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Royal blood reaches Alton

It seems like only yesterday that ‘Royal Blood’ was being installed at Andover, Fareham and Aldershot…and already it’s time to up sticks and cases and graphics and objects and move things to Alton, Christchurch and Eastleigh.  At Alton it’s the Allen Gallery that hosts the touring exhibitions and last week saw RB safely installed, with particular mention of the Late Iron Age and Civil War periods.


Horse skulls, harness fittings, chariot fittings, sling stones and gold coins; military might 2000 years ago.

We chose the Late Iron Age because there’s a hoard known as the ‘Alton Hoard’ in the British Museum. The find was of particular significance because it contained coins of a tribal leader previously known only as ‘Tinc’ – and believed to be ‘Tincommius’ (by adding the ‘Tin’ bit to his father’s or grandfather’s name).  The new finds (well, 1996) contained coins marked ‘Tincomarus‘, causing excitement across the numismatic world.  Incidentally, although the hoard is said to hail from Alton – it’s actually from Froxfield – ‘and that’s nearer to Petersfield’ as one mildly indignant Altonian told me.

Whichever corner of East Hampshire the coins hail from, they’ll be on show in the  main Royal Blood exhibition, which begins its tour (at Basingstoke) in early September.

The other featured element at the Allen Gallery is the ‘Storming of Alton’, and this Civil War episode couldn’t have reached its climax much closer to the exhibition’s location.  In December, 1643, as Alton was occupied by a Royalist force of 900, the Parliamentary General, Sir William Waller, gathered 5000 men and began a night march, ostensibly towards Basing. He turned towards Alton, however, and surrounded the town. A fierce battle ensued, with Waller getting the upper hand by using a number of lightweight leather-barrelled field guns, recently received from London.


And a military episode of 373 years ago. The lead and iron shot all come from Civil War sites. The iron ball from the leather-barrelled gun is top right on the crystal block.

The defenders fell back on the church of St Lawrence, a stone’s throw from the Museum. The attackers tossed in grenades, before storming the building. Colonel Richard Bolles led the defence, defying his men to surrender. With his death, however, they laid down their arms and over 800 were taken prisoner and marched off to Farnham.

Among the items on display is a small iron shot unearthed in Alton Churchyard, which must be from one of the leather-barrelled guns.  Other parts of the exhibition reflect on the careers of Waller and Sir Ralph Hopton  – friends before the war, but on opposing sides during the conflict – and there is the full sweep of the Heads and Tales timeline, from the Atrebates to our very own Elizabeth II.

Royal Blood; Heads & Tales – Allen Gallery, Alton, 16 July to 18 September




Buried in time – the medieval chapel of Rishton.

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.

The Francis Grose plan of 1777

The Francis Grose plan of the late 18th century.

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’.

The 1871 map, showing the enclosures and a scatter of smaller monuments.

The 1871 map, showing the enclosures and a scatter of smaller monuments.

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’.

Excavations in progress on the rampart and ditch.

Excavations in progress on the rampart and ditch.

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.

The piece of limestone rooftile with a fishy shape on it.

The piece of limestone rooftile with a fishy shape on it.

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.

The Friends of St Catherine's Hill hold a History Day every other year. At the recent event a WWI 'tank' was among the attractions, emphasising the many military activities that have taken place on the hill.

The Friends of St Catherine’s Hill hold a History Day on the summit every other year. At the recent event a WWI ‘tank’ was among the attractions, reflecting the many military activities that have taken place on the hill.

Further reading

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.


Buried in time – ‘a mass of mortality’.

Fallen - and fracturedIt’s twenty-five years since the great storm of 25 January 1990 toppled the Great Yew in Selborne churchyard. This celebrated tree, mentioned by Gilbert White in The Natural History of Selborne (1789), and in 2002 elected one of Britain’s greatest 50 trees by The Tree Council, had reputedly stood for 1000 years. A serious attempt was made to resurrect it, but the trunk had split from top to bottom in the fall and the effort to bring it back to life failed.


In preparing the ground for the ‘repotting’ operation it was necessary to enlarge the root hole and an area of 10 sq m was excavated to a general depth of 0.75m. This revealed seven graves, four of which were quite shallow. Wherever possible these burials were left in situ. Many disarticulated remains were found, representing at least another 20 individuals – ten of them adults, and ten children.

The deepest burial -furthest from camera - no grave cuts could be seen in the homogenous soil.

The deepest burial is furthest from the camera – no grave cuts could be seen in the homogenous soil.

The deepest burial was 1m from the surface and cut into the surviving subsoil beneath where the tree had stood. Seven nails with traces of wood suggested that this adult male was buried in a coffin and a piece of green-glazed pottery of 13th/14th century date came from the grave fill. The young yew may have had a diameter of c 1m by this time, suggesting an age of 2-300 years. An overall age of 1000 years therefore seems possible for the Great Yew. A plaque inside the church adds a tentative 400 years to this, but as the heart of the tree was rotten, dendrochronological (tree-ring) dating was not possible.

Inside the church there is information about the yew and a fine array of Selborne Priory inlaid tiles.;

There is more information about the yew inside the church and a colourful array of Selborne Priory inlaid floor tiles.

The highly disturbed and populated nature of the area close to the Great Yew, with the buried remains of twenty-seven individuals represented, would not have been a surprise to Gilbert White. His simple grave (1793) is located at the northeast corner of the church and his observations in ‘Antiquities of Selborne, letter IV’ suggest why.

Considering the size of the church and the extent of the Parish, the churchyard is very scanty; especially as all wish to be buried on the South-side which is become such a mass of mortality that no person can be there interred without disturbing or displacing the bones of his ancestors’.


The bones recovered from the excavation were reburied nearby, as a plaque on the church wall now relates. Another inscription marks the grave of John Newland ‘The Trumpeter’. Newland took part in the Selborne Workhouse Riot of 1830, but not such a big part as W H Hudson related in his Hampshire Days. He escaped with a six-month prison sentence, while his co-conspirators were transported to the other side of the world. One detail of the story that sticks in my mind is that when Newland’s wife walked to and from Winchester to attend his trial, their baby suffered frostbite to the nose – poor mite.

The Trumpeter's marker and the Great Yew stump, 2015

The Trumpeter’s grave marker and the Great Yew stump, 2015


Further reading:

D Allen & S Anderson, 1991, Excavations beneath the Great Yew, Selborne, Hants Studies, 47 pp 145-152.

W H Hudson, 1903, Hampshire Days.

Jean Newland, 1998, Echoes of a Trumpet.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.