Whaat? Rural Cardiff??? Yes, that’s what I said. And I’ll repeat: Rural Cardiff. We filmed last April and of course it rained. And rained. We’d just finished lambing, so I wasn’t particularly looking forward to what I’d been told would be an inner city shoot. OK, the site was an Iron Age hillfort, but it was positioned right on the edge of large housing estates and was, they said, one hundred per cent urban. Then I got there, and to be honest, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
We’d driven from the station through mile after mile of houses, under-passes, over-passes, roundabouts and all the signs of city life that I seem to spend most of my time trying to escape. Then we turned off the main road into a vast post-war housing estate, and to be honest our mud-spattered Land-Rover Defender looked a bit out of place. We turned into smaller streets, all lined with houses; past a couple of schools, then through a wooden field gate and onto a dirt road, down which flowed a small stream – it was raining hard by now. The driver engaged four-wheel-drive and we ground our way slowly along the narrow track. Eventually we got to the top of the steep hill where there was a fine ruined medieval church and an over-grown bramble hedge. It was extraordinary. As I said, I couldn’t believe my eyes. As we slowly stopped on a small strip of rough grass by the side of the track, the rain lifted. I even thought I caught a glimpse of the sun behind scudding clouds. Having been travelling for many hours by now, my old bones creaked a bit as I lowered myself to the ground from the back seats of the Defender. Mike Todd, the Time Team lead cameraman passed by with a cheery grin. Then I heard it: birdsong. And then some more. And some more: it was all around me. I almost expected strains of Ralph Vaughan Williams to waft lazily on the spring air from somewhere in the little church. It could not have been more idyllic.
In all my years with Time Team I have never seen such a stark contrast between town and country. We’d been told that parts of the nearby city – with the good old Fen name of Ely (island of eels) – were quite deprived and that we could expect trouble. But no. The stories were all wildly inaccurate. Yes, there was poverty – you’ll find that anywhere in Britain after the Bankers’ Bubble – but I detected no unpleasantness at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. People were plainly hugely proud of their hillfort in its gorgeous rural landscape, and they were over the moon that we were going to reveal a few of its secrets. Lots of people climbed the hill to visit the dig and I was constantly having to answer often quite difficult, and certainly well-informed, questions about the people who built and occupied the site. It made a great change to come across a community where Time Team was actually more about archaeology than its stars – the likes of Phil and Tony. And for what it’s worth, I think Phil and Tony appreciated that, too.
I also understand that the Time Team project will be the first part of what is intended to be a longer, more sustained, project to investigate the site. This will be organised in collaboration with Cardiff University and the local community. I wish them all the very best of luck. And I learned something myself on that dig. I had always known that people in Britain – and elsewhere – were proud of their origins and where they grew up, but I hadn’t been aware before just how specific that could be. Thinking about it in the train, on the way back home, I remember looking at the stately form of Peterborough’s massive Norman Cathedral – and having warm thoughts. Ely Cathedral – the Ship of the Fens – has the same effect, as do some of the buildings of Cambridge and that tiny Civil War chapel in Guyhirn, that I described in the last chapter of The Making of the British Landscape. For me, these buildings represent stability and the enduring value of the culture I grew up in. It’s very non-specific: I don’t believe in God, yet church buildings feature heavily in my memories. But in Ely, Cardiff I detected something else.
The hillfort at Caerau dominates the surrounding housing estates and urban landscape, just as Arthur’s Seat dominates Edinburgh. I love Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, but to be honest I sometimes felt that the detective’s feelings towards the physical townscape of his native Edinburgh were, if anything, slightly exaggerated. But after my short stay in Cardiff, I must concede I was wrong. I think it must be the effect of large numbers of people living close by each other, but something had developed in the community that verged on reverence for that massive hill and its Iron Age fortifications. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised how right they were: how much better it is to revere and show respect for something of such enduring fascination and mystery. So very much better than the narrow sectarian beliefs that are tearing apart societies in the Middle East, north Africa and until very recently, Northern Ireland. So can archaeology and a sense of place one day play a role in healing such deep divisions? My experience of that particular community in Cardiff, suggests it might.
I don’t want to give away what we discovered, because if I say much at all it will spoil the film. But the hillfort was very well preserved and the geophys team surveyed all of the interior, which is richly scattered with houses, settlement and farm buildings. There’s also a surprisingly substantial Roman component to the site, too. The defences, the ramparts to give them their correct name, were cloaked in woodland, and I don’t think I have ever seen such a profusion of wild flowers: dog’s mercury, primroses, anemones, hedge garlic, bluebells – it was like walking through a nature reserve. No wonder the people of Ely were proud of their hillfort at Caerau; because it’s got everything: stunning archaeology, good finds preservation, wonderful woodland and wild flowers to die for. And all of this within comfortable walking distance of the capital of Wales. You couldn’t ask for more.