Our first outing for 2020 was to Caistor St Edmund where we began replacing a flight of steps on the northern edge of the site. The original plan was to replace the most worn steps and install edging for the whole flight to prevent further erosion. However, it quickly became apparent that the steps were in such a poor condition that they all needed replacing. Helen, from South Norfolk District Council and Caroline from Norfolk Archaeological Trust were on hand at the start to tell as about the project and agreed that replacement was the best way forward.
But before we started work Caroline told us about the history of the site and reminded us about the need for care when digging so as not to disturb the site unnecessarily. We installed steps on the southern edge of the site during July 2019 and are familiar with the need for protecting this and not digging too deeply (see our blog “Building the steps”).
So, on Wednesday 8th January we gathered at Caistor and planned our day. The old wooden steps were installed around 2004 and held in place by thin metal spikes 3ft long. Many were rotten and a deep gulley had formed down one side from sheep and dog activity exacerbated by rain run-off from the top of the bank. We had a couple of jobs to do, like building a short fence at the top of the bank to discourage sheep etc using the side of the bank and install new edging beside the old steps to keep the soil in place. It was at this point that the steps were discovered to be in a worse condition than thought and that new edging would not solve the problem. Matt H went back to the depot to get a supply of steps while we volunteers supped tea and ate our biscuits under the watchful eye of Helen – our responsible adult!
With a supply of recycled plastic steps, we started at the top and worked our way down the bank. We removed the old steps and fixed the new ones in place with plastic stobs (stakes). As we found with the previous steps there are a lot of large stones under the grassy bank from where the old wall was dismantled. Edging was staked in place to give us a line and the steps installed as shallow as possible. At the end of our first day we had installed seven steps and edging and also fixed the fence along the top of the steps. We came across many chunks of Roman brick but also found the base of a pot and a piece of terracotta with a hole which may have been a game counter.
We were back on a wet and cold 15th January to continue our work. Our first day had been a learning time but we now needed to step up a gear and install as many steps as we could. Step building is a repeatable process and we quickly organised ourselves into an efficient and productive workforce. Robert, Will and I dug out and installed the steps while Lorna, Krissie, Mark and Matt H fitted the edging and back-filled the completed steps with crushed rock and hoggin. We used the stobs as our guide for the tread width (the distance between steps) which gave us a line for digging out a shallow trench for the riser to sit in. The heavy riser (ie plastic step) was levelled and held in place while the holes for the stobs were made with a spike and these hammered in place. We moved down to the next step while the team above secured the steps to the edging and the stobs. At the end of the day we had installed eleven steps with edging on both sides and backfilled with type 1 material (crushed rock). We put some hoggin in a couple of steps, but it was so wet that it stuck to our soles and it seemed pointless using any more until we got drier conditions. Our work was partly overseen by an Egyptian Goose standing on an old tree trunk at the top of the steps before it flew off with a friend and settled on a branch of a nearby tree. It appeared to give many nods of approval to our work!
Our final visit was on 29th January where we quickly got down to work but first, we had to realign a couple of steps which weren’t quite vertical. The steps were levered up and using heavy spikes were repositioned and, once vertical enough, screwed to the edging. Me and Mark then carried on installing the remaining steps while the others installed the edging. The edging gave us a line to work to and once screwed to the steps created a rigid structure. We also installed several baffles beside the steps to disperse any water onto the bank during heavy rainfall. These will prevent a new gully forming and washing away the soil beside the steps.
Matt D had arranged for three tonnes of material to be delivered to backfill the steps, but this had been deposited by the entrance gate. Will spent some time transferring the material from the bags to the trailer which Matt then drove over to our work area for Will to shovel into trugs for us to carry up the slope and deposit on the steps. It was a good day for exercising (especially for Will!) with the team moving all three tonnes of material plus what was left from our previous visits. The steps were completed and filled with the crushed rock and finished with a layer of gravel and now provide a much better route for the many walkers that visit the site. The steps more or less sit on the bank with minimal effect on the archaeology of the site and the sheer weight of the structure will keep it in place.
Carrying the full trugs up the steep slope brings home what it must have been like to try and invade the settlement some 2000 years ago. The banks are about 20 feet high but steep sided so running up these carrying weapons must have been very difficult especially when those at the top were chucking stuff at you and determined to do you harm. Our volunteers came to no harm other than a few tired muscles and a strong desire to sleep peacefully! The steps presented a photo opportunity to show off our handiwork completed by Lorna, Krissie, me (Chris), Gordon, Will, Andy and Mark. Robert was behind the camera as always and Matt was most likely on his phone sorting out our next job!
Our volunteers enjoy what they do and turn out throughout the seasons to tackle whatever task is required. We might moan sometimes: biscuits are getting a bit boring, someone forgot to put the spoons in the brew kit, we’ve run out of hot water! But generally, we are happy to be outside in the fresh air and enjoy the camaraderie of our fellow volunteers. All Matt has to do is point us in the right direction and tell us what needs doing.
We know that people appreciate our work as exemplified and posted in our blog “Thank you for the steps” which Matt received soon after we completed the steps.