Meet the volunteers who really dig Lytham Hall

Site excavation at Lytham Hall. Chris Cassidy, Nigel King, Alan Davies and John Uren.
Site excavation at Lytham Hall. Chris Cassidy, Nigel King, Alan Davies and John Uren.
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by Jacqui Morley

They are making mounds out of mole hills at Lytham Hall.

Forty volunteer archaeologists are digging into what remains of a tiny 19th century garden in the grounds.

Site excavation at Lytham Hall. From left, Pat Janes, Jess Riley, Anne-Marie Clancy, Chris Cassidy, Alan Davies, John Uren, Nigel King and Archaeologist Nigel Neil.

Site excavation at Lytham Hall. From left, Pat Janes, Jess Riley, Anne-Marie Clancy, Chris Cassidy, Alan Davies, John Uren, Nigel King and Archaeologist Nigel Neil.

They work in the shadow of a giant earthwork, a man made mount, known by English Heritage as a Prospect Mound, defined as “an artificial mound, generally conical, placed within a garden or park to provide a viewing point to overlook the garden or park.”

It is, says the archaeologist leading the dig, “the best surviving mount in the North West – although Guardian Royal Exchange made something of a mess of it when they did some machining and 
altered the topography.”

There’s one at Dunham Massey, adds freelance history man Nigel Neil, but “it’s knee high today.”

In its time it will have looked like a wedding cake, guests taking spiral paths to traverse the summit.

Site excavation at Lytham Hall. Pat James with some of the finds.

Site excavation at Lytham Hall. Pat James with some of the finds.

Lytham’s had spiral paths too, lost to the machinations of GRE in the ‘90s which shifted sand and soil alike.

It’s in better shape than it was - and Nigel has offered to oversee further work there.

Gate posts survive alongside what was once a small but perfectly formed garden. This is where enthusiastic volunteers are digging, sifting and searching, working against the clock.

It’s fairly low in the pecking order of Heritage Lottery funded (and Heritage Trust North West) projects but Nigel is involved and assisting with other projects.

Within hours what remains of the garden is emerging, the skeleton of metal fences, little more than spikes, but one section of upright fence unearthed intact. Once painted green, as flakes cling to the cast iron.

Elsewhere a crushed paint tube if found, the folds indicating all the paint had been used by an artist once sat here, perhaps painting the mound or the flowers that grew here.

It’s an insight into how the visitors and residents may have spent their time.

There’s a mole trap too, near the periphery of the fence. Lots of pebbles indicate a path. There’s even a perfectly preserved milk bottle.

Jess Riley, 17, youngest volunteer, has found her share of pebbles so is delighted to bag an intriguingly shaped length of metal. It may have been used as a prop for the greenhouse which was demolished some 50 years before the garden was created.

Jess hopes to do the classics at university. “Archaeology is a strong component of the courses I’m applying for so this gives me a taste of that too. I’ve lived in Lytham since I was three. I also do volunteer work with Lytham Heritage on the archive.

“My mum does a lot of family history so we’ve always been interested in this area. We used to walk the dogs at Lytham Hall when I was little. A lot of my friends live in the area but don’t really know just how beautiful Lytham Hall is.”

In its time the garden will have stood at the base of the mound from which visitors could see across to the sea. Tree and buildings have obscured the view since. An ice house nearby has yet to be found.

The dig wouldn’t have been possible without volunteers. Nigel is the only professional archaeologist. Volunteers were recruited. Two of the youngest archaeologists spotted the plea on Lytham Hall’s Twitter site.

Now they’re assembling a picture of the garden. As with jigsaws they start with the corners and sides.

Nigel, who often assesses a site from aerial views, photographs, designs or its topography, is struggling with this one, he says.

One design shows the shape and spread of what could be statuary or other features. It may not have been executed - but it roughly equates to what the team has found.

The site is a hotch-potch of history, Benedictine priory, land grabbed and given to the crown and then sold on, Jacobean, Georgian to the many changes of use since the Clifton family owned it.

It even confuses the ghosts, says volunteer Rowena Astin, 21, who helps out on tours of the hall. She explains: “I’ve just finished history at university, mostly mediaeval. Found out about this place through the snowdrop walk. I came and loved it. I wanted to be part of the changes as they sounded exciting. I do the tours. It’s got some history - and ghosts too. Cuthbert Clifton is supposed to haunt the Georgian house which doesn’t make any sense as he’s from the Jacobean period. Maybe he moved with the Jacobean panelling...”

Pat James of Lytham, one of several University of the Third Age volunteers on the dig,is in charge of washing and processing the finds. “Our archaeology group has been going two years and done several digs but none so close. It makes you realise how wonderful Lytham Hall is.”

Fellow local Chris Cassidy adds: “I’m trained to guide round the hall too. I live a minute’s walk from the gates. This is hands on history. We’ve already had tangible results from just a few days digging.”

Archaeologist Nigel is delighted with his team and says the aim is to expose the garden, then make it safe and replant and focus on the mound and other features instead.

Nigel is involved with another local project, First World War trenches at Watson Road, South Shore, as well as ongoing work at Whalley Abbey and the Bowland Forest.

“It’s getting harder to source funding.” He’s determined to make every penny of funding count. It builds on earlier work at the hall’s South Prospect Garden and on the Mount in 2009-10 when more than 50 trays of artefacts were unearthed.

“Funding determines how long I can stay on site. I’m very lucky to get such great volunteers. On the induction day 40 people signed up – and 20 stayed on site and worked like stink to help clear it ahead of the dig. Here we’ve got a great range. Some of the less able do the meet and greet and finds work which is important - keeping up the piles of stuff coming off the site.

“We’ve also got younger volunteers who have come via social media - and that’s a lesson other teams need to work with.

“Forty one per cent of all the work to the hall and the grounds is Heritage Lottery funded, with matching funding from Heritage Trust North West. I am involved in three or four lottery bids at Whalley, Forest of Bowland and elsewhere. This is by far the most successful. It has captured the imagination.

“Some come to do a visit and stay to do some digging.

“For a long time Lytham Hall seemed like something to which they didn’t have access. Now it’s very much a community asset.

“Our focus has been on an enigmatic feature shown on maps from the 1880s to the 1940s and called the roughly square enclosure - because that’s just what it is. It appears as an open shape with no description on Ordnance Survey maps. An 1885 manuscript at Lytham Library shows a garden with some kind of structure or structures – maybe a fountain or statuary.

“Once on site we found a stretch of fence intact. Great excitement. It may not be Pompeii, it may not be stunning but it’s at least 70-80 years since what was left of this little garden was seen.

“It was last seen on a map in 1932. It may have been stripped of much of its metal for the war. There are no photographs but other gardens in the grounds show similar fences. One possibility was that it was a croquet lawn or tennis court but what we’re finding doesn’t support that.

“It’s a challenge as it lies close to the site of a much earlier feature, a pre-1812 greenhouse demolished 50 years before the garden came along.

“We think the garden is 1870s or 1880s. When we get what we are looking for there is real satisfaction. Team members have the vital skills in abundance – patience and perseverance.”

Nigel’s love of archaeology started in childhood with family holidays to Spain, not to sunbathe but hike. “I’d plot the agenda. We’d look for rock shelters with cave paintings, not the famous ones (such as Altamira with its upper Paleolithic cave paintings) but the much less known ones.

“I’ve been in archaeology since I graduated in Edinburgh in 1977 and haven’t been out since.

“For me archaeology begins yesterday.”

John Miller, Chief Executive of the NW Heritage Trust, adds: “We are awaiting the outcome of the archaeological excavations before making a decision on how to design the space, but it will be a garden.”

The archaeological dig and garden project has been supported by the Veolia Environmental Trust and Fylde Council as well as the Heritage Lottery Fund and Heritage Trust North West.