A fair chunk of Melton Mowbray has been missing from Burton Street for quite a while now and for a longer time than most of us might have wished it has remained an ugly and unwelcome blot on a very historic part of our old market town. Like a front tooth missing from a pretty lady’s face, a portion of the footpath has been fenced off, with bright green laurels implanted in a vain attempt to maintain a certain tidiness or decorum.
Equidistant from the ancient church of St Mary’s to the north and the bright and cheerful modern ‘Town Hall’, now known to all as Parkside, to the south, this now derelict lot once housed the Victorian building known as the Melton Garage which was built around the turn of the 19/20th century. Once covering a spacious plot, it backs onto the old Mediaeval Way to London, better known as the footpath from the church to the nearby Railway Station and bordering the Play Close. As a matter of pure coincidence and not necessarily pertinent to this article, is the fact that at the rear of the ‘Anne of Cleves’ restaurant just adjacent to this plot, there used to exist Melton’s one and only cock-pit to where the punters used to flock in the days before the cinema and football arrived. This arena became unfit for purpose around 1830 when a new location was found and utilised at the top of Goodricke Street, now roughly near to the entrance of Morrisons and Granby House. Those were the days!
Since the new Council offices were completed, a festering sore has remained with the future of the land which was of necessity exposed in the wake of its construction and which lies at the rear of the shops and businesses in Burton End. Initially scraped level and utilised as a temporary (and expensive) public car park, the good folk of Melton were asked which they would prefer on the site, a retail development or a car park.
Sadly for me, the latter option was chosen and the contractors have recently arrived to carry out the work. of the location, Jack Brownlow writes in his ‘Melton Mowbray, Queen of the Shires‘, that; ‘No 18 Burton Street had housed aristocracy in the past. ‘ … The Hon. Rupert Craven brought his bride to the house in Burton Street, later known as the Copper Kettle and now part of the Melton Garage Company …’ Built originally as a private dwelling, it replaced a previous private residence on the same spot in the 1890’s.
When I attended at the site to nose around – as I am wont to do – to see what was occurring, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the area had been made subject to a ‘pre-development archaeological survey’ as a prelude to its eventual fate of being enveloped in a tarmacadam ‘duvet’ in readiness for its duty as a prime parking location for the gathering masses of tourists which will visit our town. Picking and sifting their way through many years of the ancient and cumulate remains, the ‘Time Team’ were on site and well underway in temperatures that were a little unnaturally warm for this particular summer – so far.
To my great delight, after persisting with my presence, I was kindly invited to join the group on site for an inspection of my own and to gain information from team leader, archaeologist Derek Roberts of P.D.A. ‘Pre Develop Archaeology’, of Peterborough. As is the modern way I was even provided with a hard hat and high visibility bib while he described his company’s role and purpose; he also answered many of my endless questions. He told me that his company was asked by the Leicestershire County Council, in conjunction with the heritage department of the local council to undertake a survey for the County Archive purposes.
The footprint of this former garage and indeed, of an even earlier building, had been carefully scraped away and in three dimensions it was almost simple to locate the various parts of the buildings as they once stood. The most significant find was an almost complete cobble way which had once serviced the south side of the building at its Burton Street entrance; it was probably many a year since this was newly laid to access pedestrians and small carts. All in all it was a fascinating insight into Victorian times.
As a matter of personal interest, I asked Derek if the ‘Harris Matrix‘ was utilised in his work, as I am an acquaintance of Dr Edward Harris of Bermuda who formulated the ‘Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy’ and of whom I have mentioned in an earlier blog. I was assured that his priciples were followed by all modern day archaeologists, so it was gratifying for me to see the practical results of Ed’s hard theorising of the 1970s being put into attested practice.
This now insignificant 21st century car park, lying supine and dormant at No. 18 Burton Street, Melton Mowbray, was no former great Roman ruin, nor romantic galleon buried in the sand of a tropical island these last two hundred years having been struck by a violent hurricane and hiding bucketful’s of plundered gold coins under its wrecked timbers. But for me there is an explicit attraction in the knowledge that homo sapiens has lived and died around this plot for probably 300 years, adapting and evolving over the decades what was once fields and trees lining the turnpike out of town, into buildings used for dwelling and business purposes and which would serve to dispose the town centre as it outgrew its ancient boundaries. I am pleased that I was given the opportunity to be one of the last people to see what had once lain there and I am especially thankful to Derek and his team for their very kind gesture on the day. I am also very pleased that the authorities now think sufficiently within the box, for the benefit of those who will follow us and almost certainly ask the same questions. After a few days scrapings and scrubbings, that moment in time has hopefully been recorded and stored safely. Might this happen more frequently in the future with other such projects? I would sincerely hope so .
Update: 4th July, 2013.
A week after my visit to the above site, the scene was more akin to the current Wimbledon tennis championships, with a massive roll of plastic sheet being manouvered by a half a dozen fit workmen men all pulling and shoving to make it fit. I looked up expecting to see rain clouds and people raising their brollies but on the contrary, it was a sunny July day and the old archaeological remains were being covered, perhaps for ever.
On the far side of the site however, current surveying has exposed unexpected remains of what is presently estimated to be 16th century stonework – pretty old for this part of the town. I’ve told team leader Derek to expect another visit from me! Watch this space.
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