to Isle of Wight History Centre Archive of Monthly News Items
As previously featured in the History Centre

July - September 2009

July 2009
The Aerofilms company operated from 1919 to 2006, during which time it produced over a million aerial photographs of Britain. The collection is now regarded as an important historical record and the entire archive has been acquired by English Heritage, in partnership with the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Wales. Unfortunately the collection is un-catalogued and limited documentation means that many images cannot be identified without the benefit of local knowledge, including thousands of Island photos.
  Aerofilms pioneered aerial photographic techniques and their work was widely published in books covering everything from topography to travel. They also proved a popular source for postcards. Many people will have purchased aerial photos of their own home from Aerofilms. The historical importance of the archive lies in its picture of the changing face of 20th century Britain.
  The Council for British Archaeology has been charged with the monumental task of processing the collection and identifying the images. Many are in negative form, recorded with no more that a general place name, leaving detail such as estates, farms, industries and individual properties to be identified. The only solution is for local knowledge to be brought to bear on the subject. The images will have to be digitised before they can be circulated for local assessment.
  There are thought to be around 2000 photos and 6000 negatives covering the Isle of Wight. The IW Industrial Archaeology Society, in conjunction with Kitbridge Enterprises, have been formally established as the local contact for the CBA and will head up the project for the Island. It seems likely they will have to involve other local organisations in identifying features in particular areas.
  Like most places, the Island saw rapid development after the First World War. Towns and tourism grew, the farming landscape changed and industries came and went. The identification process will make a valuable contribution to the record of these changes. Identifying some features may prove difficult and there is sure to be much scratching of heads. Given the enormous number of pictures involved, it looks as if the project will run for many years.

Aerofilms photo Freshwater Bay An Aerofilms view of Freshwater Bay, probably around 1950

August 2009
Newport's medieval origin dictates that virtually every construction project within the area of the old town requires an archaeological watching brief during building excavations, in the hope of discovering some evidence of the period. Archaeologists have frequently been disappointed with the results. It seems that 19th century building foundations generally destroyed the town's earlier archaeology. The discovery of a medieval well on a current site therefore comes as a welcome surprise.
  The building project is at the western end of Pyle Street. AOC Archaeology were commissioned to carry out the watching brief on behalf of CAD Delta Architectural Services Ltd and Newport Congregational Church, as a requirement of planning consent.
  Initially excavations encountered the usual 19th century remains, including a brick lined pit and a series of smaller pits facing the street front. Then, at considerable depth, a medieval soil horizon was identified in a few places. Subsequent building had trashed most of the evidence but further medieval activity was found in the middle of the site and this ultimately revealed a well, lined with chalk block. The top of the well had been damaged but it was established as being 2.8 metres deep. The well's backfill contained pottery provisionally dated to the medieval period.
  Lack of documentation means that very little detail is known about the medieval town, so placing this find in some sort of wider context can only be speculation. Newport had a town well but this was nearer the town centre. The site is towards what would have been the western edge of the town and occupation immediately to the north was in the Castle Hold district, outside Newport Borough. Speed's 17th century map shows a cattle pound just beyond the housing and, as this is a natural location for one, there may have been a similar arrangement in medieval times. A cattle pound would have needed water, so the well could have served this and/or a small group of households.
  Some additional excavation is still to be done. The final report may tell us a little more, including a precise date for the pottery. It might seem a modest discovery, but when it comes to Newport, historians and archaeologists are grateful for small mercies.

September 2009
It can sometimes seem as if there's no news to report, particularly as now when everyone is awaiting the outcome of the well publicised Big Dig at Brading Villa. Fortunately, if you nose around, you can still find the odd local doggedly pursuing some minor feature that would normally pass without record, in a world far removed from Roman glamour.
   As an army of archaeologists and helpers were uncovering a Roman bath at Brading, eight miles away a couple of ill-prepared individuals were setting off to investigate the Thing in the Pond. They were equipped with a semi-watertight dinghy, a battered paddle and a stick. Unlike the villa project, any application for Heritage Lottery Funding had either been unsuccessful or granted in small change. Their chirpy confidence lacked the gravitas of professional archaeologists and they were hopelessly beardless.
  The Thing in the Pond lies in Dickson's Copse, to the south of Stag Lane. This oval brick structure normally sits just beneath the surface of a pond that evolved from a cement works claypit. It has been frequently remarked on by passing walkers, although nobody has been able to explain it. This summer the level of the pond has dropped to the point where it stands just proud of the water. To some, it had risen from the depths to demand investigation.
  Having negotiated their equipment through the wood, the pair set up operations on the bank of the pond. The thing is not far from the bank but the fact that the dinghy had a leak placed some restriction on the time available for investigation, before it sinks. At this point the villa archaeologists would have required a risk assessment, health and safety consultations and a lifeguard standing by. Our determined duo were more in the Indiana Jones mould and proceeded regardless. The murky water offered limited visibility but they had come armed with their special equipment to probe the depths (you were probably wondering what the stick was for). In a welter of paddling, poking and prodding they established that the thing was about eight feet deep, built of engineering bricks, internally rendered and consisted of two separate chambers, with a stop cock that seemed to be located towards the base of the dividing wall. They managed to get a few photos and secured the camera from the waterlogged dinghy by hurling it to the bank in a margarine tub.
  Fortunately the dinghy just made it back to the bank. The evening was spent Googling the discovered features. The Thing in the Pond was finally revealed as a form of monk drain. It emerged that monk drains were an occasional feature of ponds. They provided an overflow to control the high water level and allowed the pond to be drained to an adjustable, pre-determined, level. In our example the drain is presumably now blocked and no longer functional.
  In contrast to discoveries at the Roman Villa, the monk drain will be of no interest whatsoever to the county's heritage officials and would struggle to make even the 'village talk' section of the County Press. However, it's a fair bet you had never even heard of monk drains, let alone that the Island had one. Thus our intrepid amateurs can at least claim a 100% revelation, whereas their Brading counterparts have merely re-excavated a known feature. Just as archaeology frequently raises as many questions as it does answers, so the monk drain leaves the question as to why anyone would want to regularly drain an obscure pond. You can be sure that, sooner or later, somebody out there will be beavering away on the subject, oblivious to the surrounding indifference.

monk drain
The monk drain. A stroll through the wood should find it. Sadly there is no guided tour.