What we did and found

Our archaeological work was less structured than other areas of our research, in part because no-one locally had the necessary training. A few had experience as assistants in archaeological digs and they took part in the one dig undertaken by the project. What we did manage to accomplish has made a contribution to our findings and this is detailed below. 

Metal detecting: trackways in Darshill and Ham

Before starting our metal detection, we adopted the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales (2017) and advised the relevant property owners and detectorists of their responsibilities and find ownership provisions before we began..

The ancient footpaths and routes we wanted to explore ran from upper to lower Darshill, passing through middle Darshill; the verges on Ham Lane which once was the main cart and walking route between Shepton Mallet and the nearby village of Croscombe; and a garden on the middle Darshill site identified in the document search. We enlisted the help of two local volunteer detectorists, obtained location markers and awaited the end of the growing season and reasonable weather.

In the event, the exploration of the Darshill footpath yielded nothing of interest, despite being in use for at least seven centuries (although one section which had been explored earlier by a resident had uncovered farm based material).   The garden yielded nothing but cans and uninteresting items. For the verges on Ham lane, we needed permission from the highways authority, Somerset County Council, but despite repeated efforts they did not answer our requests.

Structural timber dating: Bowlish

We had more success here and took samples from an old barn at Park Farm, a part-ruined Scribbling Loft at Old Bowlish House and from a fireplace lintel at Old Bowlish House.  

The old barn we thought at the time was of old construction, but subsequently SVBRG dated it to the 19th century, with many architectural features re-used from other properties. Alas, the beam we chose to date was an oak lintel above the principal fireplace and it yielded a date of c.1520, but it too, had been reused and moved from its original location, so we couldn’t use the result to identify the date of the building.

The Scribbling Loft, a workshop, was a different matter and the timber floor joist there showed no sign of having been reused or moved. It was dated c.1700, thus enabling us to date the building at a later date than we had previously supposed. In turn, this meant we had to rethink just where the cloth manufactory in Bowlish was prior to that date, which we knew from deeds and taxation records did exist.

The lintel above the fire is usually a reasonable place to date. Without dismantling the chimney stack moving a fireplace was pretty much impossible but we concluded this is indeed what must have happened to the fireplace at the rear of Old Bowlish House. SVBRG date the design of the stone inglenook as later medieval, c.1550, and the beam had a date of c.1695. This means that the fire and chimney stack were moved at roughly the same time as the adjacent manufacturing complex was built,  c1700.

Structural mortar dating: Darshill

The document search for the middle Darshill mill complex yielded a Duchy of Cornwall survey from 1611 which identified multiple fulling mills on this site. With the cooperation of the owner of Darshill House and tenant of Silk Mill Barn, we were able to gain access to the ground floor basement of the latter where we found the historic water tunnels still intact. Additionally, one of the residents remembered, as a lad, working with his father to fill in the leat carrying water to the two tunnels so we were pretty convinced we had found the route of water used to drive the mills.

Today the entrance to the tunnel and the first three metres or so are low in height (about 1.3m) before opening up to a height of about two metres. From this chamber it divides into two channels, each of which is blocked off in stone today. From the inside of the basement, the arches of the two (filled in) tunnels can still be seen. It’s easy to imagine how the water which once flowed through each would have driven a mill wheel, making the structure a double mill under one roof. 

It was important to establish a date for the construction. Research revealed that lime and sand in mortar cannot be dated, but dating was possible for any organic inclusions such as charcoal. We consulted with the laboratory which had carried out the timber dating, but they were unable to help date mortar, nor is such a capability was not available in the UK and referred us instead to Aarhus University in Denmark.  

Samples from the structure above the blocked in tunnels were analysed by the university in Denmark and the result was remarkable. Their findings revealed the date of the inclusion in the mortar to be 13th century. Not only did the tunnel exist, still intact, but it was very early indeed. 

Soon after, our document researcher found a survey of 13th century Glastonbury Abbey tenants. She discovered a rental record for a mill at ‘Dursill’ on the river/stream Doulting water which gave a mid-century date and even details of the tenant, rental, encompassed land and a view of a vineyard.  

This was such an exciting discovery, to have physical and documentary evidence of a 13th century mill.

Test pits: Primrose Hill near Bowlish

The first history of Shepton Mallet and its surrounding area, written by Farbrother and Cozens in the 19th century, includes a tantalising reference in the 1872 Addenda:

“A Mr. Thomas Strode also had a house – now demolished, on the crest of the high meadow land overhanging the present stone quarry. The spot was called “Primrose Hill;” I suppose Mr. Ball’s garden to be entered by the old approach.”

The description presented us with a challenge. Was this site in our area? If so, where was it and what, if anything, remained of the building? We found three Thomas Strodes associated with the area in our documents and the house could have belonged to any one of them, all were sufficiently wealthy. There were clues as to location in the brief description: “overhanging a quarry, near the land of Mr Ball, his garden being entered by the old approach”. 

There are several quarries in the area, mostly small and overgrown now, but there was one on Forum Lane, Bowlish, which fitted the topographical description. Our document researches also established that Mr George Ball bought the adjacent Park Farm c.1856. We felt reasonably confident that we had found the location of the house, close to the lip of the quarry abutting Park Farm.

The reference to the ‘old approach’ has not been explained, although as all the people named Thomas Strode had either died or moved away by 1700 we have specuated that the ‘old approach’ the writer refers to may hark back to the 17th century. Did the ‘old approach’ refer to the time when  Thomas Strode owned Primrose Hill rather than the old approach to Park Farm in the 1850’s when Mr Ball owned it?. If so, perhaps the reference can be explained by the Enclosure Act of 1775 which created ‘New Forum Lane’ – the upper part of  Forum Lane as we know it today. The green lane we now known as Rubble Lane was the upper part of Forum Lane before 1775 and so the entrance to the garden of Park Farm would have been from the lower part of Forum Lane.

Today the land is given over to fields. We chose LIDAR mapping to help us narrow down our search area. This was a free tool for our purposes and we focussed our area of interest on the southern part of one field. There were promising signs in the landscape – a man-made plateau, a row of mature trees and some unexplained architectural stonework remains. We thought the LIDAR map indicated what could have been the covered-over remains of a structure and that was where we decided to place our test pits.

Conscious of our limitations, we enlisted the pro-bono guidance of Richard McConnell BA (hons), MCIfA, IHBC (affiliate) of specialist archaeologists, ContextOne, who ensured we weren’t destroying irreplaceable remains. 

On Sunday 6th October 2019 a team of local people, supported by the experts, set up the finds table and water, find bags, spades, trowels, brushes, scale rulers and cameras at the ready. In each pit we dug until we hit bedrock.  Whilst we found nothing apart from one piece of 18th century pottery  our archaeologists were of the view that the area showed signs of open quarrying activity which at least might partially explain the leveled areas in the dig location, together with what might have been the remains of a quarrymans’ hut.

Whilst the outcome was disappointing we understand that a lack of success is a common outcome in archaeological digs. We also want to continue the search and have a theory or two we want to test when we have the time and person-power to carry out the exercise again in a more southerly location. 

Field surveys, Darshill

Documentary research had indicated the possible location of a substantial dwelling together with possible outbuildings or smaller properties on the opposite side of the current main road from Darshill House. Part of the site was owned by Wessex Water and mainly given over to a sewage works. The remainder was owned by a local farmer.  Permissions were given by both owners to undertake a range of possible activities.  These included a test pit to investigate a possible wall or foundation of the dwelling together with a mortar sample if this was feasible, and metal detecting in what might have been a former garden area attached to the dwelling.

Modern road shown in orange

In the event metal detecting did not reveal any material of interest.  Digging a test pit was not possible;  contamination of the land in some areas meant the costs of a dig would be prohibitive whilst other areas were covered by the remains of substantial modern sewerage facilities.  Again the outcome of our investigations was disappointing but at least  a possible location for future archaeology has been identified.