The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Valley of the Dead.

I wince whenever I see those huge diesel tractors plough the Stour meadowlands. Until recently, nobody would have thought of ploughing them; for a start they were valuable for their hay-crop, or osier beds, but they are also subject to flooding, and rather damp in the winter. I wince because the valleys have always been intensively occupied by humanity, and we are inevitably destroying the evidence that could tell the detailed story of that occupation. As the science of archaeology develops, we can do more with less, and will one day wring the secrets from those enigmatic crop marks that are scattered throughout the valley.

The Cavendish Crop-marks.
1996 D Strachan

 The Stour owes its present shape to the last ice-age; Since then, it has been a site of prime importance to mankind. We can see this in the crop marks, in the finds, the roads and the parish boundaries. The silty gravel soil was perfect for crops. It could be ploughed with the wooden plough, and drained well. The hay-crop was vital for over-wintering livestock. The old parish boundaries are arranged so that each parish had a section of the valley to the river bank. It would seem that the Stour not only fed the living, but provided the resting place for the dead.

The Stour was pocked with barrows, and other mysterious bronze-age constructions.  At Cavendish, despite the gravel-workings, we can still see
a profusion of them, thought to include a long mortuary enclosure and several ring-ditches,including two dual concentric examples. Possibly the most impressive man-made tumulus now has Pentlow Church built on it, but there are several others, now reduced to slight rises in the ground or crop-marks. I suspect that they continued all the way along, and the ones that survive are there through fortune. I have one at the end of my garden, intersected by the later mill stream. The railway destroyed a number of them in the course of its construction.

I cannot help thinking that the meadows between Cavendish and Glemsford once had a special resonance. Despite the intensive gravel working, the cropmarks are spectacular, and the barrows extended both sides of the river. The Tumuli occupied now by Pentlow Church and Pentlow Hall are at one end. It's impossible to say what the place would have looked like at any one time as the construction may have been over an extended period. A lot has happened since, and the sequence of occupation takes some disentangling. It is clear, however that, for a long period, the Stour acted as a memorial valley of  the dead. Cremation would seem to have predominated. Bodies or Grave goods have never been found. With our modern heavy equipment, we can destroy whole sites of occupation within days. The Borley meadows were entirely destroyed, and a great deal went at Glemsford. In the last war, there was a huge amount of gravel extraction to make the runways of the bomber airfields. It is miraculous that anything has survived, and it is up to us to ensure that something is preserved for a more enlightened age that can read the secrets of those far-off

For more information on the Cavendish Cropmarks see
The Stour Valley Project, England: a cropmark landscape in three dimensions by Dr David. Strachan. His excellent book, 'Essex from the Air', (ISBN 1 85281 165 X) contains some astonishing cropmarks, including the strange mediaeval moated site on the Meadow at the western end of Pentlow.


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