The Travelling History Company takes to the ocean

The Travelling History Company afloat

This weekend we embarked on our first “Sailing Through History” outing, setting off on a voyage of discovery across the high seas of Chew Valley Lake on a magnificent vessel known, apparently, as a “Topper”. Although hardly uncharted waters, these are certainly fascinating waters.

The rich archaeological record in the Mendips reaches back to the Upper Palaeolithic. Indeed earlier in the weekend at the Gloucestershire International School summer festival we were using Mesolithic flint from Charterhouse as artefact handling material. The great monuments of the Neolithic and Bronze Age and Iron Age hill forts are easily found all over the Mendip Hills. Charterhouse was home to an extensive Roman lead mining industry and for those historians of World War 2, the Mendips were home to a "decoy" Bristol, a fascinating story for a future blog.

The River Chew in medieval and later times was a bustling river, turning many a water mill along its meandering route through villages, countryside and of course, past the enigmatic Stanton Drew megalithic complex.

One such village was Moreton, a busy place and home to two water mills - Stratford Mill and Herriot’s Mill, both constructed around 1700. Originally paper mills, by the late 1800’s they were struggling to compete with the mills at Wookey and started instead to mill grain.

In the mid 20th century the population of Bristol was growing and people were getting thirsty. There was a need for more water and the Chew Valley was an ideal source. A dam was constructed and the once thriving village of Moreton soon became the Atlantis of the Mendips. However, before the inundation in 1956, some archaeology was conducted.

As you might expect, plenty of prehistoric material was recovered and the excavations also revealed a Roman road. This is known as the Stratford Road and was possibly a route to link the lead mines of Charterhouse to the main Bath to Sea Mills road. A not insubstantial Roman villa was also discovered. This all now lies under the water at a part of the lake known as Roman Shallows.

This was a really interesting discovery for us at the Travelling History Company as just last week we were teaching local school children about Roman curse tablets and it was during these excavations that some of the the earliest known curse tablets in Britain were found. Inscribed on wood, this is also some of the earliest known use of ink in Britain. They now reside in the British Museum.

But our story of Chew Valley Lake doesn’t stop with the Romans.

We were delighted to be invited to the 50th Anniversary party of the Chew Valley Lake Sailing Club, an excellent evening of beer, BBQ and Beatles. Later in the evening long after sunset, enjoying a glass of bubbles and chocolate cake and gazing over the lake we spied a eerie light beyond Denny Island.

A little subsequent research revealed the story of Catherine Brown, a young girl who, around 1900, was drowned at Stratford Mill and whose ghost is said to appear from time to time in the area, often crossing the B3114 heading towards the lake. It was floodlights that we spotted but the story of Catherine Brown reminds us of the once busy village, lying just below the rippling waves, its fascinating architectural, social, commercial and human history that still remains well within living memory.

And what of Stratford Mill, the scene of the terrible accident? Whilst the memory of Herriot’s Mill is sustained in the name of the bridge across the southern part of the lake, the mill itself was left to its rather ironically watery end. Stratford Mill on the other hand is much easier to spot. Indeed many of our local readers will have probably walked right past it on many an occasion.

Before the valley was flooded the heritage value of Stratford Mill was recognised and it was dismantled and reconstructed at non other than Hazel Brook on the Blaise Estate.

Having discovered our sea legs we have bold plans for “archaeologies of the lake” to offer our new friends at the Chew Valley Lake Sailing Club. Cabin space does seem to be a little limited in these Topper things and we fear that a rush to one side of the ship, gin and tonic in hand, to peer into the Roman Shallows may result in consequences of Titanic proportion. Nevertheless, we feel a nautical version of the History Machine to be very important development for the project.

Sunrise over Chew Valley Lake and the sailing club. Their abbreviated form - CVLSC has a pleasing Latin feel about it. A nod perhaps to what lies beneath the water?

And for the landlubbers - next time you stroll through the Blaise Castle estate and pass Stratford Mill, think of the River Chew, the now submerged village of Moreton, of Catherine Brown and what an excellent way to spend an afternoon it is with the Travelling History Company.

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