Archaeological discoveries in Fishpool Valley
Polyolbion Archaeology returned to Croft to carry out excavations in Fishpool Valley with our dedicated team of volunteers during the first two weeks of July. Their previous discoveries in July 2018 and August 2017 proved fascinating, with mysterious built structures, cascades and spillways all being unearthed and investigated.
In July 2019, we were joined once again by Stephen Wass of Polyolbion Archaeology who led further excavations in Fishpool Valley with our dedicated volunteer team. They worked tirelessly clearing the cascade at the Grotto Pool and have also uncovered another extraordinary structure. Hidden away for hundreds of years, the Conduit House was believed to settle water for drinking and fed water into the fishponds. Take the path up the hill to the left just before the modern brick pumphouse to take a look at this structure.
On the first afternoon, the volunteers helped with clearing the lower portions of the cascade below the first dam at the bottom of the valley. This uncovered a section of walling previously buried below a fallen tree. Work was then transferred to the revetment wall beside the pool which was due to be removed for the new spillway. This was cleaned up then recorded with a drawn plan and photographs.
Day two included work on the site of the lost summerhouse. Volunteers strimmed and cleared around eight square metres of dense vegetation around the site. A small test pit was then dug which revealed a small exposure of what appeared to be a well laid paved stone surface.
Work then began on clearing a deposit of leaf mould largely derived from bracken from a series of stone slabs. One of these proved to be inscribed with an intriguing engraving; more work needs to be done on cleaning the stone but it appears to include three sets of initials ending in the letter K above the line B G. GUARDIAN 1838 (the last two digits are uncertain). Below that are what may be a couple of lines of verse. This is a really significant find and will help us to understand more about this forgotten structure.
The team have also discovered a remarkable collection of 21 pieces of ironwork, primarily large iron nails and spikes at the site of the summerhouse. These remnants and traces of a past life will help us glean a further insight into the valley and its fascinating history.
The archaeology team have also started work on the rusticated grotto. Small finds have been unearthed, including shards of early glass, which will help to reveal the building's age. The team have also uncovered traces of burning at the site, which may have been a hearth or fire pit.
Excavations have also revealed a remarkably well-preserved brick floor, flanked by an edging of small rubble in lime mortar.
During the second week of investigations, the team uncovered more architectural iron work at the site of the lost 'summerhouse'. Also of significance was the presence of traces of timber boarding which may represent preserved remnants of a wooden structure or possibly benching.
Most remarkable however was the exposure of the end wall which not only proved to be apsidal but was also capped for almost its full perimeter by heavily decayed timberwork.
" Having thought about the layout of this site [summerhouse], it seems to me that a better appellation...would be an arbor. I envisage an over arching framework of curved timber members to create a shell-like cover above the paved area. "
The other main focus for the second week was the clearance of undergrowth from around the grave of James Croft, the eleventh baronet. Two concentric roughly positioned stone rectangles were cleared along with the surrounding area.
Other stones positioned as part of the layout include two blocks of old red sandstone and a remarkable moulded block which appears to be the base of a gothic screen with attached column. The quality of the stonework and the level of preservation indicate that this may be a nineteenth century piece.
Read on to discover more about what was unearthed in 2017.
One of the initial discoveries was what may well be the original 'Picturesque' pitched stone floor spillway at Dam 1, just hanging on in there beside years of scouring and erosion to the north and some unaffected clay crest of the dam to the south.
Our volunteers cleared fallen trees and undergrowth from part of the east face of the dam and then removed weeds and moss to uncover the continuation of the wall to the east. The team noticed further flat slabs which had been mortared in place against its north face, suggesting possible small steps indicative of a cascade.
Additional work to clear along the face of one of the walls revealed a remarkable survival of an area of pitched stone paving which was initially interpreted as the base of a spillway running down from the pool.
Work continued to remove the red gravel bank that capped the dam and filled the former spillway. A spread of red gravel was removed onto a yellowish clay bank, all of which post-dates the wall, the buried portions of which remain well preserved.
During the second week of investigations, the team revealed the remains of a built structure comprising of stone walls surmounted by traces of a shallow barrel vaulted brick ceiling. The eastern and southern sides were intact with a potential entrance to the north. The western side was in a state of considerable collapse.
Accumulated deposits were removed from the sunken building, but work was stopped at 1m for safety reasons at which point large quantities of brick were noted, indicating the collapse of the brick vault.
Further up stream, the pitched stone setting was without doubt a spillway of some kind but more significantly, revealed a central gully which would have managed a limited flow of water to give a rill like effect. This feature terminated with a line of cross stones creating a small cascade.
A small trench was opened at the mid-point on the dam to examine the possibility of a pipe or conduit emerging here. Large quantities of broken glass and pottery of mid-twentieth century origin were found but no evidence of any structures yet.
The volunteers then removed some of the rubble on the western side of the sunken building and located its north west corner. This gave us the width of the opening to the north which we had assumed was the original entry, but also puzzlingly indicated there was a similar opening in the west side of the structure.
After a week's break, the team established base camp at pool/dam 7 and revealed most of the pitched stone face of the casade. Such was the form of the construction that the body of the cascade had held together in a way which makes full restoration a very real possibility.
Work then began to clear a path to the site of the potential conduit house. Accumulated debris was removed with the aid of a long handled rake. One of the walls projected out to the north to create an unusual triangular platform which presumably acted to diminish the flow of water. It is a very curious feature and this may not turn out to be the real explanation.
After further deliberation, the current thinking about the triangular projection is that it may be a seating for a metal grid to hold back fallen branches and the like to prevent the culvert getting clogged up and the cascade becoming untidy.
The curious triangular feature in front of the inlet to the cascade was excavated down to construction level above a platform of hard yellow clay and recording began. Our archaeologist noted that the small 'window' opening in the south chamber of the grotto frames the view of the cascade perfectly. This structure clearly has a complex and interesting history.
The outlet from the culvert at the west end of the dam is turning into a major feature and is undoubtably one of the best built structures in the valley and clearly set up to be seen. The level at the top of the underside of the arch was measured and compared with the level of the base of the dry pool to the north. This indicated that the entrance to the culvert could still be half a metre or so below the current ground surface.
Our volunteers then moved back down the valley to dam 6 to examine the full extent of a pitched stone surface which was just visible at the foot of one of the dams. The volunteers were rewarded by the sight of what is evidently the remains of another cascade taking the plunge into a near vertical face, yet another new take on displaying the flow of water in an interesting way.
These discoveries have helped to piece together a clearer picture of the 'Picturesque' Fishpool Valley and the origins of the landscape, but have also given us considerable food for thought. The findings will aid the major engineering work to repair and conserve the dams, waterways and pools in the valley, due to take place over the next five years as part of our ambitious restoration project.