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Hidden in Plain Sight: Archaeology in your favourite picnic spot

It seems obvious that people enjoy spending time in scenic places and actively seek these out; it is no surprise that these spaces are often used for picnicking. Defined by the communal outdoor consumption of food, picnics are events that developed with the age of modernity, affording opportunities for (often impromptu) leisure and frivolity. Sometimes the history of a place is conspicuous, as with National Trust estates or well-documented hillforts, but for many sites their stories have faded from collective memory. I have stumbled across several such sites during the course of my research and highlight one of them below. They are all forgotten but not really lost. All landscape parks once attached country houses, their link to the people and places they once served has now gone. These formerly private areas have been colonised as public spaces, but what is it that attracts us to such places of unlikely survival?

Recent work at the University of Warwick has sought to analyse the ‘scenic’ and to teach machines to recognise such places. Chanuki Seresinhe’s team fed a neural network with scene photographs ranked by volunteers according to attractiveness, and taught it to recognise the common features. Unsurprisingly, generally natural places were ranked as more scenic than unnatural. Top categories included valley, mountain, cliff, waterfall, and creek. But there were many man-made features too: Japanese garden, cottage, castle, church, ruin, and formal garden. Intriguingly, large expanses of natural grassland scored far lower than varied environments featuring trees and contours.

Comparing these categories to historic parklands highlights interesting correlations. The 18th century saw the inexorable rise of landscape parks and pleasure grounds created on private estates. While famous designers such as Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown were responsible in some cases, many were created more informally. These places were effectively simulacra of the natural environment, a distinctive move away from the ordered and geometric gardens that came before. In them we find artificial or modified watercourses and waterfalls, terraces and artificial valleys, woodland, lakes, and manmade features like follies, ruins, and cottages. They were designed to a set of aesthetic ideals that Seresinhe’s work suggests still endure today. It is perhaps not surprising that many have survived despite lack of recognition: their value as scenic places has transcended their value as private landscape. They may not be in heritage databases or labelled on maps, but the old parks seem to attract visitors over and above other accessible areas.

One such site is at Erlestoke which sits on the northern edge of Salisbury Plain. A mansion house was either remodelled or rebuilt on an existing site in the 1780s, when there was a park to the north of the house with the village to the south and west, visible on a map of 1773 by Andrews and Dury (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Erlestoke (Earl Stoke) in 1773. The houses to the south were later cleared. © Wiltshire Council

By the beginning of the 19th century the owner of the manor, Joshua Smith, had undertaken largescale clearance and removed an entire street of houses to the south, replacing it with the landscape park that partially survives today. This park was described in some detail by John Britton in 1801. Britton’s description mimics what we see today: the chalk scarp on the edge of the plain was ‘thickly planted’ with trees and there was a meandering stream running north/south which included several artificially created water features. The new park was specifically planted with ‘a choice collection of botanical plants… pleasingly diversified with a variety of indigeneous [sic] and exotic trees and shrubs’.

Figure 2: The park viewed from the southwest. The scarp to the right is now largely plantation, though veteran boundary broadleaves have survived. The woodland on the left conceals the cascades and pond, and is the site of the cleared street. © Eloise Kane

Figure 3: At over 7m in diameter this huge chestnut tree is probably one of the original 18th century boundary trees, topping a bank that edges the park. © Eloise Kane.

The scarp is still thickly planted with trees, the route ways are still maintained, the vestiges of the cascades and the stream remain visible, and huge veteran chestnut trees line the edges of what was once the extent of the park. This park though has not been managed as one or connected to a house since at least the mid-20th century. The southern park, along with the rest of Salisbury Plain, belongs to the MOD, accessible only under military byelaws that allow entry to specific training areas when not in use. Erlestoke is just one of many places to walk on the Plain under this byelaw but it is popular because rather than being a large expanse of grassland and sky as with the rest of the Plain, it has character. It is superficially natural, but is the product of extensive demolition, planting, earth moving, and waterworks. Looking more closely at the woodland we find conduits, old retaining walls, and rambling remnants of historic planting schemes. It is also peppered with contemporary archaeological evidence for its use in both leisure and military activities: rope swings on ancient beeches, artificial banks and hollows built by mountain bikers, or remnants of overnight camps created on troop exercises. One of the park’s most conspicuous features is a beautiful walled garden, provided by Smith for the use of villagers in the late 18th century. This garden is so integral to the village that it was purchased from the MOD by the parish council and is now the manicured home of the village cricket team.

Sites like this exist in contrast to the surrounding rural vernacular, and to some are recognisable as ‘former’ pleasure grounds. To most though these are simply bucolic landscapes in which to enjoy spending time, unknowingly reiterating the old parks as theatres of leisure and reflecting the very reason they were created. These small parochial parks are certainly more numerous than the record reflects, so when you are next in your favourite spot consider this: What makes it appeal? Is it simply a naturally ‘scenic’ spot, or could it be the remnants of someone’s forgotten garden?

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The blogs on the Question website are written by early career researchers and are always open for comment. While some posts are drawn from contributors contacting us directly we also re-blog content from The Conversation and specialist research centres in partner insitutions. All blog posted are selected on their intellectual penetration, originality and public appeal.

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