Hursley Park near Winchester is a private estate owned by the IBM. Here you will find new buildings and also an 18th-century Queen Anne style mansion in which - many of our listeners will recall - once saw spitfires built in the ballroom! Today’s story however is takes us back even further in time as once a grand Tudor house stood here, almost forgotten apart from a faint outline on the croquet lawn.
In 2021, the Winchester Archaeology Rescue Group (WARG) was given exclusive access to excavate the site and learn more about what was hiding under the earth. Dave Key, the voluntary science historian at Hursley Park and Stuart Rippon, a member of WARG reveals the incredible discoveries they made.
If you want to find further information on this episode or to listen to other episodes of Hampshire HistBites, visit our website.
The Hidden House in Hursley House
Intro: Welcome to Hampshire HistBites. Join us as we delve into the past and go on a journey to discover some of the county's best and occasionally unknown history. We'll be speaking to experts and enthusiasts, asking them to reveal some of our hidden heritage, as well as share with you a few fascinating untold stories.
Julian: Hello, I'm Julian Gerry, your podcast host for this episode of Hampshire HistBites in which we're going to focus on the Hursley Park, near Winchester. The park is a private estate, but in September of 2021, a local archaeological group was given the opportunity to undertake a significant excavation on the site. At the heart of Hursley Park, is Hursley House, a Grade II stylistic Georgian mansion, which is sat at the end of the magnificent South facing lawn.
The excavation took place on that lawn where the previous Tudor house was sited. Normally the only trace of the house these days is a faint outline in the lawn, which appears during periods of very dry weather.
So I'm joined by Dave Key, the voluntary science historian at Hursley Park and Stuart Rippon, who is a member of that archaeological group and an amateur archaeologist, to learn more about the dig that took place during a balmy couple of weeks in 2021. Stuart, could I start by asking you to explain what WARG does? That is W A R G, for our listeners, is and who you are as a group or what you do?
Stuart: Okay. WARG is the Winchester Archaeology Rescue Group. We look at promoting the interest of archaeology and history in the Winchester area. We formed in 1972 to help the county archaeologists with rescuing archaeology that was getting lost in the big developments that were happening at that time. We're all volunteers, it's an amateur group, although there are a lot of very experienced and professional archaeologists who take part with us, and we do dig every year to look at an interesting archaeological site that's not been looked at before and to try and understand what we can discover about that site by doing an archaeological dig.
Julian: I see. And Dave, could I ask you to give us some context on the site at Hursley Park and what buildings have been in there over the centuries?
Dave: The buildings you can currently see, most people see, there's Georgian mansion extended in the 20th century. We've always known there were earlier buildings there. There'd been footings, some visible in the grass for many years. The trouble was we didn't really know much about them. We've had little bits about, from the history, which gives us hints right the way back into the medieval times when the Hursley Park itself was literally a deer park, owned by the Bishops of Winchester. And we knew that around the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, that the estate was handed over to one of Henry VIII's courtiers, and the stories went that he had built a house in the grounds, but that's almost all we knew about it, and that's really where the archaeology was going to come in, we hoped.
Julian: So prior to the dig that took place in 2021, what archaeological digs or surveys had been carried out on the site previously?
Dave: Actually, in the location where we knew that the footings to be, literally, there's been no actual digging, since the lawn was laid, we believed in the beginning of the 18th century. There've been other excavations up at the castle, at Merdon Castle nearby, and in the nineties, there was what was called a resistivity survey, which, pretty much just confirmed what we knew from the marks in the grass. But other than that, absolutely nothing.
Julian: Stuart, I think WARG carries out a significant archaeological dig each year. What made you choose Hursley Park as the venue for the dig in 2021?
Stuart: Well, the owner of the land asked us to have a look. David just said it's fairly obvious on a dry summer that there's a building under the lawn and you can actually see it from the parch marks from the roof of the current house, and so it was to look at that. There was, as David said, a resistivity survey done by Southampton University in 1999, but that's all the real research that had been done.
So we surveyed the site with resistivity. That's where you measure the resistance of the soil to a fault point, every meter, across the whole site. It's an exhausting exercise, carrying a Zimmer frame with spikes and sticking it in the ground, every meter, right the way across the whole site.
And then we also did ground-penetrating radar, where we fire a radar signal into the ground, and the response gives us not just what's under the ground, but how deep it is in the ground. The remarkable thing from those is that you can actually put the cropmark photographs from satellites and aerial photos, the resistivity survey and the ground-penetrating radar one on top of the other, and they all match exactly, so we were pretty sure that there was something worth looking at under the ground.
Julian: So when you turned up on site late summer 2021, what expectations did you have? What did you want to find or achieve?
Stuart: Okay. So prior to getting to the site, there's an awful lot of work. So there are the County archaeologist or sorry, the Winchester Archaeologists will want to see how are we going to approach it - a statement of the methods we're going to use. They want to see a historical analysis. We need to think about the risks involved in digging here, and we need a plan of what we're going to do.
And so we decided eventually, to dig three trenches, two very large ones, and then a smaller trench in reserve if we have the time and the resources to open a third trench. The first one was over the Northeast corner of the potential building and goes diagonally so that it picks up a number of features that we could see in the surveys. Trench two picks up the opposite diagonal corner of the building. So it gives us the impression of the size of the building, and then the third trench was over what we thought might be a Portico at the front of the building to see if that was the case.
Julian: So now we have an image in mind of what we would be looking at in the dig. Could you tell me a little more about the process that followed as you began to excavate?
Stuart: So we took the grass off that was fairly straightforward, and ended up with a very large hole filled with earth, and we've got to go through that slowly, so that we don't miss anything and that we uncover the features without damaging them. And we scraped back the surface piece by piece.
In trench one that was fairly frustrating until we got about halfway down the trench and then suddenly this diagonal feature started to appear with bits of brick and building material in it, and we kept on taking that back, until we got to the far end of that, so we're almost at the end of the trench by now, well, unfortunately we found the plastic cover of a drain that consisted of a modern drain that no one knew was there and it was buried under the grass anyway, but we found it now. So now they know where the drains are, at least.
Julian: So what did you find under the soil layer, Stuart?
Stuart: Well, we were digging trench one and trench two at the same time. So the soil layer in trench one was becoming very frustrating as it was well compacted and it'd been there for quite some time, but in trench one, they got through it and underneath it was a layer of gravel and under that gravel we started to find the archaeology. So we started to find evidence of walls, and eventual paving and things like that and the gravel layer was on top of that. So it looks like that when the house was demolished to build the current house, that what they've done is they'd put a layer of gravel across the house for drainage and to level the site and then this beautiful layer of top soil, nothing in it. It’d all been sieved to put it down, so that’d probably been done by hand, if you think that the new house was built in 1722 and what it looks like is that the lawn was laid when the demolition was done. Now, David and I had a big debate about this during the dig and I went and did a little bit of research and we managed to find that another map, that's dated 1740, that shows a picture of the house on it, cause big houses in those days were drawn, rather than just put it on as a square on the map. And then that has the tongue shaped lawn that we've got at the moment on that picture. So that takes us to the point of a hypothesis that this lawn went down when the big house was built so that it looked over a vista, and as David said, that makes it one of the earliest landscape gardens in the country.
As we carried on in trench one, the walls emerged, and the walls emerged were quite confusing because we have walls, abutting walls with gaps in between like a cavity wall, but a meter and a half thick cavity wall, and then we have gaps between them where we, all we had was rubble and brick dust. And when we eventually got down through the site, what appeared in this trench, was a number of cellars and walls of the building. The cellars are quite interesting because they were filled with brick dust and broken bricks, mostly, and if you go back to what David said about systematic demolition of the building, what it looks like they did is when they knocked the building down, into the cellars went, not just bricks and rubble, but all the dust from cleaning the bricks so they could reuse the bricks in the main house. So again, that plays a little bit to what David was asking us to look for, which was evidence of the systematic demolition of the building.
The thing that started to emerge then was a couple of things, that these thick walls were actually built in two stages. So there’s an early thin brick part of the wall, and then the other bricks of the wall are more, a more modern style brick. And we think that at some point the original Tudor house was demolished or partially demolished into a different building with much wider walls. So maybe taller, or maybe they covered an area that wasn't covered previously, but you're taking walls from being a couple of feet to being a meter wide or more. And what also emerged was a square feature in the middle of where the cellars were. The cellars were - all the walls were plastered with nice, fine plaster apart from the inside of this square feature, were the walls were covered in little bits of cement that the builder hadn't cleaned up, and it can only have meant, given the fine nature of the cellar walls, it could only have meant that wall was never seen. And inside that square was soil, not the brick dust and bricks we found elsewhere and at the corner where this little square came into the cellar, that soil actually sloped down at an angle, and we surmised at the end of the dig that the soil relates to the angle of the stairs coming down into the cellar from the rooms above.
Julian: It was fascinating to hear a moment ago that some of the bricks from this building were reused in the later house, which still stands on the site to this day. Are those bricks actually evident in the current building?
Dave: The evidence we have is really just in terms of some of the letters that were written by William Heathcote, the gentlemen who actually bought the estate in 1718, and decided to demolish the Tudor Lodge, because he felt it was far too dilapidated and unrepairable. The accounts and the letters that survived between him and his site manager pretty much detail the fact they're going to be used in the lower floors and, where they actually didn't just use reuse the bricks, they also used the timber as well, the wainscoting, you know, the panelling that would go on some of the walls, that was reused, but they tended to use it in the areas that were less visible.
So, we have no way of identifying it because it literally forms the structure at the basement and the lower floor of the current Hursley House. If we took the house apart, we almost certainly would find stuff that would indicate it. But as Stuart mentioned, a lot of the house itself is actually below ground and it's basement cellar level itself. And so we can't really see it. And the panelling that was reused was used on the servant’s floors, and in the 20th century, all of that stuff was replaced. So we have no visible evidence of it, at this time.
Julian: Okay. Thanks, Dave. Stuart, did you find any other evidence in that first trench?
Stuart: I've talked about the vaulted cellar. That's very fine and there's enough of it to tell us how wide it was, because we got to the doorway, but we didn't get the other side of the door. If we'd got to the other side of the door, assuming it's in the middle, which you normally would do, it would tell us how wide it was, but the indications are that it was as wide as that bay of the house. But the other end of this trench, the west end of the trench had some confusing features in it, as you went down. We went to, instead of finding brick features, we found chalk and cobbled surfaces, and what looked much more like a path than a wall, still made of brick and tile, but it looked like a path, and our working hypothesis is that this is potentially a courtyard, which of course was very popular in Tudor buildings. And so that's an interesting question. And again, something that would be nice to look at in the future to see if this was a courtyard.
Julian: And I believe that there were some finds outside of the external wall of the house in trench two?
Stuart: As soon as we started digging in trench two, features appeared, and those features turned out to be basis for columns or wooden structures that were outside the building. Our hope was that this was a domestic area, the kitchen in particular.
Julian: And what did you actually uncover there?
Stuart: We found a kitchen. Well, we found, we found the domestic - part of the domestic area of the house. It's quite interesting because this is at the level of the walls that we found in trench one but here we actually found the kitchen that looked like working surfaces in the kitchen. So, you know, this was at different level from the fine areas of the house. Excavating here was different, although we found a large wall, the external wall of the property that ran down the middle of this trench, which is what we expected, and the rear wall, equally because we looked at the corner of the house we found those, we found in the middle of this, an area that had clearly been subject of a vast amount of burning and as we went down, we found tiles stacked on their side, that were clearly quite burnt. So we surmised that was fireplace, and then as we expose more, it looked like there's a second fireplace the other side of the dividing wall. So there's two rooms, one, it looks like both of those rooms had a sort of central fireplace in them. The reason we think the one to the north is a kitchen is that in the floor area, around that fire, which looks as though it was much larger than the other one, there was a round feature, which we think is either a bread oven style feature or somewhere you'd put a copper to boil food, but as it had well burnt, heavily compacted sand in the bottom, it's a technique you use when you’re putting a fire into something to stop it bursting the bricks and so we think that was probably a bread oven that they were cooking on there. And then in the, we call it the laundry area, external to the main wall of the building, there was another enormous, you know, a meter across, circular feature with evidence of burning. It looks like what they would have had was a very large copper, like in Victorian times everyone had at the bottom of their garden, a very large copper that was either used for washing, or even for boiling pigs and all those kinds of things.
But there was lots of evidence that this lovely feature where the copper had sat. The copper's not there of course, but the brick work's still in place. And that was external because they didn't want it to burn down the building if they had a big fire in there, that you'd got this large amount of water,
Julian: Do we have any idea about how many people it would have been serving, how many people would have lived in this building?
Dave: We don't really know how many staff, or how many people actually were living there. We do know that in the 17th century, they conducted what are called - a series of what’s called half taxes. And in that, the lodge at Hursley at that point, still being owned by the Cromwell family, was probably one of the largest in the whole of the area surrounding Winchester in terms of its taxation value, which suggests that it was considered to be a fairly substantial and therefore quite well staffed building , especially when you consider it would have had all the ancillary buildings like stables and everything else like that, which we do know a little bit about, because of a later account that was written by Richard Cromwell, in a letter. So we have a little bit of an idea, but unfortunately not the number of staff.
Julian: I'll let you continue your walk around trench two.
Stuart: So I was talking about the outside of the building. We knew that the, we've got the north south wall, external wall, but outside of that there were features, these appeared very early on and as we uncovered them, appeared to be bases for pillars, we had two of these that we eventually excavated, and pathways and services, possibly even the drain, external of the building and we think now that this was a covered way or covered area outside of the building. Now, if you go to the Close in Winchester cathedral, you'll find that there's a building there with exactly this structure on the side of it, where it's got a timber pillared building that abuts the side of one of the buildings there with doorways going into the property along the side of this building, so it just keeps you dry as you go from one room to another and our supposition at the moment is that’s what that was. But beside this, there was, an area which as we excavated it, appeared to be what we would call a midden: an area where lots of stuff had been discarded, and the majority of what was in that was oyster shells. We normally keep all the oyster shells we find, but by the time we got to about, I think the third wheelbarrow full we started to put these onto the spoil heap with the rest of the spoil. There were vast number of oyster shells in there, and some other little bits and pieces, which we're still looking and analysing. So that was an interesting feature to discover as well. It reinforces it as a domestic area for us.
Going back into the main rooms as we went down through the clay, we found a chalk surface again, but a chalk surface of a much earlier date than the other bits we'd seen, and associated with this was walling, which looked to be much more of a medieval style and that re-used fine cut stone from another building, which could have been Maiden Castle, which we know fell into ruin. So, it could be stone from that. This is fascinating that there is a building that that we didn't know about underneath. The only mention of another building was the original lodge, which was the hunting lodge for the bishop but that wasn't thought to be in this position. So it's quite interesting there's a substantial building there. The history said, records, timber being bought to build it, so it was always assumed it was timber, but actually, you know, maybe to have a solid base. So that's something else we need to look at and figure out what that was.
Dave: That earlier lodge, we naturally assumed was more likely to have been where the current lodge down in the meadow is.
Stuart: It was quite a surprise for us, but a pleasant surprise and something we need to look at in the future.
The other thing that we saw in here as in trench one was the potential redevelopment of the building, and the external wall of the building. You could see very clearly there's a clear change of brick from the lower levels, which again, use a much thinner brick, a brick of I'd call more of a Tudor style brick, to the bricks above, which are much more like a modern brick without the frog, the hole in the top of that came much later, but modern size and shape of brick and it's quite clear because it runs right along this wall with these two stages. so that redevelopment is something important to look at.
Julian: Clearly there was a wealth of information found in each of those first two trenches, but what did the team find in the final one?
Stuart: Trench three was much smaller and we didn't know whether we were going to start this or not, but as it turned out, we had enough resource, and actually because of the complexities of the trenches, we were having trouble getting people into the trench without working on top of each other.
So we opened the third trench. If you remember, this was a trench that was looking for the Portico at the front of the building, but it came out with some startling finds really. We definitely found the Portico, but we also found the same redevelopment. So the walls have been thickened from a couple of feet to well over a meter. There was a cobbled surface, that was at the level of the domestic area again, but there was a cobbled surface there beside the Portico and evidence of a doorway. Now the lintel for the doorway was, again, a piece of fine reused stone, and looking at it, examining it, we believe that was originally a piece of a window that had been reused as the foot of the door, and there was evidence of rebuilding here because the hinge point had clearly been moved or repaired or altered over time.
Unfortunately, it was very close to the edge of the trench. We couldn't see an awful lot more from that, but it would be nice to know where that went from that point, particularly as we examine the wall that that doorway, the side of the wall, as we just went down to examine it suddenly fell away. And we suspect that what we've done is to open the other side of the cellars on the complete opposite side of the building. So that would say the cellars run right the way across the front of the building, underneath the building.
On top of the cobbled surface, there was a vast number of finds. So we again went through the soil and the gravel layer and then almost immediately the cobbled surface. And there were two ladies digging this area. I was on the other side of the site and every five minutes we heard a whoop and a holler because they found something else that was interesting. And amongst them probably the most interesting or most entertaining pieces are three keys. So we found three keys, three, and I'd like to paint this wonderful picture of the building being demolished and the last thing they did was to throw the keys into the ground just before they covered them all up from the old building, which is quite an entertaining story, but probably not true.
Julian: So we've heard a tremendous amount of detail about the finds within each of the trenches positioned around the building. So I wanted to turn to Dave and just ask if you can interpret back a little for us in terms of how would the building have looked if people saw the building intact, what would they have seen in front of them?
Dave: We were able to build that picture of what is probably we'd like to think of as a classic Tudor mansion and one that goes into a Restoration level mansion as well. So two different, very distinctly different buildings. One almost certainly bigger and grander than the previous one. And it's something that fits with the history that we know that by the 17th century, a gentleman called Richard Major bought up the estate and certainly was investing in it and the area. And so once we understood the archaeology or as best as we can interpret it so far, we were able to re-look at the history and actually realize that what was written was actually matching that story, we just hadn't read it very well before perhaps.
There were finds that the archaeologists were coming up with that really started to give you an impression of how the house was. Because, I mean, Stuart mentioned a significant number of the oyster shells and everything like that. So there were bits and pieces inside the excavation's finds that started to paint a picture of the kind of life that was there. And that went from quite a few pieces of glass bottles literally. So a story similar to the one that Stuart was telling with the keys being thrown in. There were quite a few bottles that looked like they'd come out of the cellar and, once they'd finished off, they just slung them back in with the spoil heap.
Similarly, there were tiles that were found, some of them beautifully decorated, And then that gave us some sort of an impression of actually just how high status that building was. Other bits, much less quality, some of the pottery, some of it fine quality being imported from the Rhineland and all around Europe, other bits of it, very crude local ware. And again, fitting the dates that we knew so we could see that development. So from a historian's point of view, it really was both a wonderful insight and I think the word a beginning of an insight, it's helped us better understand how we're going to interpret the written sources, where we need to learn more and where we need to go back. But I'm sure Stuart would agree, the one thing it has told us is there are probably more questions asked of us now, because of what the archaeology has suggested. Questions that we'd love to be able to answer and in many respects therein lies the dilemma. A dig like this was always going to be short term. It was limited in its scope because of manpower and time and as we mentioned at the very beginning that the lawn itself is in itself an archaeological and historical monument. And so a lot of effort was put in, Stuart in particular, deserves credit for the effort and putting back the debris, the infill and the soil on top such that this theatrical lawn could be restored. So unfortunately, though you can't see anything now, what we are trying to do is to piece it together and seeing whether we can learn more and ask the questions, what else needs to be done? Can we do more? And that's again, it's back to the archaeologists to look at what has been found to interpret it and to say, well, what we need to do is this, and that's what I know Stuart and his team are currently working on.
Julian: So given the sheer amount of evidence and finds that were revealed in 2021 from this dig, it's amazing to realize that the trenches were only open for two weeks while the dig took place, then they were sealed up again, in September 2021, but I'm sure that was just the beginning of the ongoing work for you and the team, Stuart?
Stuart: Yeah, the dig actually took just a little under two weeks this year, we were shorter than normal because of various pressures on dates, and then we closed it over a period of three days, moving back some 100 to 200 tons of soil and rubble into the trenches.
Our aim was to reinstate the lawn back to its pristine state, which could be a croquet lawn if you wanted. And the gardeners will I'm sure have it back in shape by the time we dig it up again.
Julian: Indeed. It was clearly a huge effort for your team, but one which brought some great rewards in terms of a better understanding of Hursley Park. I'd like to say thank you to Dave and Stuart for all they shared with us. As Stuart mentioned earlier, the excavation site is on a private site, but if you'd like to learn more about Hursley Park, please visit the Winchester Heritage Open Days website for further information and links related to this episode.
Outro: We hope you enjoyed listening to today's episode. If you would like to find out a little bit more about what we've been talking about, then please visit the website, www.winchesterheritageopendays.org, or click on Hampshire HistBites, and there you'll find today's show notes as well as some links to more information.