Digging up town’s forgotten past

PUBLISHED: 11:43 19 January 2006 | UPDATED: 09:27 06 May 2010

Keith Matthews

Keith Matthews

BALDOCK has several claims to historic fame including a glamorous link to the Knights Templar and the famous facade of Tesco, once a photographic laboratory and later the Kayser Bondor factory. It has the highest concentration of listed buildings in the

BALDOCK has several claims to historic fame including a glamorous link to the Knights Templar and the famous facade of Tesco, once a photographic laboratory and later the Kayser Bondor factory.

It has the highest concentration of listed buildings in the county, stands on the romantic Great North Road and is facing an exciting future with the spring opening of the long-awaited bypass.

But anyone who thinks the history of Baldock started with the arrival of the Templars in the 1100s would be sadly mistaken - it has a far more intriguing past than even that, linked to prehistoric and Roman burial sites, a forgotten religious cult and a long-forgotten blight that gripped the land.

The first indication that the town was special came in 1925 when a farmer at Walls Field ploughed up some Roman skulls.

But it wasn't until 1968 that the scale of finds at Baldock began to emerge with the discovery of a chieftain's grave. Extensive excavations in the 1980s and 1990s, carried out by Gil Burleigh, archaeologist for North Hertfordshire District Council, unearthed some very exciting and surprising finds in the Walls Field/Clothall Common area.

"Baldock has the largest collection of Roman burials anywhere outside Egypt," said Keith Matthews, archaeology officer at North Hertfordshire District Council. The town was also the site of a large number of cemeteries in the Iron Age along with some intriguing excavations and lines of posts, marking off an extensive burial area.

"It was about a mile long and marked a symbolic boundary to cut the living off from the dead," said Keith.

It is the oldest site of its kind to be discovered and contained at least one very eminent grave, probably of a prominent chieftain who ruled across Hertfordshire and Essex.

Baldock's significance as a burial site continued after the arrival of the Romans in AD43, by which time it was a thriving town and probably the centre of a religious cult dedicated to a hunting god or goddess.

"There were at least three temples in Baldock in Roman times and at least 13 separate burial grounds. Sometimes it was just a pinch of human bone," said Keith.

"We think it was a cult centre - maybe Baldock was the Lourdes of Roman Britain. This site is of international significance, it's phenomenal and so many academics don't even know about it."

Britain's dramatic decline after the fall of the Roman Empire included a mysterious end to cities and towns as communities died out. Baldock was one of the last to survive and lingered on until about AD600, when a burial site at California was still in use and there was little more than a hamlet there.

"Something happened to the population. Mortality rates really increase," said Keith.

"It may be plague but there's a drastic decline in towns and we don't know why."

Even major cities such as London, St Albans and Colchester faded away.

Baldock became a memory and then ceased to be even that. By the time Gilbert de Clare of Weston gave part of his manor to the Knights Templar in the 1140s no one had any idea of Baldock's intriguing past. The Templars built a new town near the long-forgotten settlement, laying the streets out in the shape of a cross.

Later it became a thriving coaching town on the crossroads of north-south and east-west routes before its wide roads became clogged with modern-day traffic.

That should soon be a thing of the past with the opening of the new bypass. Its route, designed to avoid as much of the prehistoric and Roman settlement as possible, begins at the old leper hospital of St Mary Magdalene and passes near a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age cemetery, various prehistoric sites and two Roman roads as well as the craters of two bombs dropped over Weston Hills in 1943.

Not a lot of motorists know that. In fact, neither do a lot of residents but once Keith Matthews has published the results of Gil Burleigh's work on the Baldock excavations, the town may soon become the focus of pilgrims again.

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