When I was a child we had a dog called Sally. She was what the local vet referred to as a Daisy Dog, a mixture of this and that, pretty well mannered and a bit tatty, a cross breed of indeterminable heritage with a long black coat inherited from Spaniel and enough Jack Russell to give the insurance man a nip on one visit, a nip that required my mum paying him for some new suit trousers. Her daily involvement with the world was on what is now Weavers Way but was then ‘the old railway line’ one of the dry cinder block arterial remnants of Beeching’s little bout of murdering the branch lines under one of our many Tory governments.
At the weekends, she would drag us to special places to sniff and growl, numerous beaches, Mousehold Heath, Roman Camp, Pretty Corner, Felmingham Heath and Witton or Bacton Woods. We’d usually do the full circuit of whichever one it was, the dog unleashed, trotting and sniffing, my mum nattering on about whatever tasty piece of gossip had floated to the surface in Town, my dad almost silent, swinging the dog’s lead, nodding and making agreeing noises. I’d bomb off as fast as I could into the trees to get away from whatever person’s marriage, life or family arrangement my mum was dismembering like Dewhursts would a pig on a block.
Witton Woods is about 4 miles to the North West of North Walsham, a rather odd little collection of pine stands surrounding very old established English woodland, chunks of scrub, wildflowers in spaces with paths that wind up and down various slopes and pitches in and out of the trees, it always felt like it went on for ever which it doesn’t, it’s comparatively small in woodland terms, but it is undoubtedly very old with all the usual mix of species you expect, Ash, Oak, Alder, the odd birch a few Chestnut and Hazelnuts with the rich carpet of leaves and life around it the weird modern pine stands with that curiously sterile lack of life. But it’s the old bit that’s interesting.
Witton, Bacton, Edingthorpe and Ridlington are full of finds and sites, ranging from Bronze Age and Neolithic to 20th century Industrial and Second World War, from flint tools and cremations to removed roads and shallow canals. As a child you register the big things like the Locks at Ebridge with the water spouting from holes in a wooden gate into a dizzying hole next to the old mill, but you imagine different things and maybe don’t see the ones that are visible even if they are only just there. There’s one of those in the woods. It’s pretty well hidden off a track on the Southern corner of the woods, near some other acknowledged sites that show as crop marks in the fields; ploughed in unidentifiable mounds and barrows with their associated scatter. Mercifully a lot of this has been recorded partly by aerial archaeology, but also more importantly by the determination of one of the local landowners; John Owles who field walked, dug and recorded sites, because I assume he wanted to, because he was interested. He’s turned up Pot-boilers, burials and all sorts of other materials from almost all eras. It was reading about this that alerted me to a pot boiler site in these woods. Put simply, if you think about how we heat water, we put a pot on a heat source and use that to heat the content, when your primary water carrier is an animal skin, you can’t do that, so you heat a stone in a fire, in this case a piece of flint, and then drop it into the skin of water to speed heat it. This damages the flint, crazes on the surface discolours the cortex or skin and can shatter it, it’s this stuff you find. There’s a site in the woods where some ancient Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall early cooking/heating evidence is.
The main prize for me is always the mounds glimpsed through the trees. This is just such a case. Just around the corner from the pot boiler site there’s the terrain I remember from childhood, it’s in an area that is believed to be woodland since at least Anglo-Saxon times and probably longer. The site doesn’t look like much, worn down as it is by the processes of time; a Bronze Age burial mound sitting just off the paths on the South-Western edge of the wood. Curiosity and that oddly disconcerting desire for some connection will always make me take a closer look, It’s very overgrown with brambles and bracken, about three feet high, maybe 20 feet long and six feet wide. Sadly it’s not just worn down by time, it’s also been worn down and nearly cut in half by what I assume must be Mountain bikers, who we shall of course build a monument to and in 3,500 years time hopefully someone on a hover-board will lean a big bit of wood up against it and do hover jumps over it or something. I shouldn’t complain I suppose, I did take this as an opportunity to go and stand on the middle of it in the bit they’d worn flat below the surface of the modern mound, head in the trees feet in the past. Nearby you can look out over the fields, towards an area riddled with similar sites that have already disappeared under the foot, wheel and the plough, where the opportunity to even see the prize has vanished.
Feet facing the sun, teeth biting the chill
I went through the seasons under this hill.