We returned to the site of the Roman Town of Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund to build a flight of steps. One of the banks leading up to the walls was eroding through people using it as an alternative footpath and it was decided to install steps at this location. We also removed the old gate, steps and fence that had been closed-off previously. We were working on behalf of The Norfolk Archaeological Trust (NAT) and South Norfolk District Council (SNDC) who manage the site.
On our first visit on the 5th July an archaeologist from NAT explained the problem and the restrictions about digging in the area. Essentially, any diggings had to be kept to a minimum and as shallow as possible so as not to disturb the archaeology of the site. The plan was to install a flight of steps up the bank which would then protect the area. The bank was quite steep and topped by a flint wall with a shallow bank and a wide path the other side. We were using plastic risers and fittings made from recycled material which are long lasting and hard wearing so would not require replacement for many decades. The step risers were formed from metre long planks and were very heavy – around 25kg. These were to be held in place by plastic stobs (stakes) which were then screwed to the risers. The steps would be finished with plastic edging and filled with granite and hoggin. So, a lot to do and on a very challenging site. But the first thing to do was to brush cut the work area to provide a clear workspace.
The plan was to follow the wear lines up the bank rather than just construct a straight run of steps. We started at the bottom digging a shallow groove for the riser and then knocking the stobs in place. The important bit was then working out the rise between each step and the spacing between risers so that the steps were comfortable to use but didn’t require too much digging as we moved up the bank. We settled on a rise of around 14cm and a step width of 44cm. Nothing scientific about this – the measurement was determined by our average boot size and what was a reasonable step height for our volunteers (a representative sample of the public!). We set to work carefully digging out and installing the stobs and risers. Techniques were developed as we progressed, and we had installed six steps by the time we had to finish.
On our second visit on the 12th July we were again accompanied by an archaeologist from NAT. We continued our progress up the bank installing further steps. We also started to install steps at the top of the bank with a plan to work in both directions. The first top step went in OK, but the ground was very hard at the position for the next step. The team scraped away the soil and found the top of the old Roman wall. The Archaeologist excavated further and exposed the flint and brick structure. We would have to find another way to fix this step without disturbing the wall beneath.
As we worked our way up the bank the underlying structure changed from soil and small flints at the bottom to larger flints and more compacted soil. It was hard work getting a spike in deep enough to create a pilot hole for the stobs and, of course, we were working on a steep slope with all the difficulties that come with this such as keeping your balance and maintaining a grip. By the end of the day we had increased our tally to fourteen steps going up and three coming down. Still a way to go!
We returned on the 18th July to find two large piles of material next to our work site. The Type 1 crushed stone was the grey one and the orange pile was the hoggin. These were ready to infill the steps when we had finished. But first we had to carry on installing the remaining nine steps to reach the top. With the steps complete we were ready on the 19th July to finish attaching the sides and adjusting the height of the steps to ensure that these were level with the siding all the way up. The missing top step was resolved by resting the riser on the old wall and securing it to the steps either side with noggins and finishing with lengths of stobs screwed to the front so that it looked the same as the others but didn’t harm the site.
A short flight of five steps was also installed on the other side of the wall with a platform between the two sections spanning the top of the wall. The team started hauling trugs of material up the steps and filling in between the risers and tamping this down firmly. The crushed stone went in first and the hoggin compacted on top. There was around two Tonnes of each type of material to carry up the slope and pour into the steps. There was much toing and froing as our volunteers filled their trugs and hauled these up the slope and returned for another load. Eventually all steps were filled, the material compacted, and the steps swept to remove loose material.
Another job done with an attractive and practical solution to preserve the site and enable people to enjoy this more easily. The steps will blend in as the grass regrows up the bank and will last for many years.