Visit West Stow Anglo Saxon village to take a step back in time to the 6th century
There are cinders in the open hearth and the smell of smoke, which has blackened the underside of the thatched roof, lingers in the air.
It feels, says heritage officer Ben Ridgeon, as if the occupants of this home, with its walls and floor of rough-hewn timber, might have only just stepped outside.
From there it isn’t a huge leap to imagining you have slipped back in time to the 6th century ... and those people could return at any moment from tending their livestock and crops.
More than 1,300 years ago houses, probably much like this one, were clustered here.
The early Anglo Saxon settlement at West Stow, dating from the 5th to the 8th century, is one of the most important ever discovered in Britain.
And almost 50 years ago, after decades of excavations, archaeologists began a groundbreaking project reconstructing some of the homes to test theories about how they were originally built and used.
West Stow Anglo Saxon village is much more than history brought to life. It is an ongoing experiment to fathom out more about the people who tilled the sandy soil of this land on the edge of the Brecks in those far off times.
The settlement was here when an Anglo Saxon king, thought to be Raedwald, ruler of East Anglia, was laid to rest in a ship burial amid his hoard of treasure almost 50 miles away at Sutton Hoo.
But Sutton Hoo is about a king. West Stow is about the ordinary people, although it was probably not a low status community as was first thought, says West Suffolk Council’s Heritage Operations Manager Lance Alexander.
Finds have revealed its inhabitants were prospering. Two swords - which were signs of wealth - were recorded as being found, although they have since disappeared.
It was a sizeable community. Over the years the remains of 90 buildings have been unearthed.
By the early 8th century West Stow was dwindling, and was eventually abandoned possibly due to the growth of towns, and the rise of Christianity.
In medieval times the land was farmed. Then in the 14th century a twist of fate protected the site for another six hundred years.
“There was a major sand blow which covered it - in some places up to three feet deep - like a great big duvet and protected it from modern farming,” says heritage officer Stephanie Paull. “Great for archaeologists, not so good for the medieval farmer.”
In the mid-1800s the first traces were found. “Workmen gathering gravel uncovered part of the cemetery, then antiquarians got involved and found more than 100 graves,” said Ben.
Objects were excavated and shown off, but, says Lance, it was not archaeology as we know it.
In the 1940s Basil Brown, the self-taught archaeologist who found the iconic Sutton Hoo burial, was investigating the site for Roman pottery kilns.
“While working with Stanley West, whose name later became synonymous with West Stow, he recognised the remains of an Anglo Saxon ‘sunken feature building’ - that is, one built over a shallow pit.
“Basil Brown was a catalyst for Stanley West’s interest, and Stanley made it the main part of his life’s work,” said Lance. “He continued to be a consultant on the site until the mid 1990s.
In the early 1970s a group of students led by Stanley wanted to take the excavation to the next level with experimental archaeology, and reconstructions began.
Each house was based on one uncovered in the excavations, and built to test different construction ideas.
Alan Armer, an archaeologist and specialist in timber construction, became craftsman in chief from 1980.
“He is a legend,” said Lance. “There were a lot of people with hands on hips standing around in the rain discussing how things should be done.
“It was about trying to ‘think Saxon’ and modern day health and safety,” said Lance.
Seven dwellings now make up the village which nestles in the idyllic surroundings of West Stow Country Park.
One, now off limits to visitors, leans groggily against props and is nearing the end of its life. It is the first to be built, so there is special affection for it.
In a few years time it will have to be taken down but even watching how it deteriorates could teach the experts something.
Another house’s thatched roof reaches down to the ground. Like most uncovered on the site it is what’s known as a sunken feature building.
But this one illustrates the idea that people stepped down onto a lowered floor, whereas others test out Stanley’s view that there were often planks laid over the pit.
“We’re not completely certain about how the buildings were used,” Stephanie explained. “The whole thing is an experiment. The point of the site is to explore that.”
Another, larger house is known as the hall. “There were seven identified post-built halls,” she said. “We think families might have had a hall and some sunken feature buildings.”
The weaving house has wattle and daub walls - the mixture includes manure, horsehair and clay, a technique from the late Saxon period.
A range of materials have been used in the thatched roofs, including heather ... again an experiment to figure out what the original builders might have done.
Open fires indoors with no chimney sounds risky. Stephanie, who is also an Anglo Saxon re-enactor, said: “I’ve stayed in all the houses and they are undoubtedly smoky.
“But excavations revealed only two houses had burnt down on the site in 300 years. It’s also thought the smoke could help preserve the thatch and discourage insects and rodents.”
Alongside the village is the farm, with a pig hut and crop area. Anglo Saxons kept sheep, cattle and pigs.
They grew wheat, and some of the vegetables familiar today including leeks and peas. Others, like potatoes, arrived in this country many centuries later.
Herbs were grown for medicine and for dyeing. Flax was woven into linen while straw would have been used for thatch repairs.
Normally caring for the crops is one of the jobs that would be done by volunteers from the Friends of West Stow, but Covid has interrupted the work.
“We are just talking about creating a new farm project, with pigs crossed with wild boar, like the Anglo Saxons would have kept, and rare breed hens,” says Lance.
But the story of West Stow does not begin with the Anglo Saxons. People were in the area 440,000 years ago ... although they would have been a different species of humankind.
Just across the road from the village is Beeches Pit, the oldest ‘fireplace’ ever found in northern Europe and probably made by a group passing through rather than living there.
Relics found around the country park include mesolithic worked flints that could be up to 10,000 years old, and a later neolithic ring ditch with evidence of burials and cremations.
Iron age round houses from 300BC, and Romano British pottery kilns have also been discovered. There are plans to start building an iron age house on a different part of the site next year.
The village’s “sands of time” feature has been expanded in a new building, paid for out of a Covid Cultural Recovery Fund grant and designed and built by Ian Drake who also did the original.
Inside visitors get a taste of the real thrill of archaeology from the mesolithic era onwards by unearthing objects buried in sand.
Close to the village but out of sight are modern buildings including a visitor centre and museum.
“The museum is absolutely crucial because you can walk around looking at structures then look at the objects that have been found,” said Stephanie.
The site is now managed by West Suffolk Council’s heritage service, supported by West Stow Anglo Saxon Village Trust.
New green technology has been introduced with the installation of a heat pump system for the museum and visitor centre, cutting carbon emissions and energy use by 70 percent.
The village is open every day except for a short break at Christmas. Stephanie says it is even more atmospheric when snow is on the ground.
In non-pandemic times it gets 45,000 visitors a year, stages living history events, and arranges visits for thousands of schoolchildren. Film companies have also used it as a set.
Lance, who started working at the village as a “building lackey” 26 years ago, said: “West Stow is an educational resource, an academic resource, a tourist hotspot, and a place to enhance health and wellbeing.”
Meanwhile Stephanie says just being there is relaxing. “It’s amazing to work in a place that when you arrive you go .... aaaah. It’s not a bad office.”