Man and the Natural Landscape

Man and the Natural Landscape

The story of Berkshire can be said to have begun some 130 million years ago in the Jurassic period with the formation of its oldest rocks beneath the waves of an ancient sea. The earliest of these Jurassic rocks is the Oxford Clay, a bed of dark grey clay, some 450 feet thick, which underlies the Upper Thames Valley. To the south successively younger strata run in more or less parallel bands east-west across the county with the youngest rocks in the extreme south-east corner. These are the Bagshot Beds, mainly infertile sands and clays which were laid down in another sea, some 60 million years ago in the Eocene era.

The major topographical regions of Berkshire.

Many forces have played a role in shaping the Berkshire landscape, but not least were the earth movements which built the Alps and whose ‘outer ripples’ gently folded the rocks of southern Britain to form the London Basin and the anticlines of the Weald, Hampshire and the Chilterns. It was these earth movements which gave Berkshire its basic topography, for much of the county lies on the western edge of the London Basin, and almost all its geological strata dip south and south-eastward. The folding, however, created many minor crests and valleys, and here and there small upfolds have brought older rocks to the surface. The most notable example of this is the isolated chalk hill on which Windsor Castle stands. In north-west Berkshire, the tilting of successive bands of soft clays and harder limestones and sandstone has given rise to a landscape of vales, steep scarps and gentle dip slopes. Immediately south of the Upper Thames Valley is a low line of hills known to geologists as the Corallian Ridge from the fossil corals found in its limestone beds. Its scarp faces the Thames, but on the south the hills have a more gentle slope, gradually merging into the Vale of the White Horse. Two bands of clay, the Kimmeridge and Gault Clays, form the Vale which stretches across almost the whole of this part of the old county, from Shrivenham to Abingdon. The Vale is drained by the slow-flowing River Ock, and its flat, clay valley bottom is more than five miles wide in places. In dramatic contrast is its southern boundary where Upper Greensand and chalk form a series of terraces and steep scarps, above which lie the Berkshire Downs and the ancient chalk figure which has given the Vale its name.

Chalk covers more than a quarter of the county, from the high downland in the north and west to the gentle hills of the country between Wargrave and Maidenhead. Scenically perhaps, the Berkshire Downs are the most impressive part of the old county. Although nowhere do the crests rise much above 800 feet, the level hill tops are deeply dissected by numerous steep-sided dry valleys. The flat areas between are the remnants of ancient uplifted land surfaces, and the valleys are the relics of a vast drainage system that was most effective at the end of the Ice Ages. The present Lambourn River is a ‘mere trunk’ of a much larger river system that has been shrinking for the last 10,000 years. The upper levels of the chalk are waterless, and the wide expanses of springy turf seem to be one of its most characteristic features. Yet weathering has produced an extensive deposit known as clay-with-flints which is more fertile than chalk soils and once supported woodland.

Separated from the main chalk hills by the River Kennet is another area of chalk where Berkshire takes in a small part of the North Hampshire Downs. Rising steeply from the valley, the downs here reach their greatest heights at Inkpen Beacon and Walbury Camp. The latter at 975 feet is the highest point on chalk anywhere in Britain; the views across the Kennet valley are superb.

The eastern area of chalk is very different. The surface is a much lower plateau with the great bend of the Thames forming an incised meander on three sides. Its steep edge can be most easily appreciated at Remenham and Winter Hill at Cookham. The chalk here has no dry valleys, and its topography is unremarkable except for two conical hill – Bowsey Hill and Ashley Hill—both capped by Upper Greensand. Although only some 450 feet high, they can be seen from long distances.

In the south of the county the oldest of the geological formations belonging to the Eocene period are known as the Reading Beds, a mixed clay and sandy strata which forms a discontinuous band of gentle hilly country across the county from Hungérford to Bray. More distinctive, perhaps, is the London Clay which covers a large area of eastern Berkshire, from Arborfield to Windsor, and a rather smaller area around Burghfield and Mortimer with narrow extensions further west. It forms a moderately fertile, but heavy soil, and is practically impervious to water. In contrast are the formations collectively known as the Bagshot Beds which give rise to sandy, well drained, but infertile soils. They underlie an area known until the 19th century as Bagshot Heath which, according to William Cobbett, was ‘as bleak, as barren, and as villainous a heath as ever man set his eyes on’.

The Kennet and Thames Valleys are as distinctive a feature of Berk shire’s topography as the scarp of the Downs, although the spread of roads and houses has diminished their physical impact on our senses. Both rivers meander over a flood plain covered by recent deposits of alluvium and river gravels. Here the difference of only a few feet was important to earlier settlers for it was the difference between marshy land which was frequently flooded and land which usually stood above the flood water. Reading was founded on a large gravel terrace cut through by the Kennet, and the sites of several of the villages in the valleys were at least partly determined by the gravel deposits. In the east of the county the gravels extend up the dip slope of the Chilterns in a series of terraces formed during the Ice Ages. They are most easily recognised between Maidenhead and Colnbrook, where much of the original research into Thames terraces has been carried out.

Each terrace marks a warm period during the Ice Ages, and each drop to the next terrace is the result of down-cutting by the Thames during the cold periods when sea levels were much lower. Thick layers of gravel accumulated on the flood plain during the warm intergiacials, and during the last of the glacial periods when southern Britain was subject to tundra conditions wind-blown material, known as brickearth, was deposited on the lower terraces. None of the ice sheets reached as far south as Berkshire, but originally the Thames had flowed in a more northerly route through the Chilterns, and twice its valley was blocked by a glacier. The river was forced to change course and flow further south, leaving behind the series of terraces. Similar river terraces are also found all along the Thames Valley, and in the Kennet and Loddon Valleys.

The First Inhabitants

The Ice Ages lasted some two million years during which time the ice sheets advanced and retreated several times. Sometime during this era man came to live in Britain and to make his home in Berkshire. The oldest human remains belong to a period known as the Hoxnian Interglacial (425,000 to 360,000 BC) when birch, pine and oak woods covered much of the land and gave shelter to such animals as red deer, hippopotamus, bison, aurochs and cave lions. Remains of them have been found in the Thames river gravels at Swanscombe in Kent, but much older flint tools found elsewhere in the country are evidence that Britain had already been inhabited for more than 100,000 years before the Hoxnian period. Early man may also have lived through the cold conditions of a glacial period when such creatures as woolly rhinoceroses and mammoths roamed the grassland steppes.

No human remains from such remote periods have been found in Berkshire, but the Thames Valley gravels have been a rich source of flint implements and there is no doubt that bands of hunters inhabited the area during a period known in archaeological terms as the Lower Palaeolithic, or Lower Old Stone Age. The climate was temperate and riverside sites provided the inhabitants with a diversity of habitats—open water, swamp, grassland and woodland—and a rich variety of game. The Thames at this time had many channels and meandered through a wide flood plain, and small groups of people most likely occupied camp sites near the river. There were no caves to provide a convenient home, but Palaeolithic Man had the skills to build simple shelters. The sheer quantity of finds from the river gravel terraces between Maidenhead and Slough attests to the occupation of the area for many generations. Smaller numbers of palaeolithic tools have been found in many other parts of Berkshire, but there is a notable absence of finds from the chalk downiands.

The different types and styles of the flint tools give us some clues about the people living in Berkshire at this remote period. The oldest types of tools are those known as Clactonian after the place where they were first identified, and numerous examples of their core choppers and flake tools have been found at Caversham and in the gravels of the Boyne Hill terrace around Maidenhead. More prolific in Berkshire are the flint implements known as Acheulian. They were made by a people with a different culture who specialised in the manufacture of hand axes. Many of them were beautifully worked and they are a lasting proof of the skill and knowledge of the men who made them. The largest hand axe ever found in England was discovered unimpaired in a pit near Cannon Court Farm at Maidenhead. It is so large it cannot have been a working tool, but perhaps it had some special ritual significance. Hand axes were used to butcher animals, but Palaeolithic Man had a range of tools. Flakes and cleavers were used to cut the flesh, and scrapers to clean the skin before it could be used for clothes and other purposes. Other implements were used as missiles, for grinding, and as wedges for splitting stones, bones and wood.

Over the thousands of years of the Palaeolithic period, man himself evolved and developed new skills, became more specialised, and adapted to different conditions. While the Acheulians appear to have retreated from Britain during the cold periods, men who produced Levalloisian flake tools lived in the tundra zone beyond the edge of the ice sheet. Eventually, however, during the last glacial period arctic conditions prevailed and Britain became uninhabitable.

This last glaciation (known as the Devensian) lasted an immensely long time and there were several relatively warmer periods within it during which people returned to Britain. Conditions were far from congenial and the total population of Great Britain at any one time may have been no more than a few hundred. At last, about 14,000 years ago the ice began to retreat for the last time and the sub-arctic conditions gave way to tundra and cold steppe grasslands—a treeless landscape. Once again Palaeolithic Man returned to this country, bringing with him a culture which has been named by archaeologists as Creswellian. These were Upper Palaeolithic people, and the majority of their known occupation sites in Britain are in caves, but there were a few open sites, including ones at Thatcham and Avington, near Hungerford. Man was still a hunter, and it may not be too fanciful to suppose that his pursuit of migratory herds of reindeer and horses determined the best crossing points of rivers and made tracks which were the beginning of our roads.

With the end of the Ice Ages and the return of a more hospitable climate in about 10,000 BC, the land took on a new green appearance as trees, grasses and herbaceous plants moved in from more southerly latitudes. England was still joined to the Continent and thus there was no barrier to the relatively rapid colonisation of the land by forest animals and plants. Birchwood replaced the grasslands, followed by pine woods and then deciduous trees such as hazel, elm, oak, alder and lime. By about 5,500 BC, the greater part of Berkshire, like most of the rest of lowland Britain, was covered by a mixed oak forest, inhabited by deer, elk, wild boars and aurochs and a great range of other woodland creatures. Gone were the great herds of easily culled reindeer and other migratory animals which had been so important to men of the late Old Stone Age. The people who now made Berkshire their home had to exploit a very different habitat, hunting individual animals rather than herds. These people of the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, were hunters, fishermen and gatherers. Their tools were more diverse, and greater use was made of small flint blades known as microliths. Great quantities of their tools have been found at Thatcham where Mesolithic people used the same area for nearly a thousand years. They were mainly marsh or lake-side dwellers, and it is likely that they made their way inland following the rivers until they found sites to their liking. Bones show that the Thatcham people enjoyed a varied diet which included deer, boar, fish, birds, wild ox and even horse, and hunted such animals as beaver, fox, badger and wild cats for their fur. Bones of dogs suggest that perhaps the dog was already partly domesticated and assisted man in hunting. The flint for their tools came from the river gravels and the chalk downs some five miles to the north west.

Although a very important site because of the richness of the archaeological finds, Thatcham is not the only Mesolithic site in Berkshire. About fifty have been found in the Kennet Valley between Thatcham and Hungerford, others at Holyport and the Abingdon area of the Upper Thames Valley, and along the Come Valley just beyond the Berkshire boundary. Mesolithic hunters also lived on the chalk slopes overlooking the River Kennet.

How many communities lived in Berkshire during this period we call the Middle Stone Age is impossible to know, but what evidence there is suggests that each community was small, probably no larger than one or two families, and that the sites were occupied for only part of the year. Yet, in spite of their small numbers and nomadic way of life, it was Mesolithic Man who began the long process of transforming the landscape. Using fire and tools known today as Thames Picks, they began to enlarge the forest glades by the slash and burn method. The process of forest clearance had begun, especially where the tree cover was lightest on the river gravels.

The First Farmers

About 6,000 years ago a new type of people began moving into Britain from northern France. They came as small scattered groups over a long period, and there is no reason to suppose that they came as invaders or that they immediately replaced the older culture. They were, however, technologically more advanced and inevitably their way of life brought great changes. These Neolithic, or New Stone Age, people were farmers, and they brought with them seeds and the knowledge of plant cultivation, the skills to domesticate animals and to make pottery. Like the people already living in Britain, they hunted and gathered food, but their way of life was a more settled one, and the remains of their farmhouses, fields and burial sites have been found in many parts of Berkshire.

Although their polished stone axes made the work of felling small trees easier than the tools of earlier periods, they also favoured the light well-drained soils which were easiest to clear of trees, such as the river gravels

in the Thames, Kennet, Loddon, Blackwater and Ock Valleys. Where they settled in sufficient numbers, they brought about a permanent clearance of the woodland. This came about, not because there were large numbers of settlers clearing huge areas, but because their method of farming involved clearing an area of ground and cultivating it until the soil was exhausted. They then moved to a new site and cleared this while their animals grazing on the abandoned fields prevented a return to woodland conditions.

Scattered finds of tools and pottery sherds suggest that there were few parts of the county shunned by Neolithic Man, but most of the occupation sites have been found in the valleys. Those at Abingdon, Remenham and Cannon Hill, Maidenhead have been identified as early Neolithic. At Runnymede Bridge, just across the county boundary, numerous pits, post holes and water-logged timbers are evidence of a fairly substantial village which flourished in the Middle Neolithic period. In contrast the remains of the settlement found at Burghfield would appear to be much later. Here the finds include the remains of a hearth, and it is thought that the single homestead was built in a small grassy clearing in oak and hazel woodland.

Neolithic Man left other evidence of his presence in Berkshire in the form of ditches, banks and earthworks which fulfilled a variety of functions. Parallel lines of ditches known as a cursus are thought to have had some ceremonial function. One discovered in Dorset is over six miles long, but, although there are none of this length in Berkshire, the cursus near Drayton in north Berkshire was the first ever discovered, and is still the earliest known. Others have been found at Buscot, Sonning and Sutton Courtenay. The so-called causeway camps, circular ditches with a causewayed entrance, are believed to have been meeting places for a variety of activities: festivals and ceremonial occasions, and trading, and penning cattle. The one at Abingdon has long been known to archaeologists and is of special importance because of its association with a distinctive type of pottery, but other examples, such as one at Eton Wick, have recently been identified by aerial photography.

More impressive as features of the modern landscape, however, are the long barrows in which Neolithic men buried their dead. These became commonplace in southern England in the middle Neolithic period. Berkshire has few compared with the counties to the west, but there are at least six on the chalk hillside overlooking the Vale of the White Horse and others at Blewbury and Inkpen. The oldest is found at Lambourn. The use of turves in its construction suggests that forest clearance had already begun in this part of the downs when it was built about 3,400 BC. Wayland’s Smithy is deservedly the most famous of this type, for it consists of a long barrow, above which is a unique barrow composed of two stone chambers. The delightful legend, which tells of an invisible blacksmith with magical powers which gives the site its name, belongs to a much later period when iron was in use.

On the downlands of the neighbouring counties there is abundant evidence of the importance of the chalk areas to the Neolithic people, for here they built their great monuments known as henges, including the most famous, Stonehenge and Avebury. There are no such henges in Berkshire and no settlement sites on the chalk for this period. There is no easy explanation as to why, but the picture painted by earlier historians of prehistoric man favouring the chalk hills and avoiding the thick oak woods of the Thames Valley is no longer believed to be true.

About 2,300 BC a new group of people began migrating into this country. They have been named the Beaker people after their distinctive shaped clay pots known to archaeologists as ‘beakers’. They brought with them a knowledge of working with metal—copper —and they represent a transitional period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. Copper was not readily available in southern Britain, and while a few newcomers and enterprising natives obtained metal tools, most families continued to use stone. In general the newcomers were farming people, growing cereals and other crops, keeping cattle, and using their surplus for trade. They buried their dead in round barrows and believed in an after-life; examples of their distinctive pottery ‘beakers’ are frequently found as grave goods. Several flat, unmarked graves of the Beaker people have also been found at Abingdon. One of them contained a skeleton of a man with a barbed and tanged arrow head jutting out of his spine; his own supply of arrows had been buried with him.

At least thirty-two round harrows lie in close proximity near Lambourn, the so-called Seven Barrows group. Many more are scattered over the Berkshire Downs, singly and in rows, and there are small concentrations in other parts of the county—four at Cookham and three at Radley in the Thames Valley, and others on the poorer soils in the south of the county at Ascot, Bracknell, Finchampstead, Sunninghill, Winkfield, Mortimer, and on Greenham Common and Wash Common at Newbury. Not all of these barrows were built by the Beaker people, for round barrows are also characteristic of the later Bronze Age, and at Abingdon barrows are found in what might be called a ‘prehistoric cemetery’, for it includes a whole sequence of burials from Neolithic to Saxon.

For many years it was believed that the introduction of bronze weapons and implements around 1,500 BC was brought about by waves of immigrants; those who dominated southern England the archaeologists have named the Wessex Culture. Such ideas are no longer tenable. The replacement of copper by bronze was a gradual process, brought about perhaps by small groups of people, traders and itinerant smiths. Hoards of bronze wares are thought to have been buried for safe keeping or for re-smelting while customers were sought. Sometimes, as in the case of the 18 implements found at Slough, they were scrap metal, broken items which would be smelted down and then re-cast. For many people, however, life did not change much, or only very slowly. Over the centuries, however, regional differences developed, detected today by changes in styles of pottery and other possessions. The introduction of metal working and increased trade also stimulated some important changes in society, such as the emergence of larger numbers of artisans and craftsmen and an elite which was wealthy enough to buy luxury goods made of gold, amber and faience (imported blue beads).

It was for this elite that the large barrows were built. A ceremonial battle axe and mace-head made from an antler were found in one of the Lambourn barrows, and gold and amber jewellery in others—clear evidence of the wealth and warrior status of families who could command sufficient labour to build these monuments to themselves and their women folk. Their wealth was almost certainly based on cattle, and the Bronze Age saw the clearance of more woodland from the Berkshire Downs and the increased use of them for pasture. An ancient enclosure near the Ridgeway known as Rams Hill, now only visible from the air, is believed to have been a seasonal settlement or cattle corral. Extensive linear earthworks known as ‘ranch’ boundary ditches (because they may demarcate grazing areas), have been found; they were constructed during the Middle and Late Bronze Age. The longest in Berkshire, known as Grims Ditch, runs just north of the Ridgeway through Ardington, Aston Upthorp and Blewbury for over eight miles—much too long for it to be a boundary between property or pasture and arable. Instead it has been suggested that it is a major boundary separating people of different social groups.

Until relatively recently, very few Bronze-Age settlement sites had been found, and it was therefore reasoned that the people were nomadic pastoralists. But recent discoveries have altered our interpretation of the Bronze Age, although the picture is still far from clear. The sites of numerous farmsteads and small farming communities have been found in the Thames and Kennet Valleys, and a large farming community at Knights Farm just south of Reading. There were also farmsteads and small communities living on the chalk lands, such as at Beedon. Pollen analysis of waterlogged material taken from an excavation of a settlement at Pingewood indicates that here was open country with arable fields, grazing land and patches of woodland. Elsewhere systems of ditches and banks are evidence of extensive Bronze-Age field systems, with livestock grazing on the lower, wetter ground, and cereals grown on the higher gravel terraces. Flax was also grown for cloth making. At Anslows’ Cottages between Reading and Burghfield the remains of a settlement and a small jetty have been found alongside an old channel of the Kennet. Here evidence of fish and eel traps in abandoned channels suggests that fishing was an important occupation. The large number of bronze tools and weapons recovered from the Thames and Kennet also points to the general importance of the rivers in the region, and it has been suggested that the riverside settlements found at Bray, Wallingford, and Runnymede in Surrey, were ‘high status’ settlements. The latter two appear to have been inland ports controlling the river traffic and prospering through the exchange of valuable commodities. At Runnymede the river bank was reinforced by wooden piles to form a substantial waterfront at which boats could be moored. Some very fine quality bronze work and pottery was found at these sites, including antler cheek pieces and bronze fittings which are the earliest indication that horses were being used for riding in the Bronze Age. The enormous quantities of scene: a Bronze-Age bronze and iron items found in the Thames would appear to be too many community, to be the result of accidental losses and it seems quite likely that some were votive offerings.

Despite its prosperity Bronze-Age Britain was relatively insular, but from about 750 BC there was increased contact with the Continent and trade in goods. Overseas trade increased dramatically, and with it came the knowledge of working with iron and new ideas for the production of pottery and styles of metalwork; Britain had moved into the Iron Age. No doubt over the centuries many people from the Continent influenced British craftsmen, but they also developed their own styles with many regional variations. By the fourth century BC, if not long before, regional groups had begun to evolve which before the end of the Iron Age would be recognised as tribes and petty kingdoms.

By this date it would also appear that in some areas the increased exploitation of the land and the rising population meant that land became in short supply. Weapons became more common and settlements replaced their enclosure fences with earthworks, signs perhaps that society was becoming more aggressive and that property and territory needed to be defended. Hill forts were now a feature of the landscape, many of them with a series of impressive ramparts and ditches, and space to accommodate a large number of people. It must have required a great number of people and considerable organisation to build them. There are more than twenty hill forts in Berkshire, the largest (with over 80 acres) at Walbury Hill, near Inkpen. Both Segsbury Camp on the downs and Caesar’s Camp at Bracknell cover more than twenty acres. Rams Hill was refortified for a short period and then probably abandoned in favour of the more defensible site at Uffington where a hill fort sits at the highest point of the chalk scarp. The forts were probably used for a variety of purposes—corralling cattle, religious or secular meetings, as regional centres, and when the need arose for defence. It may not be simply the accident of preservation that some of the most impressive of the Berkshire hill forts are in the north of the county, for it is here that before the end of the Iron Age three tribes would struggle for supremacy.