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Living on the Edge

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February 2018

Living on the Edge

After learning last month about the Severn flood of 1607 we went a little further back in time to discover the history and pre-history of communities along the Severn at the February gathering of the Thornbury History and Archaeological Society. Rose Hewlett, who was secretary to the Frampton Court Estate and is now doing her PHD on the river at Bristol University, gave a talk entitled "Living on the Edge".

Many thousands of years before Nigel Farage, Britain was physically part of Europe and now-extinct animals such as mammoth and woolly rhinoceros roamed the lands around the river Severn, which flowed all the way along the North Devon coast. The sea level was over 100 metres lower than it is today, but as temperatures increased after the last ice age rising sea levels flooded much of the river valley to create the Bristol Channel.

Around 7 thousand years ago the rising sea levels separated Britain from mainland Europe. The Severn valley was home to nomadic hunter-gatherers who used flint arrowheads to kill wild boar and bear. By 5 thousand years ago average temperatures had in fact risen to be about 2 degrees centigrade above today's average and conditions were perfect for cultivation. Peoples from the European mainland began to arrive bringing with them their methods of agriculture, clearing and settling the higher ground along the edge of the valley. The burials of these 'Beaker People' often contain their trade-mark pottery beakers.

Around 3 thousand years ago a new culture arrived from Europe with iron tools. The Celts began to clear the valley forest in earnest, cultivating fields of wheat, breeding horses, building hills forts and mining the Forest of Dean for iron ore. Iron was transported across the Severn at Arlingham and carried on up to their main trading centre just above Cirencester at Bagendon, where luxuries all the way from the Mediterranean could be traded.

The Celts on this side of the river, understanding the benefits of trade and innovation, didn't really resist the Romanization from AD47, unlike the Silures on the other side. The area developed rapidly and major towns grew up at Gloucester and Cirencester. The commercial initiative of the Romans cleared the remaining oak woods in the Severn vale and built drainage ditches and flood defences so that otherwise marshy land could be used for growing wheat. Corn was exported to France, and even vineyards were introduced. By AD200 the area had developed an extensive road network linking the towns with large agricultural estates, many boasting impressive residential villas, such as the one at Woodchester.

Although the towns and estates declined when the Roman legions left, many of the estate boundaries continued into Saxon times, and it is perhaps the Saxons who really began to utilize the potential of the river Severn. They continued to drain wet lands and many flour mills were built on the Severn tributaries. But they mainly saw the Severn as a source of food. Dozens of fish weirs and fish traps were built up and down the river. From the 11th century the development of small settlements and farmsteads in the Severn valley gathered pace and the landscape began to appear more like it does today.

For centuries the Severn was a hugely important navigation route and food resource. A written grant to use 'putchers' (salmon traps) survives from 1143. Inevitably there were disputes between those using the river for navigation and those using it for fishing. In 1225 a Royal Commission was set up to control and check the fish weirs on the river. In 1234 there was a peculiar legal dispute between the villages of Awre and Frampton. Natural erosion had moved the shoreline at Awre down towards Frampton, and the villagers of Awre sued, unsuccessfully, for their land to be returned. In a famous case from 1638 king Charles himself claimed the foreshore at Frampton. The barrister, who had a house in Frampton, won the case and the villagers kept their land.

Nowadays the commercial fishing has disappeared but there are still differences of opinion about how the river should be managed in a sustainable way. Human interference at one place invariably impacts further downstream. Rose is now part of a group that helps to balance the requirements of nature and the communities living on the edge, and we thank her for this interesting and insightful talk.


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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