Digging Halton Castle: Part 2

An aerial view of Halton Castle, Cheshire. The inner bailey and shell keep are in the middle. The outer bailey with the 2015 trenches are on the left. The 18th century court house is the large building at the top.

An aerial view of Halton Castle, Cheshire. The inner bailey and shell keep are in the middle. The outer bailey with the 2015 trenches are on the left. The 18th century court house is the large building at the top.

With just three days left of the community dig the outer bailey at Halton Castle is finally yielding some of the castle’s secrets. This is the first excavation within the castle since 1987 but there has been no previous investigation of the eastern half of the bailey. This was the main research reason we were on the site. In both the trenches we have opened there have been extensive areas of disturbance in the form of levelling and dumping layers, in some places more than 0.5m deep. We now suspect this is from two phases of activity. Firstly, landscaping associated with the 19th century garden features. Secondly, previously unrecorded landscaping associated with the rebuilding of the south-eastern curtain wall of the castle in 1995.

In amongst this disturbance has been some fine late medieval and post-medieval artefacts (see my previous blog) hinting at all three main periods of activity on the site (castle, siege and prison). Yet until the last few days there has been no sign of any stratified deposits. Fortunately this has now changed, in both trenches.

In the eastern trench, over the site of the stables recorded on a mid-17th century plan, we have located the rubble sandstone core of a wall. This lies in the south-western corner of our trench, although it’s not clear, as yet, in which direction it is running, nor whether this is the stable block that we were looking for. Still, it demonstrates for the first time the survival of archaeological deposits within this part of the castle enclosure, and the possibility of more to come, since we have yet to locate the bedrock in this area.

In the northern trench, close to the curtain wall, we hit bedrock at the western end just 0.3m down and at the eastern end around 0.5m below the current ground level. In the bedrock were rock-cut features. These features included several large postholes and a linear slot, possibly for a sill beam for a building. Although there has been no dating evidence as yet from these features it seems very likely that they are part of late medieval castle structures. Robina McNeil’s team found similar structures in several of their trenches in 1986-7, including the two closest to our northern trench.

A mid-17th century plan of Halton Castle.

A mid-17th century plan of Halton Castle.

If you stand by the ruined 14th century northern tower, with its window tracery etched against a grey sky, the strategic importance of this rocky hilltop becomes very clear. To the north-west and north lies the Mersey estuary where there was a ferry crossing in the medieval period, and beyond that the northern bank and Widnes. To the east lies Norton Priory which has close connections with the castle. Also visible from the hilltop is Warrington to the north-east: a medieval town with a priory and castle on the northern bank of the River Mersey defending a ford. It is also possible to see the Pennine hills to the east and to the south catch a glimpse of the lonely hill on which Beeston castle sits. When the weather lifts the western horizon is dominated by the Welsh hills of Flintshire and Denbighshire. This castle appears to be as much a statement in the landscape as a defensive stronghold, and this is demonstrated in some stunning aerial photographs taken by one of our volunteers from his drone.

We still have a couple of days of recording and backfilling to do. And as every volunteer and professional archaeologist, or indeed Time Team fan, knows there is always the likelihood of an unexpected find right at the end of a dig.

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