The presentation by Smiths of Bletchington on Tuesday, 31st May 2011 in the Village Hall was well attended. The extensive gravel workings in South Leigh parish, north of the River Windrush near Gill Mill, are being rehabilitated into nature reserves with limited access (Rushy Common Nature Reserve), and some areas of more accessible water parks (Tar Lakes). Smiths presented their plans to extend the quarry area to the south and west; this should ensure another 15 years working life for Gill Mill Quarry, with extraction continuing at the current rate.
Some villagers may know of my long-term interest in landscape history. The series of parallel north-south tracks which are still evident within our parish (e.g. Barnard Gate Road north from The Green, Church Lane north from the church, Hill Street north from Wayside) all attest to a droving system for livestock, to wood-pasture in Wychwood Forest. But where did the tracks go to the south? The evidence is under a blanket of alluvial soils washed down from the Cotswolds in Roman times and later, covering large areas of the Thames valley and its tributaries, including the Windrush, concealing evidence of earlier land use and particularly river crossings.
During gravel extraction, this alluvial deposit is stripped off (and stored for later reclamation), revealing an earlier landscape. Archaeologists have been observing, excavating and recording during the whole life of Gill Mill Quarry (since 1988), and will continue to do so as new areas are opened. Naturally, full archaeological interpretation of the findings will not be available until the recording is complete, but Smiths have kindly let me have sight of an interim report prepared by Oxford Archaeology. The findings so far are exciting and unexpected. There was evidently an extensive Roman settlement around Gill Mill area, with houses, roads, and enclosed fields. Of significance for South Leigh, there was a river crossing and some evidence for a cattle market. The site has always been subject to flooding, and the wet conditions mean that waterlogged artefacts such as leather shoes have been recovered, though full analysis of deposits will take time. Huge quantities of pottery of various origins and dates have still to be analysed, but should give some indication of trading routes and commodities.
This is a long-term project, potentially of national importance, as such a large area is involved, and the nature of the settlement seems to be unique. Excavations at Gill Mill Quarry are going to influence the interpretation of Roman urban settlement in Britain - it is just not certain yet what the outcome will be.