Back in the Trenches Again

Boots and old sun-hat

It’s hard to believe that we used to expect to capture a whole holiday with one roll of film that might hold 36 shots. I’ve had several trips away this summer and now even my computer is groaning at the prospect of downloading all the photos. (Who knew there were SO MANY Greek statues?) So a post about Greece will have to wait. Meanwhile, closer to home:

Three people standing on a wall

A pic from the weekend of the Alderney Literary Festival last year: standing with fellow-writers Jason Monaghan and Simon Turney on the wall-walk of The Nunnery – a set of buildings that may well be the best-preserved Roman fort in Britain. As we shivered in the March wind I had no idea that I’d be back the following year bringing pyjamas, sunglasses and a trowel. This time I had the honour of being able to tag along with the archaeology team investigating the Nunnery and its surroundings.

The easiest way to reach Alderney is by air: meet the new plane. It’s bigger than the old plane.

Small Dornier plane with AURIGNY logo

A glimpse into the cockpit revealed this warning on the dashboard.


I wasn’t sure whether to be reassured by this, or worried that anyone thought the pilots might need to be told. Anyway, thanks to their self-restraint and the kindness of Isabel Picornell-Garcia (whose many talents include archaeology as well as organizing literary festivals) I made it safely to the island and thence to the Nunnery.

High stone wall with gateway to courtyard within

Part of the Nunnery complex has just been refurbished as a hostel, and it’s a gloriously peaceful beachside retreat for groups of birdwatchers and heritage enthusiasts.

My own birdwatching efforts were not wildly successful:

Stony beach with 2 ducks barely visible
“Hunt the duck.”

Birds or no, the picnic table on top of the wall is a delightful spot for dining.

Beach with fortifications built on rocky outcrop in the sea

The peace of the view is relatively modern: these buildings have had many incarnations in the past, and most were military.

Information board detailing past uses of the buildings inc Roman, French Revolution and Napoleonic, and German occupation in WW2

The one thing the Nunnery may never have been is… a nunnery.

The German occupation in the Second World War left a vast amount of concrete all over the Channel Islands: there are bunkers built in to the Nunnery complex itself and another one just outside.

Concrete bunker with ruined door

Their remains are a poignant reminder of the captive labourers who were forced to build them.

Rusted iron door with handle

How to disfigure a perfectly good fort: knock a hole through the wall so you can roll your anti-tank gun down onto the beach. (Initially I’d hoped to go back and get a shot without the cars, but in fact they give a good idea of the scale.)

Wall of Nunnery fort showing concrete insertion for doorway

Speaking of beaches…

Table overlooking beach

Longis Bay is the best natural harbour on an island where much of the coast looks like this

Rocky cliffs

No wonder everyone who has controlled Alderney over the years has wanted to guard Longis Bay.

The outer wall of the Nunnery on the side that faces the bay is no longer there – or rather, it’s no longer where it should be. It’s collapsed onto the beach, where it now serves as a breakwater and a handy place to secure some of the boats that still land there.

collapsed wall with mooring ring

The back of the beach is walled with more German concrete. It was put there to withstand human invasion but may now be protecting the land behind it from the encroachment of sea and sand.

Beach with solid concrete wall behind it

The week I was there, the archaeologists were checking out some interesting-looking blobs on the geophysics plot of a field just up the road. There’s an Iron Age site on the hill nearby…

Clearing on top of low hill
Good site, bad photo – sorry. But hopefully it shows that the Iron Age people who made their pottery up here had a great view of the bay.

…and we were very close to a site where a wealth of Roman and Iron Age material turned up only last year. Proving that you can never be sure what’s there until you dig, the team shifted at least a metre of golden, wind-blown sand from beneath the turf and found… not burial cists, but Roman walls. Plus a massive midden containing thousands of limpet shells. Apparently limpets don’t taste great, but if you are hungry enough you probably don’t care.

I’m not going to publish pics of the archaeology because that’s best left to the professionals – if you want to see what we found, check out the Nunnery page on Facebook, and also Jason’s blog (he’s an archaeologist as well as a writer.) But as a taster, here’s one of the first shards of Samian pottery that turned up.

Shard of orange pottery with patterned surface

I don’t know what everyone else thought when that appeared, but I was mightily relieved to see confirmation that there was something interesting down there and we weren’t just using our buckets and spades to dig a huge and very hot hole in the sand.

At one stage the buckets and spades weren’t sufficient. No sooner did we wish for a mechanical digger than it came trundling in through the gateway, demonstrating one of the advantages of working in a very small community. The driver lowered the bucket into the trench and lifted out a massive stone with all the delicacy of an Edwardian tea-drinker using silver tongs to select a sugarlump.

The dig went on for another week after I had to leave, and more of the site was revealed – including the splendid paved area you can see on the Facebook page. Everything’s been recorded now, and the digger has returned to backfill the trenches while the professionals go off to write the reports.

As often happens, the excavation raised as many questions as it answered. Clearly there’s a lot more waiting to be discovered about Roman Alderney.






2 thoughts on “Back in the Trenches Again

    1. Thanks Sherry! Yes Alderney is a lovely place, but a bit restricted for access – which I suppose is part of its charm.

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