ID: KGM_001 / Kay Gilmour

TitlePeldon in Essex. Village over the Marshes. Chapter 1
Geology and Soil

The problems of prehistoric archaeology are almost entirely geological, and require geological solution. Unfortunately no geological survey of Peldon has been made. Nor has there been any soil survey, as this is now understood, in this part of the country: but drift maps, many of which were destroyed during air attacks in 1940-41, show Peldon as being sited on the driftless London clay. [Note 1] Kelly notes that the soil is heavy loam; subsoil loam. The chief crops are wheat, barley, oats and beans. The area (1933) 2,243, acres of land, 9 of inland and 2 of tidal water and 31 of foreshore.

The round ice-worn pebbles, called locally "loomstones" are packed into a belt 50-60 ft. wide, as tight as concrete, which extends from north-east of the churchyard south-westwards to about 60 feet below the bungalow called "Feathers" [editor's note: now Orchard Cottage], which is built half on the stony belt and half on clay where it stops abruptly. The glacial gravel makes grave digging a very difficult task, and Mr R.J. Mason, retired builder, tells us that in some of the graves he dug on the north side of the church pebbles began six inches below the surface and continued down to five or six feet. "In dry weather it was like digging in concrete." Mr Mason has come across no other pebbles in Peldon, either at the Rectory, Hall or Lodge [Note 2]. But Mr Hall, the history master at the Grammar School, at Blackheath, records digging a hole at Harvey's Farm, in search of a pre-Roman road, and finding a layer of pebbles in the stiff clay, which he presumed to be a road. Unfortunately the size and direction are not recorded. On one thing all agree - that is difficult to get anything to grow above this stony seam.

The gravel cap of Peldon is perhaps the reason why the greatest number of houses in the parish stand where they do. At least the cap was fairly well drained by comparison with the clay and the rain trickling through the gravel comes out as springs when it meets the clay. These springs must have been useful in the past but now are most unwanted as from time to time they seep from the hill-top and the roads to dampen houses and cause the roadside ditches to overflow.

It is known that when the land rose from the icy sea after the great marine submergence, East Anglia and Essex emerged first because the submergence here was only a hundred feet, and we can picture the low hill-top, even before the appearance of man, as the haunt of the first primitive living creatures.

Strange birds and arctic land animals may have rested on the sparse vegetation. As the water fell and more habitable conditions began to prevail on the rising land, vigorous grasses and umbels that would make feeding grounds for future herds, began to flourish. In due course turf-forming grasses and self-sown trees ousted the weaker herbaceous vegetation, and, as the climate grew more temperate, the land became overgrown with forests, and England, not yet an island, became the hunting ground of mammoth wild animals.

Of those animals who some 250,000 years ago came across from the dense forests and marshes of what is now the North Sea in search of new feeding grounds, at a time when England formed part of the European Continent and enjoyed a climate varying from arctic cold to tropical heat, we know a little, for it was in Essex that the first perfect skull of a British Mammoth was discovered in 1863 [Note 3], and Essex, in living memory, has yielded up a treasure trove of mammalian fossils that reads like a fairy story. Possibly the woolly rhinoceros with its curious nasal horn was one of the first arrivals.

Somewhere about 1950 Mr Spencer, Curator of the Ipswich Museum, learned that a cafe keeper on Mersea Island, Mr Shoesmith, had given to Colchester Museum bones from a place known locally as the "Elephants graveyard."

"Elephants Graveyard" was a slight misnomer, for the Mersea site proved to contain Pleistocene mammalia and yielded, besides specimens of the southern elephant, relics of rhinoceros, hippopotamus, wild horse, elk, bison or auroch, lion and reindeer, dating back to the Great Interglacial Period.

No doubt the finds would have been larger had not summer visitors for years been carrying away relics. Although, so far, no human bones have been recorded at Mersea, the deposit is of the same age as the famous Lion Point at Clacton, where early implements of paleolithic man were found. It is also contemporary with the collection exhibited in 1880 from the Uphall Brickfields in Barking, then a small town of under 4000 people by Sir Antonio Brady, Verderer of Epping Forest. [Note 4]

The deposit at Mersea, left by the River Thames when it was a tributary of the River Rhine, belongs to the warm interglacial period known as the Mindel-Riss. At that time the North Sea was a fertile plain populated by paleolithic man and the British Isles must have looked something like Greenland today.

We hardly need to go further back in the history fo Peldon, then joined to Mersea by land, as it has ever since been joined to the island by history. For, in the words of Lord Avebury

"Whether man existed in Britain before the Glacial period, or during the inter-glacial periods of a more genial climate, there is some difference of opinion, though it seems probable; but there can be no doubt that he was here soon after the final disappearance of glacial conditions, and coexisted with the mammoths, the woolly-haired rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the marsh-sheep, the gigantic Irish elk, the great bear, and the cave-lion."

In the London Geological Museum there is a large oil painting by E. Marsden Wilson which reconstructs an imaginary scene on the estuary of a large salt water river in the south east of England, about 50 million years ago when the London clay of Peldon was being deposited and the climate was that of a tropical rain forest.

Crocodiles disport themselves beside the low slender feathery Nipa palms, like those which now grow at the mouth of the Ganges, of which fossils are found in London clay. Between a flowering magnolia and a Sabal palm, with its mass of contorted roots, gambol fox-sized ancestors of the horse, Hyracotherium with teeth like those of the pig, and four-toed front feet, three-toed hind feet covered by hoofs. Another strange beast in the centre of the picture, which has no living descendant, is the cow-sized Coryphodon, with strong canine teeth and feet not unlike an elephant's.

Flora and Fauna
We shall be chiefly concerned in this story with the human inhabitants of Peldon, but something must be said of the most varied non-humans - the birds. 72 species have been noted by a local observer [Note 5]. As one might expect they fall into two main types, those of the upland and those of the marsh. Of the commoner birds that bring delight to us, the wren, the sparrow, the robin, the nightingale, the bullfinch and the song thrush, I need say nothing. But Mr Russell Walker's rarities deserve a mention. The woodcock he saw but once, in flight opposite Pete [editor's note: in modern times spelt Pete, both spellings used in Gilmour's manuscript] Tye Cottage. The pratincole was positively identified once by Mr Pullen, flying from his ground towards the marshes. The avocet was "positively" identified in 1953 in the area of the Strood marshes. The long-tailed tit appeared to Mr Walker in 1955 "to have entirely deserted the village. I have not seen one since the war." The fieldfare, which very rarely nests in England, was positively identified nesting in the orchard not far from the "Peldon Rose". Another local bird lover commented that the Peldon blue tits and great tits, since World War II, steal your milk by pecking off the cardboard top. She comments also on the call of the curlew sounding over the Strood, and the local names of the green woodpecker ("Yaffle") and the hedge sparrow ("Dunnock"), and on the lesser white throat which "eats spiders round the Rectory window".

The plant-life of Peldon it must be confessed, is unremarkable. The hedgerows are pied in spring and summer with the common wild flowers of any Essex village. Only the samphire calls for comment. Of all the marshland plants none are more delicious to the taste than samphire (pronounced 'samfer'). This crisp, salt-tasting aromatic St. Peter's herb, with the buttercup flavour is in appearance something between a seaweed and a grass. It can be pickled though this makes it lose its buttercup fragrance) or boiled for ten minutes and eaten as a salad.

The Parish
There is nothing of the picturesque model "show" village about Peldon. No trim village green surrounded by Tudor cottages vies with its neighbours for nattiness. The old cottages are there but scattered. It is a place that a stranger hurrying from the town to the coast, noticing for the first time, might remark, as did this author, "I wonder what it feels like to live in a place like that?" whilst guide books invariably describe it as "on the way to" somewhere else.

But its hilltop and its marshes give Peldon its own fascination. Whichever way you look you get a sense of illimitable space and time. Here, from the low hill where
    "soft winds and sunny skies
    With the green earth harmonize."
myopic urban eyes soon learn to scan the distant horizon, where, beyond the springy green of the marshes, gleam the silver flowing rivers - wide and spacious reminders of the glacial age - as they empty themselves into the sea.

It is, in fact, the sort of off-the-map spot that trippers, fortunately for the inhabitants, pass by unaware that it even exists, a place to which war-weary men, anxious to find release from their own particular nightmares, are wont to retire for peace.

So still can it be that until recently, except at busy harvest time, the only sign of human habitation was the curling smoke from the forge beside the village green, the only sound, the song of the birds and bees.

For those who like facts let us set down some that may facilitate our survey.

Peldon is bounded from the north west by Layer de la Have - north east by Abberton, east by Langenhoe, west by Great and Little Wigborough and S.E. by Mersea Island.

Until 1952 a long narrow strip of the parish jutted into the heart of Layer de la Have. Until 1953, a long strip of the parish of West Mersea extended into Pete.

Peldon is in Winstree Hundred, a hundred which includes twelve parishes, viz. Abberton, Fingringhoe, Great Wigborough, Little Wigborough, Langenhoe, Layer Breton, Layer de la Haye, Layer Marney, Peldon, Salcot Virley, West Mersea and East Mersea, the lord of which was once the Prior of West Mersea.
Peldon is in the Colchester division of the County, in the Lexden and Winstree Rural District and petty sessional division, and in the rural deanery and archdeaconry of Colchester, in the diocese of Chelmsford.

The population, between 1801 when it was 313 and 1951 when it reached 370, has fluctuated but slightly.

Peldon has three manors (not two as stated by Morant, who placed Pete Hall in Salcot Virley) namely Peldon Hall, Pete Hall, and the Rectory.

Fingringhoe, the agricultural parish (2,548 acres) with which the history of Peldon is intimately interwoven is bounded on the North by the Roman river, with its concrete modern bridge to East Donyland, and on the East by the Colne; and is four miles S.S.E. from Colchester. Its population in 1931 was 510 in the civil and 732 in the ecclesiastical parish.

West Mersea, Mersea Island, "the Island in the sea" beloved of the Norsemen, lies between the mouths of the Rivers Blackwater and Colne, and is separated from the mainland by Pyefleet creek, famous for its oysters. It is divided into two parishes, East and West Mersea, - which from time immemorial have remained apart. West Mersea in 1926 became an Urban District, with a council of nine members. The soil is rich sandy loam and stiff clay, the subsoil part gravel and part clay. The chief crops are wheat, barley and beans. Its area until 1952 was 3,174 acres of land, eleven of inland and 111 of tidal water and 998 of foreshore. The population in 1931 was 2067.

Water Supply
In spite of the many springs and the Layer Brook, now under the 1210 acre reservoir, water has not always been easily come by in Peldon. In fact, until the turn of the twentieth century the supply and methods of conservation can have differed little from that enjoyed by our earliest forebears - being dependent on ponds and rainwater receptacles.

The Essex County Standard of April 25th 1908 (p.5) records the position at that time.

"In the parishes of Peldon, Wigborough, Abberton and Langenhoe, I believe all attempts to find water by sinking shallow wells (that is, down to the London clay) have failed. In Peldon they have a deep well drawing water from the chalk, and this supplies water to a population of a large area. The cost of sinking the boring was covered by public subscription and the pumping machinery was kept in order at the people's expense. Of course until recently they had to pump and fetch water for themselves. In Wigborough they depend on their rain water butts and on ponds. In Abberton, Fingringhoe and Langenhoe, drinking water brought from the spring just off Whalebone Hill used to be carted round and sold by the bucketful at people's doors"

Peldon's Parish Well, opposite Brick House Farm, was sunk in 1900 *. Many residents today (1955) recall the time when their husbands had to fetch every drop of water from the well in buckets, on chains suspended from wooden halters across their shoulders. And as late as 1940 the inhabitants of Sampsons could be found any day wending their way along the mile long lane to the pump outside the Plough Inn, pulling after them a strange galvanized contraption - a water butt on wheels. They also recall the pond water on which they grew up and which appears to have had no deleterious effect.

* [Editor's Note: the earliest reference to the Parish Pump is 1868 Some Record of The Parish of Peldon 1867 Essex Record Office D/P287 28/6].

In 1907 a boring was made at Peldon Lodge (132 ft. above Ordnance Datum; water level 110 ft. down). Later another well was sunk at Peet Hall, which yields slightly saline water with the same beneficial properties as Vichy water.

Pumped up from a depth of 300 feet it was originally hard, but having passed through sand similar to Thanet sand, which has the property of converting calcium salts into sodium salts, the analysis shows it to have a large amount of soda as well as a good deal of common salt. i.e. sodium chloride, which can be expected from a place so near the sea [Note 6]. There are also various private pumps.

Today, on the verge of the Atomic Age most of us in Peldon enjoy mains water, but few, very few - modern sanitation, and in the 1919 Council houses tired housewives must carry every drop of their laundry water to their gardens.

The problem, of course, is economic. It raises the question - How much have we really advanced beyond our prehistoric ancestors?

The Blackwater River
It is, of course the wide sweep of the 33 mile long River Blackwater, at its most beautiful between Goldhanger, Tolleshunt D'Arcy, Tollesbury and Peldon, that gives to our village its unique sense of uncircumscribed space. From the low hilltop you may follow its course from Maldon direction towards the sea where it joins the Colne, in a common outlet.

Rising at Frog's Green in Wimbish, near Saffron Walden, the Blackwater flows south eastward, fairly straight, except for a wide curve northwards between Braintree and Witham. At Maldon, where it is spanned by a fixed bridge, it becomes navigable. Leaving historic triangular-shaped Northey Island just past Heybridge it follows a winding course to Osea. Here the river widens, and for four miles, to its mouth, attains a shore to shore span of one and a half miles, although the extensive mud flats on either side limit the navigable channel at low water to a trifle under half a mile.

The name Blackwater is derived, not from the blackness of the water, which is pellucid, but from its clearness: not from O.E. blaec = black, but from O.E. blac = clear [Note 7]

And clear it is. There is no more exciting adventure than to drift or row in a dinghy (or, as I did, once, use a bathing towel as a sail) from Peldon to Ray Island, just as the tide is on the turn, watching the myriad sea plants waving their delicate lacy fronds only a few inches below you.

The creeks and fleets between the Blackwater and the Colne are fringed with marshes and saltings. Of this part of Essex it is difficult to speak impartially. Either you see it as the desolate low-lying region which impressed Norden in Elizabeth I's reign, and Daniel Defoe a little later, the latter publicized it as an unhealthy ague-producing area; or you find in the clean pure air and springy turf of the marshes, dry even when the rain floods the meadows, revivifying qualities to be found nowhere else.

Strangers who visit this debatable ground, contacted from time immemorial by sea and land, find themselves bewildered by the changing scene. At noon-tides, especially at the equinoxes, the high water lapping against the sea wall gives an impression of absolute permanency. The bathing is deep - suitable only for swimmers - the water buoyantly salt. Now is the moment to bathe - and to do so on a sunny day is to taste an earthly paradise as, floating on the warm buoyant water you listen to the skylarks trilling their "I'm so happee...happee ...pee... pee" song, and as they soar out of sight, your heart will surely join in their paean of praise.

On a distant creek you may glimpse a heron standing in deep thought, looking a little lonely; or possibly some cattle will wander down to the water's edge. Otherwise you seem to have the whole world to yourself. A few strokes bring you to a half hidden island where you rest, nibbling a piece of delicious salty buttercup-flavoured samphire cradled on a comfortable bed of marsh plants.

I doubt if anywhere you could find such a sense of peace - of oneness with Mother Nature.

It is this consciousness of being part of the primaeval that either attracts you to the Blackwater or repels you. Neutral you cannot be.

Six hours later standing on the exact spot from which you took your plunge, everything has changed. The river, withdrawn to its central channel a mile away, appears incredibly remote; and the ebbed tide has left an acre-wide expanse of gleaming sun-soaked sea-smelling mud.

Mud! But what mud! No putrescent, grimy smoky slush such as the townsman associates with the word. This wet, soft, warm earthy matter, submerged twice every 24 hours by the incoming tide, into which the sun has poured all the beneficence of its rays, explains why one bathe in the refreshing Blackwater is worth a six weeks holiday. Had they but known it, Victorian health seekers to German spas could have found in the Blackwater all the medicinal properties they craved. But then, to reach the Blackwater meant going through the east end of London which "wasn't done" in those days, and we hope will not be fashionable for a long time to come.

But if you are one with eyes and ears for the beauties of unspoiled nature you may care to dally on the banks and catch the spirit of the marshes, with their dreamlike, unreal effects, especially noticeable at sundown and sunrise. S. Baring Gould in his novel of the Essex marshes Mehalah has well described them in an oft-quoted passage.

"Of the three rivers that break the long Essex coast line, none affords a more elemental peace than the Blackwater; and if you have once learned to love it, with its primaeval stillness and aloofness from the schemings of man, it becomes a place of irresistible charm, with the same magnetic attraction as the Arctic coast, which in some undefinable way it resembles, an attraction that makes every hour spent away from it an agony. In which case you will echo with a poet of the Blackwater -

'Forget the clash and clamour of men
To listen - without a word -
for the first faint lap of incoming tide,
Or watch the flight of a bird.' "

The grey-toned tidal Blackwater, creeping like a thief, in and out over the shallow mud flats is not the only stream to influence the history of Peldon. There is the eight-mile-long Layer Brook, flowing through Layer Marney, Layer Breton and Layer de la Haye which some believe gave its name to those villages.

Half a dozen parishes, including Peldon, have the brook as part of their boundaries so that each might share the brook-side pasture

Peldon and the Sea
Sometimes, at rare intervals, a very low tide will expose strange evidence how the sea has gained ground in this struggle. Such a one, the lowest in living memory, occurred in the first week of February 1952 when the hulk of the sunken concrete ship "Molliette" (remembered by pre-war yachtsmen as a Club at West Mersea), used in World War II by the R.A.F. for target practice off East Mersea, was bared to human eyes for three hours.

It was not the rich harvest of shells and cartridge cases carried away by the fishermen who visited her, nor the macabre skeletons of two wrecked planes beside her, nor the nine huge lobsters Jim Mussett got out of the ship, nor the big 15-year-old oysters collected by Mr Milgate, that interest us, nor even the spectacle, vouchsafed to 200 Primary Schoolchildren, of Walton le Soken Old Church, which disappeared under the sea in 1798, the submerged bell of which, legend has it, is wont to toll to warn Walton of danger. For these things have no bearing on this narrative.

What concerns us was the large number of tree stumps standing out of the water, said by Mr Milgate to look so very old, a reminder of the alteration of the coast line, as a result of the sea's encroachment and Mersea's emergence as "the island in the sea".

A violent storm, combined with a high tide, can convert slow, steady encroachment into sudden disaster. Such a combination is rare. Nevertheless those who live by the sea walls are always dimly conscious of the strength of the waters, of the villages that have disappeared forever beneath the North Sea and of the ceaseless change in the coast line.

In Peldon the snowstorm of January 18th 1881, known as "the January Gale," was remarkable for the way the high wind drove the dry snow through everything, even into the houses. Many were the narrow escapes from disaster. Because, at that time, men were only paid when they worked, and for many days the storm rendered all work impossible, it was a storm that agricultural labourers recalled to the end of their lives.

The high tide of January 6th, 1928 is still a vivid memory to many, for the sea walls were breached in many places, and large lumps of earth, weighing several tons, were washed some distance across the marshes. The sound of the water, rushing through the burst walls, was like a thunderstorm at its height. Many cattle were cut off by the water and took refuge on high ground, later swimming to safety aided by men in boats. Houses near the Strood were flooded to a depth of several feet.

But probably we ourselves have witnessed the worst flood, when the waters came up to Pete Hall on the night of January 31st, 1953. The damage to the sea walls and pasture was widespread and costly.

The Riddle of the Red Hills [* editor's note below]
Who made the Red Hills, for what purpose, and how? This is the riddle. These mysterious low flat mounds which abound in the creeks of the Blackwater were first brought to the notice of the scientific world by the late H. Stopes F.G.S. after a visit in May 1879, to the sea wall below Brick House, Peldon.

Scattered along the saltings (low lying stretches of mud which are covered by the sea at high tide, whose surface is worn into numberless channels by the action of the water) the Red Hills, rise to a height of from two to five feet, and cover areas as small as 20 yards and as great as 30 acres. Most of those that have not been interfered with are surrounded by a bank or a ditch.

Situated always above the present high water mark, they are composed of fine red earth of friable, porous character, mixed with a certain amount of slag, and large quantities of wood ash. Distributed throughout the red earth are large deposits of crude pottery objects, artificially fashioned and fired, to which the name "briquetage" has been given. No complete objects of any kind have so far been found, but, with a few exceptions, the fragments are not later than the late Celtic period: and whatever the mounds were used for, the use of them ceased suddenly during the first half of the first century A.D.
After his excavations at Peldon, Mr Stopes tried for some years to collect traditions and popular opinions on the origins and use of the Red Hills. These varied greatly. Some thought that they were Saxon or Danish potteries; others Roman brickyards. Camp sites of Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, so cruelly defeated not far away, or of Alfred the Great when resisting the Danes, were other suggestions. Another theory held that they were Danish burial grounds and that the broken pottery consisted of the shattered vessels of departed heroes. All of which "fancies" Mr Stopes dismissed as "equally unsatisfactory": although if we give credence to the validity of Folk Memory, it is possible, as we shall see, that some of the theories were not as "wildcat" as they at first appeared. As a result of Mr Stopes' discovery, a Red Hills Exploration Committee was formed in 1906. During its 40 years of systematic exploration, in which chemist, geologist and botanist co-operated with the archaeologists, many interesting facts were brought to light and more theories advanced.

It was found, for instance, that the red earth was always restricted to a definite area in a compact mass, and very rarely was even a trace of it found beyond the mound. The surface of the alluvium on which the mounds rest is the early natural surface, and this has not previously been removed. Mud, to the depth of a foot or more, has accumulated on the surrounding marshes since the mounds were made. The mounds were deposited on or near the line of the old high-water mark before the formation of the sea-walls, and the land on which they stood was liable to be washed by the high tides, and some of them had been covered by the sea during their construction. In spite of the valuable information gained by the experts they came little nearer than Mr Stopes to an exact solution of the riddle.

A word on the brilliant amateur who, at Peldon in 1879, in the words of A.S. Kennard, a past president of the Geological Association (in a Stopes Memorial Lecture) "was the first to use a spade to elucidate the mystery" And whose discoveries and papers to the British Association and Essex Field Club, led to the first serious enquiry. Henry Stopes (1852-1902); third son of Christopher and Mary Stopes, was born and educated in Colchester and became a skilled engineer. His father, a Quaker, owned the Eagle Brewery on East Hill, Colchester, in which business Henry later joined him.
Little is known of Henry's education, except that as a boy of eight he had found in the school playground of Stockwell House a flint cast of an echinus. Thenceforth Geology was a leading interest and his famous collection of over two hundred thousand flints was left to Cardiff museum.

In 1879 Stopes married Charlotte F. Carmichael of Edinburgh, for many years one of the country's leading authorities on Shakespeare, by whom he had two daughters, one of whom Dr Marie Carmichael Stopes, combined her parents' talents and became equally noted, among other attainments, as a geologist and as an authority on the sonnet.

Of the accuracy of Stopes' observation on the Red Hills the best tribute comes from the Exploration Committee itself which found itself entirely in agreement with his observations: whilst his descriptions of what he first called "the salting mounds of Essex" remains the one "from which all later accounts have been copied."

Only three things about the Red Hills are certain. (1) They are man-made; (2) They are very old; (3) Their number and size indicate a considerable industry long before the coming of the Romans.

Of their great age the Victoria County History evidences that the artificial material extends through the accumulated surrounding alluvium down to the London clay. "It may possibly be that this shows only that the makers cleared away the soil but considering the enormous size of some sites this would have been a Herculean task for which it is difficult to suggest a motive. Is it not more conceivable that the mounds were formed before the deposition of the alluvium?" The original extent of the mounds is difficult to gauge for the red earth is known to natives as an excellent dressing for the heavy clay soil, as well as suitable material for floors of farm buildings, and has for generations been ploughed into the land or carried away in large quantities. Anything - from lettuces and chrysanthemums to crops - grows better for red earth, Peldonians will tell you.

Yet Mr William Cole in the year 1892 reckoned that he, Mr Dalton, and Dr Laver could plot some 200 Red Hills on the Essex map; and Mr Stopes estimated that one ten acre hill near Peldon must contain the prodigious amount of 100,000 tons of red earth.

What was the prehistoric industry that flourished in Peldon long before Colchester was heard of?

To every theory that has been put forward there is an objection.

They have been suggested as (1) camp sites or places of refuge when the surrounding country was densely covered with forests; (2) as places for burning kelp or seaweed for the sake of ashes in the manufacture of glass; (3) as relics of salt works for the evaporation of salt from the sea water; (4) as pottery works. But each theory only adds to the mystery.

Baring Gould's suggestion that they were platforms for huts, the earth having been burned, as is done by natives of Central Africa, as a preventive against ague is negatived by the absence of either vessels, or human remains. The few fragments of bones indicate the meals of those who worked there, rather than human habitation, and ordinary domestic relics are seldom met with. Nothing, in fact, points to the sites having been occupied to any extent.

Pottery and salt making are the two most generally accepted conjectures. Mr Cole believed the Red Hills to be potters' works - a theory strengthened by the many wedge-shaped pieces of hard-burnt pottery, similar to that used in pottery works today for supporting articles in the course of firing. We know that pottery was extensively made at Colchester during the late Celtic and Roman periods. But if pottery works they were, what did they make? Were the vessels, made the object of the industry, or merely ancillary to some other process? And surely pottery works on such a vast scale might be expected to yield at least a few remains of unspoiled ware? Not one has ever been found.

So we come to the salt industry, which we know flourished in Peldon and vicinity long before Domesday as the most likely answer to the riddle. Yet even salt making is open to objections. For it in no way explains the shape and nature of the mounds, the vast quantities of burnt earth, nor the absence of fragments of anything resembling circular pans or vessels for holding liquid [Note 8]. And if the evaporation of salt was their object, how comes it that some of the mounds lie far up fresh water rivers where the water is never more than brackish and often fresh?

Moreover, the Red Hills are shown by relics to have been limited to an early and definite period, whilst salt making has continued on the Essex coast to the present time. If, therefore, the Red Hills are the refuse from the salt industry, it would be natural to expect refuse indicating different periods.

Nevertheless, salt making seems the most feasible theory. For when, in June 1908, Mr Wilmer, a member of the Red Hills exploration committee, visited Carnac, eastward of the peninsula of Quiberon, on the South coast of Brittany, a place of great archaeological and druidical interest, he found there, not only a place where the evaporation of bay salt by natural heat was still being carried on, probably a survival of a very ancient industry, but a tract of country with estuaries corresponding closely in appearance to those of the Essex marshes; and in the local museum, objects of briquetage resembling those found in our Red Hills.

What is the connection between Quiberon and the Peldon region? Possibly the Veneti.

Even so, the exact connection between Red Hills and the salt industry remains a riddle. If the hills are indeed connected with salt making, why did they cease suddenly? The suggestion that they became obsolete when salt was discovered in Cheshire, is confuted by the fact that they were out of action long before Cheshire salt was found.

In the meantime the Red Hills still offer a happy hunting ground alike for the explorer and the puzzle-solver. If the Veneti made them for the abstraction of salt, presumably by burning the undergrowth, what actual objects did they produce and how did they use them? And why did they require so many?

Lovers of the marshes can still take their picnics to the banks of the Blackwater, delve into rabbit holes with hand or trowel and abstract from them piece after piece of rough formless briquetage, aware that at any moment they may hit upon the answer to the Riddle of the Red Hills and bring to light what Henry Stopes, their original explorer at Peldon anticipated, "some hidden and unsuspected revelation concerning that early time, which may prove of the deepest interest to all the world-wide English-speaking family."

1. Gregory, Letter from F. Knowles, Institute of Agriculture, Writtle.
2. Letter from R.J. Mason, The Elms, Fingringhoe, 1952
3. Essex Naturalist i,33, Elephans Primogenus.
4. Essex Naturalist i,33.
5. F. Russell Walker of Colchester.
6. Information from Major Maughling of Peet Hall reference report by International Combine Ltd., Derby.
7. Miller Christy Bibliography MS Essex Record Office
8. F.W. Reader 'Report of the Red Hills', p.17.

Editor's Note
Kay de Brisay's excavation of Bonners' Marshes, Peldon, in 1973 and subsequent report entitled The Excavation of a Red Hill at Peldon concluded the Red Hills were indeed the result of the salt making industry. This was at its height in the late Iron Age and early Roman period. Clay-lined tanks were made and filled by the incoming tide, this allowed some natural evaporation but also allowed impurities to settle, the salt water was then placed in rough clay pots or pans which were stood on pedestals and gently heated over a fire. Many of these receptacles broke in the process and along with the tell-tale fired red soil many fragments of this broken pottery can be found, often referred to as briquetage.

Kay Gilmour Contents
Chapter 2

AuthorKay Gilmour
SourceMersea Museum