Bourne of Perseverance: Ancient history on the Fylde Coast

In recent weeks the site of Bourne Hill in Thornton has captured the attention of social and mainstream media after significant Iron Age and Roman discoveries were made. Local heritage photographer and historian Juliette Gregson tells us how Wyre Archaeology formed in 2005 to excavate the site, preserving the past to protect the future

I have great respect for anyone that can dig a trench and explain what went before us and why. Many years ago I met Brian Hughes and Michelle Harris and joined them as a member with Wyre Archaeology.

As the years slipped by and I had many adventures exploring history and heritage – nearly losing footwear in muddy fields while my dog at the time, Christo, would run off in another direction. But Hughes and Harris have remained constant sources of knowledge. A lot of the information for this article is theirs and I am eternally grateful that they have allowed me to share it.

“There is a common, although inaccurate, belief that the Wyre’s history started at the turn of the 19th Century. Before then the district was, apparently, populated by nothing more interesting than wild rabbits,” the pair wrote back in 2005. “The countless books of Victorian photographs and postcards that have dominated the local history shelves for several decades now might have had a hand in this misconception somewhere.

“The truth is, however, our local history stretches back thousands of years, the lands on both sides of the river having been occupied and worked since Mesolithic times.”

Because of this, in 2005 Harris and Hughes approached a local history publisher at random with a view to releasing their Ancient History of the Wyre, only to be informed that there wasn’t a market for such a subject. Fortunately, they’re incredibly stubborn and raised the finances to produce the first one hundred copies.

Even they were surprised at how quickly the volumes sold. One year later just short of 1,000 copies had been bought through one or two relatively obscure outlets without promotion or publicity. The publication of their Mediaeval History of the Wyre and Wyre Archaeology Omnibus have continued this momentum, proving that Wyre locals have a previously unrecognised voracity for the history of their district.

They also wrote the Legacy of Bourne.

The Legacy of Bourne

For anybody not familiar with Bourne Hill, it can be reached by following Fleetwood Road North through Thornton, past Marsh Mill, until you reach the football pitch next door to the now closed Bourne Poacher pub.

Exactly what lies beneath the hill is still subject to numerous possibilities. These range from a Saxon settlement to a medieval turnip field. Several eminent 19th Century historians speculated on the hill’s connections with the Battle of Brunanburh in the year 937 and Roman port Portus Setantiorum.

In recent weeks the site caught the attention of social and mainstream media. With the site earmarked for the development of 158 new houses by Ecclestone Homes, an archaeological survey – a condition of the planning permission – revealed evidence of an Iron Age settlement and Roman occupation. A more specialist team from Oxford Archaeology North was called in for a full excavation and a report will follow. Paul Dunn, lead archaeologist from OAN, told the BBC that the site is of significant interest.

The archaeological site at Bourne Hill. Photo: Juliette Gregson

“Like other Iron Age excavations in the county, the dig at Thornton had revealed round houses with their surrounding ditches, but the discovery of Iron Age bowls and Roman pottery marked it out from other excavations. marked it out from other excavations.” he said.

Back in February 2005 Harris and Hughes became founding members of Wyre Archaeology with the firm intention of conducting a full scale excavation on the hill. The site of Bourne Hall itself was out of bounds, being owned by Lancashire County Council and earmarked for future development that inevitably came to fruition – it’s now Bourne Road. However it was the hill that we were really interested in and, fortunately for us, its leaseholder was the far more amenable James Parr of Wyrefield Farm. We already knew that Bourne had at least 1,000 years of history buried under it. It was recorded as Brune in the Domesday Book, and theories about its earlier use were rife.

Illustration of the fireplace at Bourne Hall by Brian Hughes

Bourne Hall was demolished in the 1970s when, despite being listed, it fell into disrepair. As you might expect, a concerted effort was made by the locals to save the historic residence. Unfortunately, not everybody was quite so passionate about the cause. One local historian went so far as to state “grounds for saving it for historical reasons alone are almost nonexistent”. Fleetwood Historical Society also showed a lack of enthusiasm, claiming that, “nobody in their right senses could defend keeping it.” Bourne Hall came down. The Jacobean ceiling, the staircase and the ornamental fireplace were all removed before destruction, with the intention of rebuilding them at the Judge’s Lodgings in Lancaster.

Before the bulldozers moved in, however, Richard Watson of the Pilling Historical Society was allowed onto the site to record the building’s layout. We visited Richard at his home to pick his brains on the matter. From the drawings and calculations that he made at the time, and which he kindly allowed us to copy, it’s clear that the hall went through several phases of development reconstruction. There is no known date of construction of the original building, but a hall stood there since at least the 1300s.

The earliest known reconstruction was carried out in the 17th Century. A quick comparison with the 1940’s Ordnance Survey map, however, revealed that several out buildings didn’t make it onto his plan. These included pig sties, Tudor walls and various other constructions that, presumably, had either been demolished or weren’t considered worthy of attention. Almost certainly one of these missing buildings was the domestic chapel which according to Edward Baines’ History of Lancashire was ‘converted to farmyard uses’.

After contacting Neil Thompson and John Shorrocks – at that time both members of the Fylde Country Life Preservation Society although now also both active members of Wyre Archaeology – we revisited the hill. Battling against hailstone, Thompson surveyed the site by pushing a metal pole into the ground until it struck solid material. At length he discovered what appeared to be a road or track. The ground in this area was extremely boggy – evidence, perhaps, that cobbles beneath the surface were preventing proper drainage. We also discovered what Reverend Bulpit in his Notes on the Fylde had described as a moat.

According to Thompson the hill showed all the signs of an ancient defensive system. V shaped ditches, such as we found, were simple but effective precautions against invaders and were commonly engineered by Iron Age farmers or Roman legionaries. A similar fosse was visible to the north, and both ditches curved beneath Fleetwood Road towards the rear of the hall. Because of the complicated nature of the site we’ve drawn up the diagram, illustrating how these features relate to one another.

As mentioned earlier the remains of Bourne Hall date from the 17th Century, although it’s well documented that earlier buildings once stood on the grounds, and we assumed during our first investigations, that the embankments might also have dated from this period. Now, of course, following 17 test-pits, several boxes of small finds and extensive discussions with Lancashire County Council’s specialist advisor in archaeology, Peter Iles, and Alison Plummer, Head of Oxford Archaeology North, we know they are much older.

Although we were unable to conduct any excavations on the Bourne Hall side of Fleetwood Road it can be reasonably assumed that the track ran north through the farmyard towards Burglar’s Lane, believed by some to have once been an Iron Age quayside. In fact, as Blackpool historian Ted Lightbown informs us in his booklet The Danes Pad: A Roman Road to Nowhere: “In the orchard at Bourne Hall… [one time tenant] Walsh claimed to have uncovered what was taken to be a Roman road. It comprised large cobbles or setts such as were usually used in the construction of roads at the time.”

Neither Mr Walsh nor Ted Lightbown were aware at the time, of course, that the track continued across Fleetwood Road and belonged to the Iron Age settlement. Continuing past Bourne Hill, once through the settlement’s defensive embankments, the track turned south, heading off towards West Drive.


The Early Mediaeval Period

When it comes to the late Saxon/early Mediaeval occupation of Bourne we’re on slightly firmer ground. As every schoolchild knows, in 1066 the Normans invaded Britain and William the Conqueror, attempting to determine exactly how much wealth he’d accumulated from his victory, commissioned the Domesday Book. In this hefty tome Bourne was first recorded as ‘Brune’, a Saxon word meaning ‘brook’ or ‘spring’.

According to local tradition, Bourne Hill itself is haunted by two ghosts. One is a White Lady – a throw back, no doubt, to Bourne’s alleged history as a safe house for persecuted catholics.

What at first glance appears to be tangible evidence for the Norman occupation of Bourne came to light in 1991 when the Fleetwood Weekly News ran the headline: “Fleetwood Coin is 900 Years Old”. The tiny silver coin, as the article described it, was discovered by Francis Chatburn on the Fleetwood landfill site just north of Burn Naze. It was believed to date from 1085. Unfortunately, up until the time that Peter Hesketh enclosed the future-landfill site during the construction of his railway, the whole area was actually lying beneath the river.

Quite clearly, the coin couldn’t have been dropped by a local resident in the 11th Century. So where exactly did it originate? Well, it was probably just dumped at the tip during the 20th Century when somebody was having a clear-out. Nonetheless, Bourne (or Brune if you prefer) was definitely in existence when the coin was minted.

Bourne Hill partially excavated. Photo: Juliette Gregson

But where would the village have been located? Unlike the Iron Age tribes, Saxons didn’t see any particular reason to build defensive settlements on the tops of hills. Instead, the village would have been situated at the base of the hill, protected by its slopes from the prevailing north-westerly wind. In confirmation of this, the 1843 Ordnance Survey map records a series of long, thin fields banking either side of a now vanished road. This area today is occupied by the Burn Naze housing estate.

According to local tradition, Bourne Hill itself is haunted by two ghosts. One is a White Lady – a throw back, no doubt, to Bourne’s alleged history as a safe house for persecuted catholics. The other is a headless horse. Celtic boggarts such as these are often indicators that archaeology lies beneath the ground.

Adding to the speculation in Thornton Cleveleys Remembered, Ralph Smedley recalls: “The only bit of history I remember coming out of the hill was when Mr Jack Rawcliffe, who used to drive our steamroller, Victoria, found a dagger eighteen inches long.” The dagger, predictably, is now lost and was never dated. Aerial photographs also revealed that Bourne Hill’s summit was playing card shaped, typical of Roman/Iron Age fort construction.

Harris and Hughes’s Legacy of Bourne is long out of print and was only 40 pages. However, recent discoveries triggered them to make it available in a pdf format.

Re-reading it made me realise how much of the Fylde coast is now being built upon with chocolate box houses and Ecclestone Homes still have Bourne clearly in their sights. I appreciate some older buildings are not fit for purpose and would cost too much to renovate, but what alarms me is the wanton destruction of such an important site.

When Harris and Hughes embarked on their dig in 2005 only a percentage was dug and uncovered. I wonder what the 2023 excavation has found. Skeletons of the headless horse or the White Lady? Maybe even past inhabitants of Bourne Hill.

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