excavations and projects

The Castle Field

On the afternoon of Saturday 2 April 2022, HiFARS Chair Olwen Mayes, guided a group of members and friends around the castle site in Higham Ferrers. Each visitor was supplied with a pack of print-outs including Norden's map of 1591, maps from 1789 and 1885, a list of castle and manor buildings from the 1314 account (as translated by W.J.B. Kerr in 1925), and the Historic Environment Records (HER) map of 2008. The group moved from the Kimbolton Road gate, along the castle mound, around the moat bridge to the small castle paddock, onto Midland Road, St Mary's Church grave yard, and the dovecote in the Green Dragon pub garden. The castle field continues to be the main subject of HiFARS research.

Image: Viewing the castle moat from Midland Road in 2022

Buildings Survey of Higham Ferrers

The history of the buildings in Higham Ferrers is of great interest to the society. This is an ongoing project, as opportunities arise, investigations are made into the origins of the buildings in the town. 

Image: Detail from a wooden fireplace beam in a building in the High Street photographed in 2023

The Duchy Barn Garden

The Duchy Barn Garden is a renovated walled garden located to the side of the Chichele College Garden. Carol Fitzgerald of Higham Tourism and the Friends of St Mary’s, had the idea for turning it into a community garden in 2019. The funding has come from many sources including Nenescape, The Mayor’s Fund, the Duchy of Lancaster’s Covid Benevolent Fund, the Charter Book and private donations. Local volunteers have spent 800 hours between them clearing the brambles and ivy, digging the soil, building raised beds and putting up bird boxes. A wheelchair-friendly path has been put in, along with benches and newly planted trees. It was an ideal opportunity for HiFARS to put in some test-pits and they have also uncovered a large area of cobbles which has enhanced the garden landscape. The garden is used by the Gateway Club, a group for adults with learning difficulties, and is open to the public on market days and when there are events taking place in Chichele College. The project is ongoing, and Olwen welcomed several new HiFARS members to inspect the most recent excavation on Saturday 17 February and 9 March 2024.

Image: Barbara surveying Trench 8 of the Duchy Barn Garden on 9 March 2024

The Charter Project

Higham Ferrers has five Royal Charters of the Ancient Borough of Higham Ferrers and one set of Bylaws. They were previously kept in the Town Hall but were rarely seen, the parchment they were printed on had deteriorated with time and they were too fragile for display. In 2014 a group from the Town Council and Higham Tourism got together and The Charter Project began. Heritage Lottery funding was secured, the Charters were restored by Museum Conservation Services Ltd and they are now kept in safe conditions at Northampton Record Office. There are facsimile versions of the Charters in all the schools of Higham, in the Bede House, Chichele College and the Town Hall. There was a Charter Celebration Day in June 2019, along with exhibitions, school activities, film-making and a book was published. The profits from the book were ploughed back into the community and HiFARS was awarded £500 in August 2019, and a further £100 in January 2021, which will go towards the geophysical survey of the castle site.

Image: The crowdfunded Charter book ‘Higham Ferrers 1251-1914’ by Brenda Lofthouse

Higham Ferrers Test-pit Project ─ White Hart pub site

Permission to put a test-pit into the garden of the old White Hart pub was given in March 2019 and digging commenced in April. The proximity of the trench to the Castle site was very exciting and digging continued at weekends throughout the year and into 2020. A full report will eventually be available in the HiFARS archive.

Image: Olwen measuring the depth of one of the trenches 

Higham Ferrers Test-pit Project ─ College Street

Residents of a house in College Street were kind enough to let HiFARS put a couple of test-pits into their garden in 2018 before it was landscaped. Pottery expert, Paul Blinkhorn, helped with identification of the pottery sherds found and a full report will be available in the HiFARS archive.

Image: Olwen takes a photograph in the deepest part of Trench 1 

Higham Ferrers Test-pit ProjectWalnut Tree, North End

The ‘walnut tree’ is a triangular plot of land at the top of Kings Meadow Lane in Higham Ferrers. The first metre-square test pit was started on Saturday 11 March 2017. With a second test pit going in on Sunday 19 March. HiFARS members took part in the dig and found a variety of interesting artefacts. Test-pit 1 was backfilled, and a return planned for later in the year. On 23 September the trench was reopened and the digging continued, a full report will be available in the HiFARS archive. 

Image: Olwen, Jenny and Mark examine finds from the second trench

Higham Ferrers Water Course Project

A HiFARS investigation into the water courses of Higham Ferrers was carried out by using a harmless fluorescent green dye, approved by the Environment Agency. The Town Council, Historic England and Anglia Water gave their permission, the dye was poured into the castle moat and its progress was carefully monitored. The cup-and-saucer in the Recreation Ground, the wells in Chichele College, the stream in Kings Meadow Lane, and the River Nene were all checked regularly for signs of the dye, which naturally disperses after 10 days. The first test was done on Sunday 29 May 2016 but proved inconclusive so the test was repeated on Sunday 26 February 2017 after rain when the water in the moat was at its highest. The project is ongoing. 

Image: The green dye at the start of its journey in the castle moat

Finds sorting and archiving

HiFARS have amassed a quantity of finds and artefacts, not only from their own projects and excavations, but also donated from other local community groups and Higham Ferrers residents. Thanks go to the Duchy of Lancaster for providing HiFARS with storage space.

Image: Finds sorting in Chichele College in 2015

Chester House

The Chester House Estate, north of Irchester in the Nene Valley, is a nationally significant heritage site. It is one of the few places in the country which can demonstrate over 1,000 years of human activity. The site was purchased by Northamptonshire County Council in 2004, with the aim to develop a sustainable visitor destination, a centre for learning and the location to house countywide archaeological finds. HiFARS members have been volunteering there since 2013 helping to excavate the site under the guidance of Ian Meadows, lead archaeologist. They have had a variety of tasks and learnt many skills – including digging small trenches, trowelling and exposing walls and ditches, using a Dumpy level to record heights, lifting, bagging and labelling. In the Summer of 2014 a small cemetery was found containing 25 skeletons from the late Roman period. The experience for HiFARS members has been invaluable.

Image: Pat cleaning roman wall in 2014 

Higham Ferrers Test-Pit ProjectThe Old Vineyard

The Higham Ferrers Test-pit Project is a long term project which will continue over many years. The aim is to put one metre square test-pits into the gardens of homes in Higham Ferrers and so build up a picture of archaeology over the whole town. The first test-pit went into a garden in the Old Vineyard, and the digging began on the weekend of 12 and 13 April 2014.  

Image: Trench 1, Day 1

Research: Saffron Growing in Higham Ferrers

Olwen has undertaken research into saffron growing in Higham Ferrers. The research has been shown at Chichele Garden Fairs which is apt as Saffron Road runs along the west side of the College Garden. Saffron has also been planted in the flower beds in the College Garden by the garden volunteers and can be seen in October each year when it is flower. This project is ongoing.

Image: Saffron in flower in Chichele College Garden 

The Castle Field Moat

Volunteers including HiFARS members helped to clear the moat in the Castle Field in Summer 2012 and Spring 2013. The trees were pruned, and the brambles and stinging nettles were cut down. The Castle Field is a scheduled monument, managed by Higham Ferrers Town Council as an open green space and park. HiFARS continue in their efforts to raise money, and one day they hope to put in a test-pit with the permission of English Heritage and the Town Council.

Image: The castle moat from the north end, near the Kimbolton Road entrance

The Dig-for-a-Day Project

HiFARS members are able to practise their excavation skills, overseen by Project Leader Steve Morris, on a piece of land in Higham Ferrers kindly loaned by Spire Homes.

Image: Steve instructing Justine