Ancient England: Journey to the Neolithic at Maiden Bower

This expedition out to Maiden Bower marked the final installment in a trilogy of film collaborations with Dave Binns and Gary Lammin – and what an incredible journey it’s been. We started in Spring 2015 with a visit to an Iron Age burial mound near Ware in Hertfordshire overlooking the Lea Valley. This was followed the next Spring by an incursion into the Bartlow Hills on the Essex/Cambridgeshire border to the enormous burial mounds Dave dubbed the ‘pyramids of Essex’. Maiden Bower marked something slightly different, not a burial site although with a surface layer of Iron Age occupation overlaying a much earlier Neolithic causedway enclosure.

Maiden Bower Houghton Regis photo

Southern England: An Archaeological Guide (1973), James Dyer

“A number of disconnected ditch sections containing broken human and animal bones were found during chalk quarrying in the last century, and both neolithic and Iron Age ditch sections are still visible in the quarry face. Neolithic pottery and an antler comb have been obtained from the site.”

Southern England: An Archaeological Guide (1973), James Dyer

As we made our way across the field of waist-high wheat Gary lugged his heavy stainless steel guitar. He stopped on the gravel track plonked the case down and cracked out his axe. This was a place to play slide blues guitar he said, and proceeded to knock out a glorious riff to the hedgerow seed pods flickering in the breeze.

Gary Lammin guitar

Dave soon started to prepare the ground. The recurring theme of site re-use across the ages spanning thousands of years – and how this site, like the other 2 in the series represented the emergence of new hierarchies that slowly eased out the old primitive communism of hunter-gather societies. Except here with the causewayed enclosure we were delving much deeper into the past than on previous field trips.

Maiden Bower Houghton Regis

Maiden Bower

“This roughly circular earthwork encloses about 11 acres. There is an original entrance on the SE, the gap on the N not yet having proved to be original…. Occupation probably began in the 5th-4th centuries BC and lasted until the arrival of the Romans.”

– Guide to Prehistoric ENGLAND (1976), Nicholas Thomas

Maiden Bower occupies an imposing position on a plateau at the top of Dunstable Downs with expansive views stretching out from the sheer drop down into the chalk quarry. The circular enclosure is maintained by trees and shrubs, the camp interior populated by grasses, wild flowers and butterflies. Gary played again, Dave held forth on how modern society arose from sites such as this. We sat in the grass, Gary slept, and we somehow lost time at Maiden Bower, a magical place.

View from Maiden Bower Dunstable Downs

Sat amongst the tall grass with the sun bronzing our heads, Dave started talking about how recent discoveries at Gobekli Tepe have changed our view of the neolithic transition and how this could lead to a further video. Maybe we could link it with nearby Waulud’s Bank, the ‘henge monument’ embracing the source of the River Lea, he suggested.

‘I’m up for it’, I said drowsily, keen to further explore this area rich in prehistoric sites. ‘But it messes up the trilogy’, I add.

‘Maybe it’s the start of a new series’, Dave posits.

Morris Dancing by the sea at Broadstairs Folk Week

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

To Broadstairs for its famous Folk Week. The sense of anticipation built as we walked around the headland from Ramsgate – except amongst my kids who just wanted to go home after swimming in the sea.

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

The Morris Dancers turned the cliff top amphitheatre of the bandstand into Strictly Folk Dancing as each side took to the concrete floor led on by an announcer who seemed overly keen on the sound of his voice through the PA – with the introduction to one side lasting longer than their actual dance.

 

The central streets of Broadstairs were closed to traffic and Hooden Horses wandered the cute thoroughfares alongside banjo slingers tucking into Ice Creams from Morelli’s Gelateria.

Morris Dancing Broadstairs 2016

Morris Dancing Broadstairs

I was sucked into a second-hand bookshop and was about to leave empty handed when I discovered the natural history shelf at floor level and bagged a 1907 edition of Richard Jefferies’ Field and Hedgerow for £2.

From the crumbling coastline to the Suffolk death road

southwold footpath

On a whim I decided to make for the headland that juts out from the shoreline north of Southwold pier. A simple 30 minute walk along the beach I thought – and perhaps it would have a been a straightforward 90 min stroll along the beach if the tide were out – but it was high tide and the waves were happy slapping the sea wall.

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The only way to continue the walk was inland along a green tunnel footpath hoping that it would turn across the adjacent farmland. But in fact it mislead me to the busy main road at Roydon. I was loathe to quit despite heading half-a-mile in the wrong direction.

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I found a dusty farm track where the sea shimmered over the swaying ears of golden corn dotted with poppies. The end of the track was barred – Danger No Entry – Cliff Eroding.

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I passed beside the end house into a field then skirted the edge past a digger dumped in the corner and along the top of the crumbling coastline which gently sloped down to the beach at one end. This was now far away from the holiday vibe and the 6-figure brightly painted beach huts. This beach was deserted, otherworldly, apocalyptic. Danger signs abounded. The trees in the wood that gave Southwold its name tip-toed on the precipice of the cliff root toes dangling over the edge waiting to swan dive into the sea in the next storm.

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Finally I sighted people, and a church spire in the distance – that must mean food and drink and perhaps even a pub. A footpath ran from the sand dunes direct to the romantic ruins of St. Andrews Covehithe. The first vicar was appointed here in 1459 but two hundred years later they realized the church was too big for such a small parish and tore sections down to build the smaller church within its precincts where I now sat and considered my options. There was no food or drink in the village and my solitary bottle of water had expired a while ago. I’d have to walk along the road the 5 miles back to Southwold in the hope of finding sustenance on the way.

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It was a mile along the country lane to the Lowestoft Road. Soon the grass verge pavement dissolved into steep hedgerows as the busy road narrowed. What now?

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I clambered through hedge and over ditch into farmland to skirt the fields that hugged the road but was quickly forced away back through trees onto the Death Road. Across the road I found a beguiling lost byway that provided sanctuary for a while along its zigzag route. The map on my iPhone was blank, I was in a land beyond the omnipresent reach of Gods Apple and Google – did the place in fact exist then?

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A field of freshly harvested corn stalks slashed at my shins – the hacked off stems poking from the cracked earth like broken scimitars. Another hedge scramble to escape left nettle stings and bramble thorns the length of my sorry legs – feet and ankles like pin cushions.

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A second church spire brought salvation for a while – saved by the delightful old ladies of the South Cove Flower Show and the cream tea they served up beneath the thatched roof of the church. I feasted on scones and clotted cream followed by a slab of Victoria Sponge (they only served scones and cake – no sandwiches – what could I do?).

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Refueled I headed back for more near death experiences walking along the Lowestoft Road. Deciding I’d rather incur the wrath of a farmer than get splattered on the road I again found a breach in the 10-foot hedge and scuttled through into a rough field of weeds.

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I pursued the field boundary in the direction of the sea and soon spied an actual marked footpath into a nature reserve. Over a small wooden bridge and the path disappeared almost instantly among head-high reeds and grasses. I ploughed on regardless until I felt the water rising up to my ankles from the bed of the marsh. I retreated and fell into a 40-minute vortex of looped and blocked paths. When I eventually came onto the other side of the Nature Reserve I saw the orange barrier declaring the path I’d entered on the far side Closed.

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I was almost a broken man and started to wonder if I would ever make it back to Southwold and see my family again. Another car hooned past my shoulder. All I’d seen were DANGER – KEEP OUT signs and automobiles intent on murder. It felt like Suffolk was telling me to Fuck Off.

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I negotiated one more field boundary that led to a farm house and had a final hedge scramble that filled in any unmarked areas of my shins with cuts and nettle stings. Finally I hit solid, firm pavement at Roydon with blood-streaked shins scarlet and humming with stings. It was a great unplanned walk in inadequate footwear with no map – an excursion which nearly killed me. Can’t wait for the next one.