This is not my beautiful house

This is Bank Hall, in Bretherton, which is about half way between Southport and Preston. It is a spendidly bonkers mixture of a genuine Jacobean small country house and a Victorian pastiche of one. It has, as far as I know, absolutely nothing to do with caves or prehistory but this week Dave and I have been paying our dues. We ran UCLan’s undergraduate training excavations for first year students here from 2005 to 2010. Altogether that made the equivalent of about eight weeks of full time digging and it is high time we sorted all the results out for publication. So, while Jim and Vicki were teaching the current first years at Ribchester, we have spent the week working on the archive.

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The project at Bank Hall is just part of a bigger effort by the Bank Hall action group, who have been working incredibly hard since 1995 to try and conserve the site. They have already done a vast amount of work on the history of the site and the various families who lived there. Their website has a detailed history of the hall in all its different phases. Our contribution was to use archaeological techniques to look at the gradual development of the gardens.

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There are whole generations of UCLan students whose first experience of excavation involved 18th century garden walls (hand-made bricks and English garden wall bond), writing context sheets for innumerable gravel lenses in Victorian paths and tree roots – always, always tree roots.

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Of course, when you dig a garden, sometimes the trees themselves are part of the archaeology. This is an eighteenth century wall stratified beneath the roots of a specimen tree introduced as part of later remodelling of the garden. For these later phases we are lucky to have really good mapping of the gardens from the first edition OS map of 1845. I have been using this map to reconstruct the an outline of the planting scheme at that date. We know the house was radically extended in 1832 so the 1st edition map probably records a fairly new design to go with this work.

Bank Hall 1845 vegThis gives a great impression of both the layers of boundaries around the house and the way that the new gardens were extended into and carved out of the existing woodland. What I want to do next is work backwards from this new, early Victorian garden to the 17th and 18th century features we found traces of in our trenches. The trees will come into their own again here too. One of our former students, Lizzie, did a study of all the living trees at Bank Hall for her dissertation. She identified them all to species and used a handheld GPS unit to record their locations. The point of doing this work was that many garden trees are not native species and that we, or at least the RHS, know when they were introduced into this country. By looking at where different species survive now in the grounds it should be possible to work out roughly which areas were planted when. So far, the area to the north of the house but inside the inner boundary seems to have been the core of the earlier garden, there are lots of native species and early introductions in this zone.

Dave meanwhile has been thinking about why the garden looks the way it did. In particular he has been looking for evidence of the wider world of the 18th and 19th century gentry. Gardens were strongly structured by changes in fashion and we are interested in how those ideas got to Bank Hall (along with all those exotic tree species). What can the gardens tell us about the political and social aspirations of the people who lived in Bank Hall?

Rick

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