’s purpose and an even lesser idea of who had lived there over the centuries.
A complication was that before the introduction of property numbering in the 1860s, identification of specific properties was difficult, with many documents identifying them by reference to such-and-such an owner or adjacent owner. So, with neither occupant names nor building numbers or names at the start, we had to hope for a series of breakthroughs.
In the event, a combination of elimination, perambulation descriptions, newspaper articles, notes on court cases and plain deduction, identified at least one occupier name and one property name for each structure. Once we had a working understanding, we were able to cross-reference to other properties nearby, thus building confidence that we had established an accurate record.
Our principal sources were relevant books, academic theses, Chancery records, estate papers, wills, Inquisitions Post-Mortem, church records, Duchy of Cornwall records, Census records, taxation records, newspaper articles, trade directories, photographic libraries, resident photographs and personal contact with living relatives of past occupants. In the course of systematically researching property-by-property, we looked at many thousand documents, both real and online, to assemble the histories we have published.
The format of each history is similar:
- A timeline of the development of the property from the earliest records we could find up to the present day. By-and-large, the records we found were 17th century and later, although one record of a mill goes back considerably further, at least to the 13th century. This particular mill and a second in Darshill may be listed in the Domesday Book.
- A schedule of owners and their achievements from the earliest records, together with any notable people or achievements by their immediate family and
- For each owner where they had tenants or mills, details of what happened with them as well
- At the end of each history is a list of the principal references used
- And, for all sections, appropriate maps and photographs
Having set the geographical perimeter around the area of study, our next step was to identify the properties to be investigated through an architectural survey.
Our basic criteria for inclusion were what was visible and interesting today, supplemented by a belief that this was a milling and farming area and we should be sensitive to that and, of course, permission from the present-day owners.
The team of architects and surveyors working had an established approach which was that they would carry out a kind of ‘triage’ visit involving only two of them, to see what was there and to identify what specialist knowledge the surveying team needed to carry out the in-depth survey. The latter typically involved five people but on occasion, up to seven were involved.
In addition to the targeted examination of specific building construction details, e.g. the roof, wall construction, fireplaces etc, an accurate floor plan was produced, from which wall thickness and any hidden cavities could be identified. Sketches of significant features such as balusters, fireplaces, roof trusses etc. were also made.
From the raw information, a draft report was produced and cross-referenced with the document research on the same building to ensure that there was alignment or that another, clarificatory, visit was required.
The format of each report is similar and includes:
- Listing, if appropriate
- Photograph of exterior
- Description of exterior
- Narrative based on the plans
- Property details (walls and floors, fireplaces, stairs, beams, doors and windows and roof structure
- Historical notes
- Observation and interpretation
- Information sources
- The floor plans
- Photographs or drawings of key features
Each of the properties detailed here was chosen because of its architectural or historical curiosity or both.
Many properties are Listed by DCMS and where that is the case, the listing is acknowledged. However, the dating of historic properties by architecture alone can be a risky undertaking and in some instances, the details included in the Listing have been overtaken by the thorough documentary research we have undertaken. We hope that the Listings will be updated in due course.
We initially thought the sites for archaeological investigation would be around people’s homes, but it became clear that in most cases that would not have yielded much information of relevance beyond that particular dwelling. Also, documents showed that the gardens of many of the older properties had been changed, particularly in C20, so the likelihood of anything additional being found, we reasoned, was small.
Our second thought was that we should focus principally on the mill sites: lower Darshill, Middle Darshill/Darkeshole, upper Darshill, Ham, and three locations in Bowlish plus the footpaths conveying workers to and from them over the centuries. Some confirmation of this approach was gained from the fact that no recorded artefact from a garden in the hamlets had been found since 1888 and the ruined mill in the garden of Old Bowlish House had yielded cloth-making paraphernalia within the last decade.
As the document search progressed, we became increasingly certain of where the mill sites were and disappointed that many of them had been redeveloped (lower Darshill, upper Darshill and Bowlish south) leaving only Darkeshole/middle Darshill, Ham and Bowlish north with remains of mill and workshop buildings, although underground remains of water management systems remained. This led us to consider what we wanted to know and how we might find substantiating evidence. We lighted on three methods: metal detecting along the ancient footpaths to the mills, structural timber dating of key buildings, structural mortar dating of disused tunnels and one instance of exploratory test pits.
Natural history has always been part of the conservation society’s interest, and the neighbours of Darshill, Ham and Bowlish have been encouraged to contribute their own sightings as part of the annual national surveys of birds and butterflies. The results from these, together with member’s photographs, were recorded on the original DBCS website since 2012 and this resource of local information has provided the foundation on which the biodiversity component of the heritage project was built.
Such had been local residents enthusiasm for taking part, we carried out a six-month winter garden bird survey, summer garden invertebrate observations, camcorder filming (trail camera) in six different gardens, ‘river dipping’ in the River Sheppey and freshwater springs, paw print recording at five locations, and local ‘nature watching’. The surveys were carried out by a combination of experts and amateurs and all were welcomed into local gardens and outbuildings.
We also conducted bat and botany walks and surveys, many led by professionals, all of which were well-supported but which led to some unexpected discoveries including:
- The identification of an unexpected and notable Greater Horseshoe Bat roost, in a ventilation tunnel in Darshill, where they also hibernate.
- The discovery of a spider which had not been recorded in Somerset before, a member of the Theridiidae family, (Comb-footed spiders), Cryptacea blattea.
The Arachnid and Botany Survey results for 2019 have been lodged with SERC (Somerset Environmental Record Centre).
Overall, between September 2018 and October 2019, ten areas of biodiversity were thoroughly surveyed and collectively they will form the basis of a future Environmental Management Plan for the locality.