Monday, 29 August 2011

Back to the Fifth Century – The Saxons are coming

We left the 20th century and its planes and radar and went back nearly 2,000 years to see the traces our forebears have left on the countryside.


In the years after the Romans left Britain, new people arrived. Collectively known as Anglo-Saxons, they were from Germanic tribes and brought with them the name by which my homeland is still known – Englaland in Old English, England today.

At West Stow, near Bury St Edmunds, during a trial for sand and gravel extraction between 1965 and 1972, fragments of pottery were discovered and   excavations showed the remains of an entire Anglo Saxon village.  Though the wood had rotted, enough traces remained to attempt a reconstruction.

Now, archaeologists are a contentious lot and really love a good argument.  Luckily for them, no Anglo-Saxon was likely to turn up and settle the debate so they turned the reconstruction into an experiment to see which building design worked best.   The one thing they did know was that the huts were built over a shallow pit – it was a start.


The simplest would be having no walls so they tried that. The pit filled with sand and there was then no headroom.  No worries. They tried again.  Some remains suggested wooden floors so several huts were built with different construction methods.


The villagers lived in family groups and this was a big village with 69 huts, 7 halls and 7 other structures found. They were still in touch with their homelands as glass and metals have been found at the site which are not produced locally.

There were also too many loom weights for the villagers to have only woven their own clothes.  They probably made them for trade.


These people were farmers and another day, we went to see the remains of  much higher status Saxons at Sutton Hoo.  To find out more about West Stow, Wiki is your friend.

If you visit on a day when re-enactors are on site, it’s a big bonus. One man was sewing leather gloves and I asked him what evidence they had for gloves in the period.  “They had a word for them. In old English the word is glōf.”

That made the Anglo-Saxons feel more real.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Listening Ears to Radio Waves


Denge Sound Mirrors - photo by Paul Russon, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

These ‘listening ears’ or ‘sound mirrors’ were built in the 1920s and 1930s They were experimental as can be seen by the the different shapes of each of the three reflectors: one is a long, curved wall about 5 m (16.4 feet) high by 70 m (230 feet) long, while the other two are dish-shaped constructions approximately 4–5 metres across. Microphones placed at the focal point of the reflectors enabled a listener to detect the sound of aircraft far out at sea.

Unfortunately, you can no longer visit the site except as part of a guided tour and we were unable to arrange one when we passed through in 2010 while visiting Dungeness.

Radar (Radio Detection and Ranging) was developed for military purposes during the second world war – don’t worry, you are not getting a dissertation on the subject, you can Google as well as I can!  We visited The Royal Airforce Air Defence Radar Museum.  I’ve typed in its full name as there are several Radar Museums in the area.


It is difficult to believe that The Battle of Britain was controlled in rooms like this with young women pushing little markers across a plan.  The site was operational till 1993 – with many upgrades and the Cold War Operations Room looks like a smaller version of NASA or Dr Strangelove.


One of the great names in early radar development was Marconi and I grew up near this tower at the research station just outside Chelmsford.  It is a ‘Chain Home’ tower, that being the code name for the ring of coastal early warning systems built along the east and south coasts.  It is the only fully intact system left and celebrated 70 years from the Battle of Britain in 2010.

Last but not least, Alan saw a demonstration of this website and it is his latest toy.  I have been known to visit the site myself – purely in the interests of research of course.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Planes and Nostalgia

S0021190_1_2_tonemapped - sm

It is an odd thing to be nostalgic for the sight of a bomber but this is no ordinary plane. The Avro Vulcan was a delta wing plane that looked magnificent in the air and enormous on the ground.



Growing up in Essex and surrounded by military air bases, I could recognise most military aircraft by sight or sound.  As a child I didn’t think of the terrible reason they had been built but, by the time the Vulcan appeared above the peaceful fields in 1956, I did know and understood that, if ever this great plane flew in anger, Armageddon was nigh for it carried nuclear weapons.  It is terrible to think of such a beautiful machine being designed for destruction.

To see this and many other aircraft, follow the instructions on the City of Norwich Aviation Museum site.

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