- David Quick
Exploring Alton's Public Gardens
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
A few weeks ago I was copied as an addressee on an email about some work that was being done in Alton's Public Gardens, to connect the fountain there to a water supply. There is quite a bit of history attached to this fountain, in that our local historian, Jane Hurst, has written a booklet about this one and its sister fountain located on the Butts Road. The fountain in the Gardens was originally situated in Crown Close, where the war memorial cairn now stands. Both fountains were designed in the late 1800s by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, and were the gift of a Miss Bell of Borovere Cottage.
Anyway, the Town Council recently decided to reconnect the fountain to a water supply to provide drinking water for passers-by from four brass push-button taps designed to be vandal-proof. The Town Clerk told me that one of the taps was vandalised within the first week, so that it was running water continuously, and sadly the supply has had to be temporarily turned off until it can be mended.
The email from Jane Hurst was just to make sure that the Town Council was aware that there is believed to be the site of a Romano-British villa in or near the gardens and she wanted to make sure that the workmen would not disturb any archaeology. As it happened, the water supply was not deep enough underground to pose a risk but it got us thinking. Juliet and I met with Leah, the Town Clerk, a couple of weeks ago. We had seen from Jane the report of another archaeology dig next door 30 years ago in 1998 that had found Romano-British (R-B) artefacts and had concluded that there must have been a R-B building close by. We suggested to Leah that Liss Archaeology be allowed to conduct a geophysics survey with a view to possibly carrying out a dig next July with public participation, during the annual British Festival of Archaeology.
The area we are talking about is barely visible in this drone photo of the Gardens taken while I was doing a commercial photography job here in 2015; if you look at the circular hedges on the mound you can see an avenue of trees behind, and the lawn is between that avenue and the row of buildings beyond:
Leah was receptive to the idea and we agreed to submit a proposal to the town's Community Committee that decides on events in the town, for consideration at their next meeting on 12 September. She also agreed to allow us to do a geophysics scan today of the area of interest, using magnetometry and resistivity. After the meeting Juliet and I went across to the Gardens and were very interested to see parch marks in the lawn, suggesting some structure under the ground:
I put out a short-notice request for volunteers to do the geophys survey and was delighted at the response; 11 people volunteered and all but one turned up. We started at 9.30am this morning, with Carl first setting up our local grid of three 20x20 metre squares in a row aligned east-west, in our area of interest shown here:
After welcoming Shauna as a new member we then divided into two teams: one working with Carl to do the magnetometry, starting at the Westbrooke Road end; and the other with me doing resistivity from the opposite end. I was too busy to take many photos but here are a few of the res team in action:
We had lots of interest from passing members of the public, some of whom were incredibly helpful and informative, including:
one gentleman who, during WW2 when he was a boy, remembered a wooden building in this area called a British Restaurant where he had been able to get a basic meal for a few ration coupons; and
a workman who had been involved in moving the fountain to this location, and told us that unfortunately some underground brickwork had apparently been knocked down on the instructions of his foreman.
It took us longer to complete the resistivity than we had expected, partly because it was very difficult scanning around the fountain, signs and flower beds, and partly because of answering queries from the public. We eventually finished loading all the equipment back in Carl's car about 2.30pm.
I'm hoping Carl may have time to download and send me the data from the machines some time over the Bank Holiday weekend, so that we can plot the results in our 'Snuffler' software and share them on this website.
I also hope to share some of the interesting history of the Gardens in a future blog post; for instance they were once the grounds of Westbrook House, which although now offices and flats on the High Street used to be the home of one of the town's brewery owners and later became a lunatic asylum!
P.S. Members can see the scan results on the password-protected 'Members Only' page and Carl has sent me some of his photos this evening: