Local Winchester MP Steve Brine joined forces with scores of volunteers last weekend (22-24 April) in a community archaeological project organised by HYDE900 and supported by WARG (the society for Winchester archaeology and local history) to investigate a key corner of the Hyde Abbey site adjacent to River Park.
In what turned out to be an extraordinary weekend of twists and turns two test pits were dug to reveal the remains of major architectural structures at a depth consistent with other finds linked to the medieval abbey and in an area where previous research had suggested the wall of the south transept might be found.
"We have literally broken new ground here," declared David Spurling who had managed the event for Hyde900. "Although the east end of the church – now covered by Hyde Abbey Garden – was extensively investigated in the 1990's no-one has systematically dug on the area to the south-west. By digging two test pits in this crucial area we have put down an important marker in understanding exactly what lies beneath the surface."
Such was the significance of what was discovered that an additional day of digging had to be added on Monday to the planned three day programme. Earlier on a range of small finds – including a neolithic scraper, a Roman tile, and small fragments of glazed and decorated tiles – had surfaced. However, it was not until late on the second day that the remains of a structure were discovered in the more westerly pit. Meanwhile, the easterly pit had disappointingly revealed almost nothing until the afternoon of the third day when a probe into the deep earth struck a solid surface. Dogged digging by WARG member Don Bryan then gradually exposed a robust masonry structure so large that it was decided to extend the dig into a fourth day.
"It has been an absolute rollercoaster – one could not have choreographed it more," declared David Spurling. "There was a slight feeling of flatness at a point when we thought that nothing very significant had been discovered and discussions were held as to whether it was worth continuing. At one moment, in fact, we were prepared to stop everything and pack up. But then when we put in the probe in the early afternoon of the third day and got a result Don Bryan said 'This sounds like something important'. And from then on it was very exciting for us onlookers as more of the masonry was revealed. This is something which is, potentially, very important indeed."
Chris Sellen of WARG was equally enthusiastic. "Given that these are just test pits this is very encouraging,"he said. "By digging further test pits in this area of the abbey precincts it would be possible to build up a bigger picture of what we have here."
Householders Martin and Chrissie Leyden in whose garden the pits had been dug said that they were delighted by the discovery. "It has been an extraordinary weekend for us," said Chrissie Leyden. "Living on the site of the abbey church, we had always been interested in what the garden might hold – and now we know. At times, I must say, it almost felt as if we were going through a medical operation as, with great professionalism, the garden was dug to greater and greater depths." Martin Leyden commented that he was thrilled at what had been revealed. "We would have regretted it if we had not taken this opportunity," he said.
Reflecting on the weekend's work Steve Brine MP commented: "Hyde 900's work is always impeccable in its planning and application and this was no different. It was genuinely a community event with young and old from across Winchester, literally, getting their hands dirty. I continue to be one of many enthralled by the legend of Alfred and love bringing up my own children here watching them learn as history comes alive."
Aside from the actual discoveries Techer Jones from WARG pointed out that the project had proved to be a tremendous collaborative success. "Irrespective of the importance of what we have found in these test pits the great achievement of these two days is that Hyde900 has put together a wonderful community exercise involving lots of people from the local community, from WARG and from the University of Winchester. It has been a serious community archaeology effort but undertaken with great good humour. Everyone has mixed in and we've had a lot of good fun."
Summing up the weekend for Hyde900 David Spurling said: "The enthusiasm shown by so many local people in gettingã€€involved over the past few days has shown that there is a real appetite in Hyde for small scale local archaeological projects of this kind. We are currently putting together a proposal to the Heritage Lottery Fund to finance more exercises in this series. We are very privileged to have in Hyde the remains of one of Winchester's greatest medieval buildings. We are looking forwards to more exciting discoveries in the years ahead."
Pictured; Steve Brine and Rose Burns take part in the excavation with David Spurling, and the team examine one of the excavation pits
More information ...