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Marshwood Vale NMP

The Marshwood Vale is a rural area. Small scattered farms once characterised the region. These have since been aggregated into larger management units. 

Farming intensification is potentially damaging to the historic environment. With little recorded about this part of south Dorset and east Devon, Historic England has now funded some research. Our NMP project assessed the range and preservation of archaeological sites here.

Colour aerial photograph showing some earthwork banks in rough pasture
Pillow mounds near Coney's Castle photographed on 16 February 2005 (NMR 23820/23) © Historic England Archive

The project

This archaeological survey covered 193 square kilometres of south-west Dorset and south-east Devon. Much of the project area lies within the western part of the Dorset AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and the East Devon AONB. Working to NMP standards, it reviewed all readily available aerial photographs and Environment Agency lidar.

Cornwall Archaeology Unit, Cornwall Council and AC Archaeology carried out the project between November 2015 and February 2017. They input the data directly into the Dorset County Council and Devon County Council Historic Building, Sites and Monuments Record (HBSMR) databases.

A colour map showing the extents of the project area together with other survey areas and their relation to the local AONBs
Project Area Marshwood Vale

Prehistoric origins

The earliest monuments that the project identified were prehistoric ceremonial sites. These included four unrecorded burial mounds sited in elevated positions in the landscape. 

One lies on the northern end of Quarry Hill, Chideock. Quarry Hill is part of a linear ridge forming the eastern valley side of the River Winniford. The mound is a continuation of a linear series of Bronze Age barrows. They start on the coast at Thorncombe Beacon and run along the ridge to Eype Down.

The project identified another potential burial mound further north along the ridge at Jan’s Hill, Symondsbury. This could be a continuation in the series.

Left - Distribution map with red dots; right – vertical aerial photo showing small mound in pasture fields circled in red
The right-hand image shows the potential Bronze Age burial mound at Quarry Hill, Chideock photographed on 22 January 1948. This is one of a linear series running north from the coast at Thorncombe Beacon, as seen in the left-hand image, a distribution map showing the barrows as red dots against a background map with contours. RAF photograph Historic England RAF Photography.

Settlement evidence for the later prehistoric periods in the west of Dorset and into Devon is sparse. This area probably had a lower population than the South Downs to the east. Despite this, the project mapped several small curvilinear enclosures. These could have been the sites of later prehistoric settlements.

Left – Map extract with features plotted in red and green; right – greyscale lidar image showing slight banks and ditches
Possible prehistoric features mapped in the vicinity of Pilsdon Pen Hillfort. The right-hand image shows the low earthworks of two conjoined enclosures visible on lidar imagery taken in 2010 © Cornwall Council 2016 original source Environment Agency; the left hand image shows the newly recorded features in relation to the known site of the Pilsdon Pen Hillfort.

Medieval Marshwood Vale

There’s a lot of evidence of settlement and exploitation of the vale from the medieval period onwards. There are 12 medieval deer parks in the area as well as high status moated sites and manors.

The Domesday Book recorded Chideock as ‘Cidihoc’. This suggests that a manor existed here by the 11th century. The moated earthworks at Chideock Manor are particularly well-preserved. There, a platform 42 metres across contains the earthworks of former buildings and a gatehouse. A field known as ‘Ruins Field’ is dotted with remains of enclosures, fishponds, building platforms and terraces.

Colour aerial photograph showing earthworks in a pasture field with ploughed fields on one side and lots of houses on the other
Moated site at Chideock Manor photographed on 14 December 2001 © Historic England Archive

In medieval times, small manors, hamlets and farmsteads were scattered through Marshwood Vale. Some of these have since shrunk or been deserted. The medieval fields, enclosures and house platforms survive only as earthworks.

The manors and hamlets often occur in areas of communally farmed open fields. But this isn’t always the case. Some higher status farms lie within a ‘halo’ of small irregular fields. These are sometimes contained within large curvilinear enclosures which could be medieval holdings carved out of the woodland by individual landowners. An example of this is the deserted farmstead of Kitty’s Farm, Marshwood which lies within a group of small irregular fields that form a ‘halo’ around the farm.

Left – annotated vertical aerial photo showing low earthworks; right – map extract with features plotted in various colours
Kitty's Farm, Marshwood. The left hand image shows the low earthworks as they were photographed by the RAF on 22 January 1948 (RAF CPE/UK/2431 RS 4214) Historic England RAF Photography; the right hand image shows a section of mapping showing the main features of the settlement.

Post medieval quarrying

Many of the small outcrops of limestone along the eastern edge of the project area showed evidence of limestone quarrying. Often we found signs of limekilns nearby. Besides being an important building stone, limestone has long been used to make lime mortar, lime wash, and as a soil improver.

The rural lime industry developed in areas where there was a ready source of local limestone and fuel, as well as a local market.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, people created a number of small rural kilns to supply the local agricultural industry. A significant number of lime kilns are marked in the first edition Ordnance Survey map on the limestone and chalk ridges encircling the vale.

Waddon Hill forms the southern edge of a limestone outcrop.  The Romans used it as the site of a fort, and quarrying in the 18th and 19th centuries caused a lot of disturbance to its earthworks. The limestone layer is only a few metres thick. It caps an underlying layer of sandstone. Quarrying has entirely removed this layer over the western half of the hill.

Annotated vertical aerial photo showing low earthworks of extraction in a landscape of pasture fields divided by hedgerows
Post medieval limestone extraction and associated lime kiln on Waddon Hill. The post medieval earthworks have largely destroyed the site of an earlier Roman fort. The low earthworks were photographed by the RAF on 11 April 1947 (RAF CPE/UK/1975 FP 1082). Historic England RAF Photography.
NMP Mapping of the Marshwood Vale, Dorset AONB

NMP Mapping of the Marshwood Vale, Dorset AONB

Published 22 February 2017

A report on the aerial survey of the Marshwood Vale Dorset AONB.

The images used on this page are copyright Historic England unless specified otherwise. For further details of any photographs or other images and for copies of these, or the plans and reports related to the project, please contact the Historic England Archive.

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