Time Team Series 20. My Third Episode: Rig Day

Archaeology is very good at examining the social effects of long-term historical change. In this episode we’ll actually be returning to the huge after-effects of the rise of the modern industrial world. One by-product of that era, if one can use such a word to describe Hell, was, of course the Great War. Another was the creation, sometimes over two or three generations, of great wealth, which was followed, human nature being what it is, by decline. Frequently the decline was hastened by booze or gambling, or both; very often, too, the slide towards penury was accelerated by death in war.

In practical terms Britain’s rise to industrial prominence was often signalled by the building of vast stately homes in beautifully landscaped parks and gardens. At first they were built and enlarged several times, then, usually towards the end of the 19th century, the builders came less frequently. Gardens grew less lavish; easier and cheaper to maintain. After the Great War many country houses went into a steep decline. The Stock Market crash of 1929 was often the final straw and many great houses, such as Witley Court, in Worcestershire (which I visited on my holiday last week), burnt to the ground. Then came the Second War when many were requisitioned and in the process were vandalised, often deliberately. Evelyn Waugh describes the situation very evocatively in Brideshead Revisited. It’s easy to think of those conscripted soldiers as mindless vandals, but I wonder whether it was ever that simple. Remember, people in the ‘30s and ‘40s didn’t think of the great country houses as beautiful creations: to many ordinary folk, these were the places lived in by the people who’d earned their fortunes off the backs of working men. So I can sort of sympathise, just as I find it hard to be very critical of the angry Scottish crowd who attacked Fred the Shred’s opulent Edinburgh home after the collapse of RBS. Indeed, while we were walking around at Witley Court, I remember hearing an elderly Black Country woman talking rather bitterly to her friend about the families of Lord Dudley’s employees: ‘Bet they didn’t live in places like this…’

With all that in mind, do try to find a copy of a recent book by John Martin Robinson, Felling the Ancient Oaks: How England Lost its Great Country Estates (Aurum Press, London, 2011). It’s an excellently written volume, profusely and superbly illustrated. Worth every penny of thirty quid. If the destruction of great country houses before the Second War was bad, it grew very much worse in the 1950s and early ‘60s. At its height a house was being demolished every week. I discuss the effects on the landscape in The Making of the British Landscape (p. 608 and 694).

So it’s great to get the chance to investigate the remains of a once very great estate where not one, but no less than three successive country houses were destroyed.  This particular estate’s in East Anglia. The story begins in the Middle Ages. The house grew larger in Tudor times and again in the Georgian period. Unlike Witley Court, which was burnt in 1937, this particular great house survived until 1953, when it was demolished. Strangely, however, a substantial remnant of the estate still survives in the hands of the original owners who have invited Time Team to come and investigate. It’s going to be a very complex archaeological problem, with loads and loads of information.  I often find such sites the hardest of all: after all, if there’s little to go by, you can let your imagination fly free, unfettered by mere facts. Maybe that’s why I enjoy prehistory so much.

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