Mary-Ann Ochota’s top 10 East Anglian landscapes shaped by the hand of man
- Credit: IAN BURT
It's not just a pretty view – our landscape has been moulded over millennia and archaeologist Mary-Ann Ochota knows how to read it like a detective story. She picks her top ten East Anglian sites.
Archaeologist Mary-Ann Ochota reveals 10 top East Anglian sites for landscape sleuthing:
1 The Broads
In the 1200s, 12 million peat turves from what is now the Broads were cut, sold and burnt for fuel each year – Norwich's Cathedral kitchens alone used 400,000 a year. Peat cutting in Norfolk was a massive, commercial enterprise, run by powerful religious houses. St Benet's Abbey near Ludham was one of the largest peat extractors. The remains of the abbey are a very atmospheric place to visit. By the end of the 13th century, sea levels were rising, and peat cuttings began to flood, creating the watery landscape we know today. You can sometimes spot strings of little islands that are the remains of walkways between peat beds.
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Because of peat, East Anglia was one of the most densely populated areas of Britain in medieval times. The scale of growth can sometimes be read in place names - Pilson Green, Cargate Green, Upton Green, Tyegate Green and Town Green all sit around South Walsham in Norfolk as 'new build' settlements from the peak of peat digging.
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2 Hill Forts
Earth-and-timber fortresses were made by warrior tribes in the Iron Age (800BC–AD43), with ditches and earth banks with wooden fences along the top. Entrances would be guarded by large gatehouses, and the main gateway was usually on the east side. Inside, people lived in round houses, and kept their animals, people and grain safe from raids from neighbouring tribes. There aren't as many hill forts in East Anglia as there are in western England and Wales (maybe because there aren't as many hills!) but Warham Camp, near Wells, is a fantastic example from the late Iron Age. It was built by Boudicca's Iceni tribe, and continued to be occupied after the uprising in AD61, for another 200 years.
3 Round Barrows
If you spot a round lump in a field, with trees on top, or perhaps an uncultivated patch in an otherwise ploughed or planted field, you could be looking at a Bronze Age burial mound. Inside there will be the body or cremated remains of someone who lived in the area around 4,000 years ago. On Ordnance Survey maps, barrows are marked in gothic script as 'tumulus' or 'tumuli.' These ancient mounds were often reused by medieval people as warrens for farming rabbits.
4 The Brecklands
Until recently there were about 400 square miles of sandy heathland in southern Norfolk and northern Suffolk, used for rough grazing, gathering firewood and breeding rabbits for meat, fur and felt. Brecks were temporary fields that could only provide a good harvest for a year or so before being turned back to heathland. In the 1920s, in a drive to make the land more profitable, Thetford Forest was planted with Scots Pines for timber. It is now Britain's largest lowland pine forest.
5 Grime's Graves
There are ten confirmed sites in England that were mined for their flint in prehistoric times – the most famous is Grime's Graves, near Brandon, where Late Stone Age miners dug shafts up to 12 metres deep to reach the best quality deposits. Workers only had picks made from deer antler, and stone hammers, which makes the scale of their efforts even more impressive. You can climb down a ladder into a mine, as well as explore the weird lumps and bumps on the land surface.
6 Flint work in walls
Flint has been mined and knapped (shaped) in eastern England since prehistoric times. Look for decorative flushwork on the walls of houses, where flints are pushed into mortar to create a flat, polished-looking surface which faces outwards, with the rest of the flint pushed into the plaster. Diapering is the technique where flint is used in conjunction with brick or other coloured stone, to create a pattern in the wall.
7 Deserted Medieval churches
When populations shrank, and after the ravages of the Black Death, many villages were abandoned. The church usually had the most valuable stone, and many were demolished and the stone reused. Churches in Norfolk were often built with rough flint walls, and these proved to be less useful for recycling. It means they were left alone, and the county now boasts the greatest collection of deserted churches. Fine examples include Egmere and Godwick, near Fakenham, and Bawsey, near King's Lynn.
8 Great Barns
Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, landowners who had acquired the old monastic lands and farms built new, high-quality barns – larger and more finely wrought than they needed to be – as a show of status and ownership. The magnificent thatched Waxham Great Barn, near Stalham, was built in 1570. It is the longest in the country and incorporated material from three local monasteries. The vast ceiling timbers make it feel more like a cathedral than a barn.
9 The Icknield Way
Prehistoric ridgeways are long-distance routes that follow spines of high ground. The Harroway (running from near Dover to south Dorset), the Ridgeway (from Wiltshire towards Hertfordshire) and the Icknield Way (from Norfolk to Wiltshire) are all at least 4,000 years old, probably more. The Icknield Way is 110 miles long and dotted with prehistoric sites. Contrary to popular belief, ancient tracks didn't always follow the highest land – a range of paths may have been used depending on the weather and season.
10 The Devil's Dyke, Cambridgeshire
Also known as Devil's Ditch, the surviving seven mile stretch of this ancient earthwork runs south east out of Reach village, along the Newmarket July Racecourse to Woodditton. The dyke may have originally been constructed in the 5th or 6th century to control movement along the earlier Roman road and the Icknield Way. Nearby are drove tracks, horse gallops, a disused railway cutting and fenland lodes (artificial waterways), creating a rich embroidery of manmade lines in the landscape.
Archaeologist and presenter Mary-Ann Ochota will be talking about the history hidden in our landscape at St George's Guildhall, King's Lynn, on Tuesday, January 17, at 7.30pm. Tickets for the talk, Hidden Histories: A Spotter's Guide to the British Landscape, are £11, or £9 for under 18s and members of the Royal Geographical Society. Hidden Histories. A Spotters Guide to the British Landscape, is published by Frances Lincoln in hardback for £20.