Alton has a long and rich history, particularly in the period of Roman occupation of Britain. Just east of Alton is Neatham which was a strategically important crossroads on the east-west Roman road between Winchester (Venta Belgarum) and London (Londinium), and the north-south road from Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) and Chichester (Noviomagus Reginorum). It was the crossing point over the River Wey. There was also a spur road connecting with the large Roman pottery kiln sites at Alice Holt that provided pottery for a huge surrounding area.
At Holybourne was a military staging post or 'mansio' covering an estimated 60 acres, where military despatch riders could change horses, and outside this was a large 'vicus' or civilian settlement called Vindomis (under what is now housing at Vindomis Close). The area around Alton is thought to have had the highest concentration of Roman villas anywhere in the UK apart from the Cotswolds. If interested in reading more, there is excellent additional information at these links:
There have also been many finds in the town centre from the Romano-British period (55 - 412 AD) and our area of particular interest is Alton Public Gardens.
Alton Public Gardens
Our archaeology group was asked by the Friends of the Curtis Museum and Allen Gallery to take part in an Archaeology Day they were organising in Alton on 18 August 2018. While visiting Alton in connection with this event David Quick and Juliet Smith (Archaeology Director) noticed some unusual markings in the lawns of the Alton Public Gardens, as seen here:
These marks in the grass are called 'parch marks' and they usually appear in very dry weather. If there are buried wall foundations or other hard features below the ground, the grass becomes more scorched than in surrounding areas and is much paler, as seen above. The distinct rectangular pattern in the grass made us want to find out what structures used to be where the lawn is now. We started by talking to local historian, Jane Hurst, and by looking at this old map from 1870:
Jane was able to give us a very detailed history of the gardens. In particular she told us that:
They had once been the large private gardens of Westbrook House in the High Street.
This house had been bought by a doctor in the 1800s and Westbrook House had become a private lunatic asylum. (Disturbingly we know that until quite recently Westbrook House still had iron rings fixed to the walls in the cellar and on the top floor, presumably for shackles).
A mound had been built in the gardens, so that inmates of the asylum could look at the surrounding area (mostly hop fields) from the top of the mound. Whilst this mound was being constructed some archaeological finds were made. (Today's mound is much lower than it was then).
The gardens were sold off, we believe in the 1930s. They were purchased by Alton Urban District Council and became the Public Gardens.
There were once greenhouses where there is now a small car park next to the groundsmen's yard.
During WW2 there were tennis courts where the Bowls Club is today and the swings were in a different part of the Gardens. Local residents have also told us that there was a temporary wooden building during the War called a 'British Restaurant' - a café that served a 2-course meal for one shilling. This building is understood to have been demolished shortly after the War.
We also learnt from Jane that there had been a previous archaeology dig in the gardens in 1988, led by local archaeologist David Graham, when the electricity board was digging a trench for a high-voltage underground cable. This dig's report stated that 'Roman structures has existed under this section of the Public Gardens. This is a copy of the report:
With permission from the Town Council we then carried out or own geophysics survey of part of the gardens on Saturday 25 August 2018. We were able to scan under the ground using two techniques: Resistivity (seen below) and Magnetometry:
These scans, which we cannot share here, showed that there are indeed very interesting features under the surface. We therefore prepared a submission to the Town Council for a public 'Big Dig', to take place in the summer of 2019. The Council not only gave permission but also made a grant of £475 towards our costs of organising the event.
Our project manager for the event is Keith Baker, an Alton resident who lives close to the Gardens. We are worked in close liaison with the Hampshire Cultural Trust (who own the Curtis Museum) and a number of local primary schools, because education about archaeology and local heritage is a major aim in our constitution. Our Schools team organised outreach visits about the Romans to several schools in Alton.