Until the Local Government Reorganisation of 1974, Christchurch was in Hampshire, and the Hampshire Cultural Trust still looks after the Red House Museum and much of the archaeological material from the locality. One of the most enigmatic sites in the area is St Catherine’s Hill, just outside the town, which is peppered with sand and gravel quarries, reservoirs and an array of historic monuments, including the ‘lost’ chapel of a ‘lost’ village.
On 20 November, 1777 a letter from Francis Grose was read to the Society of Antiquaries in London. In it he described an ‘ancient fortification’ on St Catherine’s Hill, which overlooks the Avon and Stour valleys to the north of Christchurch. The ‘camp’ was 55 yards (50m)square, bounded on three sides by a double earthen rampart 8’ (2.4m)high, with a 20’ (6m) wide ditch between them. On the fourth, southern side stood a single rampart. Grose noted three entrances and further earthworks to the north. He drew his findings on a plan, emphasising that it was ‘not taken with any instrument’ but was ‘accurately placed’.
A more detailed survey of the enclosure appears on the 1871 OS map, which shows numerous other earthworks on the hill, including ‘tumuli’ (Bronze Age burial mounds), ‘watchtowers’ and a ‘fort’ to the north of the camp. It also places the site of St Catherine’s chapel within the square enclosure.
The enclosure was not investigated archaeologically on any scale until 1964, when Michael Ridley directed the Bournemouth Archaeological Association over several seasons, hoping to find proof that it was a particular type of Roman fort – a signal station. In an interim report on the excavations, published in the Christchurch Times on 22 September 1967, Ridley described the various ‘ravages of the site’ that had taken place previously. During the late 19th century the hill was used as a practice ground by the Horse Artillery, and an appropriate military button was found during the excavation. In 1914, the hill was again used as a training ground and a Mills Bomb exploded on the site. The excavators found the remains of this device. Also in 1914, and again in 1921, the Bournemouth Natural Science Society dug some exploratory trenches across the enclosure. All of these factors combined to make the 1960’s excavations ‘most difficult’.
They were made more difficult still by vandals, who constantly disrupted the excavations by breaking down fencing, pulling out marker pegs and digging holes in the carefully laid out grid system. The most serious incident was the destruction of the wooden site hut which was burnt to the ground, along with the society’s equipment valued at £75. Considering that the budget for the entire excavation was a ‘paltry’ £15, this was a severe blow. Nevertheless, the volunteers from Bournemouth Archaeological Association, local WEA classes and local schools persevered.
Ridley’s excavations examined both the interior of the camp and the surrounding banks, but found very little Roman material.
Medieval finds were more common, including a variety of building stone, ceramic roof tiles and slates, a few glazed floor tiles, fragments of window glass, painted wall plaster, and pieces of pottery. A few animal bones and oyster shells were also found. The most celebrated find was a drawing or graffito on limestone of a fish.
Ridley suggested that a succession of chapels stood inside the enclosure (the camp), but that the final demolition was so thorough that no foundations or plan of the building could be recovered. The best evidence for its existence comes from documentary references of 1302, 1306 and 1331, which place it on ‘Richedon’ or Rishton Hill (apparently named after a local village). The earliest dedication appears to have been to St Leonard, but later documents attribute it to St Katherine. The dissolution of Christchurch Priory took place on 28 November, 1539 and Ridley suggests that St Catherine’s chapel was destroyed around the same time.
Ref: Archaeologia Vol V 1779 pp 237-240
The fish graffito is on display in the Red House Museum, Christchurch.
CRH1971.52 The archive is held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.