Last Friday the project had its first day ‘in the field’. Visiting a site that you have only read about, even without doing any formal fieldwork, can make a big difference to the way that you understand it and Hamsterley was no exception.
Hamsterley is quite far west for County Durham; far enough that as you approach it the villages get smaller, the houses older, the traces of industry fewer and the roads narrower. Eventually you turn sharply down a steep road and look down on to the site of the camp. It is quite a striking setting, enclosed north and south by steep banks and with a wide, shallow stream at the far end. The Ministry of Labour personnel who initially selected the site were immediately taken with it; Mr Green of the Wallsend Government Training Centre went so far as to decide that he did not need to see any further sites having found Hamsterley.
Nearly the whole of the camp site is now the Forestry Commission car park, as the forest was developed into a leisure facility from the 1960s onwards. At first glance we might imagine nothing survives above ground. However, once we started looking things began to come to light.
The traces of the work camp are slight but they are there. Many are ‘humps and bumps’ not unlike the sort of features you might see at a deserted medieval village. These include a low bank along the southern edge of the camp (Figure 1) and a place where the valley side was cut back a little to make way for a hut. Some less ephemeral elements like concrete footings which poke out of the grass, fragments of window glass in molehills and a lump of masonry near the site of the old latrines were also found. A swimming pool built by the trainees also left its mark in the form of a rectangular depression next to the modern play area and a fragment of concrete with the depth of the water painted on it in black letters (Figure 2). There is also a possibility that some marks on the tree to the north of the car park are carvings made by one of the members of the camp or the staff or inmates of the prisoner of war camp, which would be a rare piece of direct evidence for the people for whom the camp was built if this is true (Figure 3).
Perhaps most excitingly two of the huts used by the Forestry Commission are on the sites of huts shown on the 1939 Ordnance Survey map of the area. One of these, a green painted corrugated iron structure, would not look out of place in the 1930s (Figure 4). It appears to be a garage, and certainly there was a garage in the 1930s work camp. The light fitting on the front is perhaps the best hope for dating this hut. By remarkable coincidence I spotted one of these in military buildings at Tynemouth Priory the day after we visited Hamsterley. I expect the Tynemouth example was installed around the time of the Second World War, though the army used Tynemouth until about 1960. It is quite likely, therefore, that this light was installed either for the work camp or for the POW camp. We will need to make some more systematic investigations if we are to prove this.
All of this is, of course, quite preliminary; it’s normal for later work to overturn your initial ideas, so watch this space. However, it’s great that an initially unpromising site has yielded such a rich assemblage of apparent features at the first look, and that we are beginning to reunite fairly unassuming objects and buildings with the stories of their creation and use. The great excitement of archaeology is to realise how everyday objects tell us about the past, and about events as significant as the Great Depression.