History: Unearthing Pirton's past

PUBLISHED: 01:16 13 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:42 20 February 2013

A thatched house in the village

A thatched house in the village

At the eastern end of the Chiltern Hills on the prehistoric Icknield Way trading route, the picture postcard village of Pirton has a deep past locked in its soil. Richard Young goes digging...

WITH prehistoric, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval remains within its parish, Pirton, lying three miles north-west of the ancient market town of Hitchin, has long been a place people called home.

Today, as with so many small rural communities, the village is predominantly a commuter dwelling, but up until only the middle of last century it was a buzzing close-knit community, full of everyday goings on.

Peritone, meaning pear tree homestead, as it was recorded in the Domesday Book, was already a settlement of 200 people, with four mills in 1086. Less than a century later the village was subject to a major planned expansion. The remains of these new streets and houses can still be seen in the bumps and furrows in a grassy field known as The Bury.

These vestiges lie close to a major earthwork of the same period, reflected in the name of one of the villages pubs The Motte and Bailey. Today called Toot Hill, it is the remains of a Norman defensive structure made up of an earth mound, water-filled ditch and two outer defended baileys. Lying within one of these baileys stood the newly built St Marys Church. Much rebuilt over the years, it still retains its original 12th century tower.

Both The Bury and Toot Hill are nationally important archaeological sites, classed as Scheduled Ancient Monuments by English Heritage.

In the later medieval period the Black Death and subsequent plagues seem to have hit the population hard, with the settlement shrinking, not to recover fully until the 17th century.

For much of its history, village life centred on arable agriculture, growing oats, wheat, peas and beans as well as barley to supply the malting trade in Hitchin. In the 19th century, straw plaiting became an important means of supplementing family income as Luton grew to become a centre
of hat making.

Around this time the village underwent another rapid expansion, doubling in population from around 500 to over 1,000 in the mid-Victorian period. This corresponded to a housing boom, as well as the opening of a primary school, which still teaches village children today.

A hundred years ago life was bustling, with five bakeries, seven pubs and nine shops. Today, most of these, along with the farmhouses and barns have been converted into residential properties. However, a village shop and post office, by the pretty Blacksmiths pond, continues to serve the 1,300 strong population, as do The Fox and Motte and Bailey pubs and the recently restored village hall.

Helen Hofton, resident of the village since 1972 and chairman of the Pirton Local History Group since its foundation in 1984, has been helping to build a database of historical information about the village through a wide of range of written records as well as archaeological finds.

The group is trying to build up a complete picture of the development of the settlement through local history, landscape history and archaeology, Helen says.

We also record present day history through scrapbooks, a photographic record of events and changes in the village. This is part of the Recorder Scheme set up 25 years ago by Hertfordshire Association of Local History.

For the last five years the group has been helping Channel 4s Time Team expert Carenza Lewis record excavations in the village as part of a wider study of still-inhabited ancient rural settlements.

The students and volunteers from Pirton and local archaeological societies have been digging test pits one metre square, recording the finds in chronological layers, Helen says.

Carenza and her team, including Paul Blinkhorn, one of the regular pottery experts from Time Team, have been on hand to supervise the digging and identify the finds. Those in Pirton have included Bronze Age pottery, an Iron Age brooch, fine Roman pottery, and an Anglo-Saxon quern, which was used for grinding corn.

The pits have been in gardens, and other land that would not otherwise usually be available to archaeological study, Helen adds.

Since 2007 we have dug 87 pits, more than in any of the other settlements being studied.

The aim is to complete over 100 by the end of this year. Work up until now has provided an outline of the development of Pirton, but much more needs to be done to provide a clearer picture. There are large areas of the village where we have not yet dug many pits and there are others where we have not dug any.

This years Big Dig has just taken place in June. What it, and the project so far, tells us about the story of Pirton will be discussed by Carenza Lewis on the evening of November 22 at Pirton Methodist Church.

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