Once upon a time when the land was the sea and time had only just got going properly,the south England lay beneath a shallow ocean.
And in one tiny part of that expanse of salt water, the currents drew flotsam and jetsam from far and wide to make a near-perfect concoction, a deep, honey coloured sediment of great limestone crags.
It was a small area of riches, a massive set of limestones of such unusual quality they have played a part in most of our country’s history, one way or another. They are golden, because of the way the iron in them has matured over the ensuing 180 million years.
Now the place is called Ham Hill. Or Hamdon Hill.
The men of the Bronze and Iron ages sought it out as a high place. They built a fort of, it is thought, unparallelled size to any other in Britain, covering some 210 acres, surrounded by three miles of double-bank-and-ditch.
The Roman Second Legion, and its Emperor Vespasian conquered it and made it their own.
South of the hill are the ancient strip-lychets – evidence of Mediaeval strip-farming left behind in the earth by villagers of Whitcombe, the lost village abandoned in the 17th century.
The stone was like a magnet to the wealthy. In the 18th century there were 24 quarries, and in the Victorian era around 200. And how could undermining not have an effect on the archaeological story of that ancient place?
It is called Ham Stone, this gorgeous limestone. And even today, there is a call for restoration which requires ham stone from just this tiny patch – one large hill.
The mining was all but stopped around 1910.
One would think, in these days of almost obsessive preservation, that this great relic of our past would be left alone to recover from the ravages of centuries of exploitation. But but two quarries endure: the North quarry, near a modern stone circle and war memorial; and the Norton Quarry, which takes stone from between 20-30 metres below the surface.
And in 2011, Somerset County Council gave permission for another 80 years of quarrying. For where else would everyone get the ham stone for restoration work?
Not only that, but the quarrying would be expanded to meet demand.
And English Heritage did not shout about it. Rather, it said it found itself in a dilemma.
“Ham Hill is both the main source for the continuing supply of ham stone, used historically for many important buildings,” thisissomerset.co.uk quoted EH as saying, ” and is the site of the largest hill fort in England. This presents a policy dilemma.”
Excuse me if I don’t see the dilemma.
It told local protester, Paul Baker, in a letter: “We do not believe that there is an alternative material available that meets the very specific needs of conservation projects.
“The quarrying is being undertaken with our knowledge and consent and in the context of planning consent from Somerset County Council and Scheduled Monument Consent from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.”
Take a look at pictures of this ancient place now. An archaeological dig has taken place, the results of which you can see here; but such baubles have been dangled, it seems to me, so that we sit mollified by, and watch this happen to a place man has found significant for millennia.
It is happening because almost no one is shouting, ar jumping up and down.The Protect Hamdon Hill Facebook page has just 87 likes.
This is not just the history of an iron-age jewel in one country, but of the peoples who began here and travelled out all over the world. One of your ancestors may have worn the torq which was unearthed and lies in Somerset’s County Mueum in Taunton.
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You can read more from the Heritage Trust, and excellent blog which follows the fortunes of some of our most hallowed sights. Click to read their post on Hamdon Hill here.