Uncovering Maria's Seat

An archaeological dig in Walk Wood at Sheffield Park, East Sussex

By the early 18th century Walk Wood had become part of the designed landscape at Sheffield Park, East Sussex. It acted as an extension of the gardens with a series of ‘walks’ winding through the trees and a number of ‘seats’. These seats were raised platforms specifically sited to take advantage of certain views and vistas. By the 20th century these designs had been largely lost and Walk Wood was turned into a conifer plantation. Now the National Trust is embarking on a programme to restore the wood, to enhance its wildlife value but also to reinstate its historic role as a ‘wilderness’ to explore.

Survey work, particularly by volunteer David Brown, has shown that many of the features of this designed landscape can still be traced on the ground, visible as subtle earthworks.  But one not-so-subtle earthwork stands out – a mound nearly three metres tall, approached along a gently sloping ramp and with a scatter of loose bricks visible at the top.  Based on historic maps we think this may be the site of “Maria’s Seat” probably named after Maria Josepha, daughter of the First Earl of Sheffield. 

A test-pit showing the dump of clay used to create the mound
A test-pit showing the dump of clay used to create the mound

Over three days in January volunteers from Sheffield Park & Garden and the Horsham District Archaeology Group excavated a series of trenches and test-pits in an attempt to establish whether this was indeed “Maria’s Seat”, what structure it might have had on top, and how – and for how long – people used this spot.  Excavations into the mound itself show it was made up of dumps of clay, with no obvious signs that it was altered or remodelled after it was constructed. From this elevated spot, in the less densely wooded landscape shown on 18th century maps, visitors would have enjoyed views across the Arnos Vale as far as Witches Lane, and along the valley towards Splaynes Green and Fletching.  The clay material was unlike the soils around the mound and must have been transported to the site from elsewhere in the landscape, though it was probably locally sourced.  Artefacts from within the clay dump, including fragments of clay tobacco pipe and glass bottles, show that it was certainly in existence in the 18th century – a good match for Maria’s Seat!

The remains of a brick apsidal structure at the summit of Maria’s Seat
The remains of a brick apsidal structure at the summit of Maria’s Seat

At the top of the mound, beneath the leaf litter and a thin layer of soil, the foundations of an emphemeral brick structure emerged.  The remains had been heavily disturbed by tree roots, but clearly showed an apsidal or semi-circular footprint with an entrance on the western side. The bricks themselves appear to be 18th century in date, but traces of old mortar on some of them show that they had been part of another structure before being re-used on the mound at some later stage.  With just a single course of bricks it seems unlikely that it could have supported any substantial structure, perhaps a simple timber frame offering some protection from the elements for seating within – the absence of any broken window glass suggests it was an open-sided structure.   Would this have been grand enough for ‘Maria’s Seat’?  Perhaps, but it remains a possibility that the structure served some other later purpose.  It could even relate to the use of the area in the 20th century, with the nearby remains of the Second World War camp in East Park.

While we haven’t got a definitive answer (archaeology usually leaves us with more questions!), all of this will help us to interpret the site and help us understand how we can best present it as a real focal point in Walk Wood for future visitors.  Huge thanks must go to the team of volunteers who displayed true gusto in the face of some rather unpleasant weather conditions!  From their hard work we can begin to tell the story of Maria’s Seat, and its place in the designed landscape of Walk Wood.