Sod it!

Many Berwickers (and visitors), while out for a walk along our fabulous Elizabethan fortifications, may well have noticed a large scaffold and shuttering construction go up on top of and in front of a section of the wall near the Cow Gate near the Barracks.  Health and safety gone mad for cutting the grass?


Cow Gate and Windmill Bastion from Brass Bastion.

On Friday I went up to have a closer look and found the door in the shuttering open.  A couple of the English Heritage maintenance workmen were inside and explained that all the rain had cause the earthwork above the stone wall to slip badly, possibly falling.  Not good for anyone.


Subsidence of the earthwork scarp.

They asked if I knew anything about the construction of the earthworks as some archaeologists were coming up to perhaps have a poke about but didn’t know what they might find.  The lads were grumbling a bit about not being told what to do exactly to do and that they thought all was going to happen was they were going to dig down a bit and lay new turf on top.

Their work is just part of a continuum of repairs to the walls.  By complete coincidence (honest), when going through the Guild Minute Books (still researching the Town Hall) I came across a couple of records that relate to this.  (Their spelling and lack of punctuation! The “ff” combination is for some reason used instead of a capital F until the late 18th century. )

15th July 1748 p 464, Guild minute book B1/16a

This day Mr Mayor aquainted the Guild that the Engineers employ’d in repairing the ffortifications had been with him desiring Liberty to cut Sods for carrying on the Same, the Guild taking this into their Consideration do hereby grant liberty to them to cut Sods in the Stank Close for repairing the King’s Mount and Breast Works there, and likewise that they be at liberty to cut Sods in any place in the Greens or Common which they shall think proper for repairing the Bank Hill.

10th March 1749 p 510, Guild minute book B1/16a

Whereas at a Guild held the fifteenth day of July last, Liberty was granted the Engineer to cut Sods in the Greens or Common for repairing the ffortifications ad Breast Works, And the Sods there being found insufficient for reparing thereof It is hereby ordered that they have leave to cut eighty Cart Loads of Sods upon the top of Hallowdown hill for repairing the said ffortifications, they agreeing to level the Ground and sow it with Grass Seed as soon as they have done with the same.

Excavations of Brass bastion in 1961 revealed that the earthwork raised behind the west flanker had layers of cinder and ash running horizontally through it.  This would have been to stabilise the soil.  I have heard that heather was also used.  

This comes as no surprise as all large earthworks are layered for stability:  the Bayeux Tapestry shows a motte (an artificial hill for a castle) being built as layers and the recent earth sculpture, Northumberlandia, is consolidated with layers of plastic sheeting.

However, what we see – a stone wall with an earth embankment on top – isn’t the original profile.  Originally, the earthwork was to be raised almost as high as the masonry behind a sentry walk.  This was not the conventional way of doing these things and was one of many sources of dispute between the chief engineer, Sir Richard Lee, and the Italian consultants brought in for their expertise.  This high earthwork was likely to be unstable and eventually a compromise was settled on; the construction of the sentry walk but with a lower earthwork behind.  The sentry walk was later filled in to give the profile we see today.  Luckily, Lee’s assistant, Rowland Johnson drew a crooss section of the proposed profile.


1. Intended profile of walls (from Rowland Johnson’s plan),  2. Profile as actually built. 
3. Present modified profile.


West flanker at Brass bastion showing part of the sentry walk exposed by the 1961 excavation.

The 1961 excavations exposed a section of the sentry walk around the west flanker of Brass Bastion.  This was also seen in an excavation above the Cow Gate in 1991.  Another bit of evidence that can still be seen is a gutter projecting out above the Cow Gate which would have drained water from the sentry walk; no need for a gutter if its just solid earth behind (although you do get “weep holes” behind the walls to allow moisture to drain, but these are quite different.)


Drainage gutter projecting from the sentry walk level.

A small test trench was dug to a depth of about two feet.  A dark layer was discovered that might correspond to the layer of cider found at Brass Bastion.  The closest I got to an archaeological investigation was me poking about at the top of the masonry to find it was a smooth top – again, evidence that it was once exposed.

Some deep plastic mesh was hammered into the soil to stabilise it and the turf replaced.  In time, hopefully, it will grow back to match the rest.  

Two little footnotes to this.

  1. Note in the second record where they get the 80 cartloads from – Hallowdown Hill?  I’ve never come across that name before!  That’ll be Halidon Hill, the Hallowed Down, near the Cistercian nunnery of Bondington.
  2. I got the only archaeological find from inside the soil sitting above the stonework of the wall.


Elizabethan artefact?  Er, no.


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