"Big Dig" Report

In the lovely Summer weather of Sunday 29th June a group of people were not watching the tennis but getting hot and thirsty in the Telegraph Hill Upper Park digging holes.

The Telegraph Hill Society organised this with the permission of Lewisham Council as part of the "Big Dig" across the country co-ordinated by Channel 4's Time Team. For the past week keen volunteers all over the country have been digging 1 metre square trenches, 60 cm deep, documenting the finds, and are sending the notes to Channel 4 who will collate the information, publish it on the web, and produce a programme on the most interesting outcomes

What could they hope to find at Telegraph Hill?

It is known that the Upper Park is the most likely site of the original Telegraph that gave the Hill its modern name. That was there in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a link between Dover and the Admiralty in London, allegedly reporting the victory at Waterloo as well as more mundane matters. Following that, the hilltop was the site of a summerhouse that local magnate and resident, Charles Holcombe, built in the mid 19th century. Then it was a look-out post and a barrage-balloon site during the two world wars.

Before the Telegraph was built the area was farmed: with general livestock in the Saxon and mediaeval times and with market-gardens and pastures in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the Upper Park was less intensively landscaped than the Lower Park when both were created in 1895 and it must have been a viewing point long before the Navy got there with their Telegraph. So maybe the Romans even used it for its commanding view over their road leading past the Bermondsey Marshes to London. It was therefore with open minds but hopes of finding something that the diggers set out.

How to choose exactly where to dig

Despite its relatively recent date, the actual site of the Telegraph is unknown. Of the four most likely places one is outside the park entirely, near the roundabout and one is definitely under the tennis courts. However since work on old maps, carried out by the Society’s Chairman, Malcolm Bacchus, showed the tennis court site to be most likely the first pit was near there to see if the path up to, or any of the external works associated with, the Telegraph could be found.
There were enough volunteers for a second pit and, since a war-time aerial photograph showed an interesting circular shape in the ground much further down the slope, they dug there as well.

Who came along

A motley crew gathered, ranging from actors to accountants. Stalwarts who were digging and recording most of the day were Derek Brain, Emily Elkington, Gill Hale, Emma Langstaff, and Russell Wilcox. There was also Malcolm and Tamsin Bacchus, of the Telegraph Hill Society, co-ordinating the effort, along with their children, Eleanor (12) and Edward (10). Others who helped out when they could around other commitments were David Bradbury, Rupert and Claire Burton, Morgan Caine, Jeremy Clapham, Gill Hickman and Malachai (9), Linda Jarvis, Sandra Margolies, Paul Milnes, Colin Turnbull and Jon Webb with George-Henry Goldman-Webb (10). George-Henry's younger brothers were also present but were conducting their archaeological research in the surrounding shrubbery where they found larger finds than were coming out of the pits but generally of a more recent date! There were also Phoebe and Holly, Derek Brain's extremely well behaved spaniels.

What was found

The pit near the tennis courts turned up little besides the inevitable piece of clay pipe and small bits of building rubble. Unfortunately by the time the diggers had laboured down to 20cm they hit solid clay, identified as the undisturbed "natural", and the pit was abandoned. A second potential site was tried about 20 yards away in the hope of striking lucky with some remnant of the Telegraph buildings, but with exactly the same results, a clay pipe, bits of slate and then solid clay. Nevertheless, it is known that the Telegraph was there somewhere and the Telegraph Hill Society hope that when the restoration works start on the Parks (the a result of a successful lottery bid) a full geophysical survey can be carried out to point the way for a proper archaeological investigation.

Down the slope on the site of the strange circular mark on the aerial photograph the work progressed much further. At an early stage a passer-by told the diggers that, in the words of the old song, they were "digging that 'ole where an 'ole don't belong" and that she remembered the mooring for the barrage balloon being about 30 yards away further up the slope and to the south. She may well have been right and also, despite lining it up with existing features as carefully as possible, the tiny 1 metre square hole missed any foundations that, if the photograph is anything to go by, should be there somewhere under the grass. Again a future task for a full geophysical survey.

However the pit rendered up some interesting remnants of the area's pastoral past in the form of a sheep tooth and some as yet unidentified bone. There was also, most significantly given the imminence of the restoration project, a metal finial from what was probably one of the long gone park gates and some bolts that may well be part of the same ironwork. Interestingly too, the clay was not the "natural" until a good way down, the upper layers being full of tiny flecks of brick, probably a telling reminder of the violent destruction of many of the surrounding houses by bomb damage in the Second World War.

What will happen to the finds?

The Telegraph Hill Society, with guidance from Channel 4 Time Team and the benefit of volunteers on site experienced in archaeology, have documented the results in a professional manner recording each 10 cm depth within the pit as a separate “context”. Copies of the records are being sent to both TimeTeam and to the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (part of the Museum of London). The finds are the property of Lewisham Council but will be passed on to LAARC who sent representatives to visit the site during the dig, loaning both their expertise and a trowel when one was needed.

More information on the Big Dig project itself is at www.channel4.com/bigdig.

This venture was organized by the Telegraph Hill Society. If you'd like to be involved, see the membership page.