No one wants to be trapped by history, but 2021 has shown that there is still much to discover about the county, writes Barry Shurlock…

DESPITE the efforts of others to probe the past, the Chronicle’s own Belgarum often gets the scoop. It may be plans to preserve historic wall advertisements in Winchester, or the places where people went ‘wild swimming’ 100 years ago, or Dr Helen Roche’s exposé of Winchester College and others in the recently published The Third Reich’s Elite Schools.

Findings by archaeologists also continue to unveil secrets of the past. Trials show that “there could be substantial and deep deposits under the Silver Hill area”, according to Keith Wilkinson. And Prof Martin Biddle has even posited a Roman amphitheatre.

An extensive dig in Hursley Park by the Winchester Archaeological & Local History Society and the University of Winchester has revealed the home of the short-lived Lord Protector, Richard Cromwell, mocked as ‘Tumbledown Dick’. It was demolished in 1721 by Sir William Heathcote, though a sketch survives on a 1588 estate plan owned by IBM.

Son of Oliver Cromwell, he acquired the mansion when he married Dorothy Major (or Maijor), daughter of a sometime Mayor of Southampton, MP and High Sheriff of Hampshire. The excavators found underground passages, a vaulted cellar and even keys that might once have given access to the house. Expect a Netflix blockbuster.

Recent digs on the site of the Winchester College Sports Centre at Kingsgate Park have found thousands of medieval artefacts and also tracked the route of Gynge Lane, last mapped in the 1370s, only a few years before William of Wykeham founded the school.

The residents of Hyde continue to tolerate their gardens being dug up to expose the foundations of Hyde Abbey. Essential works in Hyde Street have also struck rich, with finds of stonework associated with the North Gate through the city wall. A nearby weathered stone states simply that “it fell down in 1750”. The remains are thought to be part of a bridge that once crossed the city ditch.

Even more concrete is the ancient Hyde Gate, near St Bartholomew’s church in King Alfred Place. The founder of the Friends of Hyde Gate, Edward Fennell, author of Charter for Hyde Gate, is marshalling resources to lobby for improving the structure and its surroundings, now mainly the reserve of pigeons, drug dealers and worse.

In support, Cllr John Tippett-Cooper has said: “Hyde Gate is one of Winchester’s heritage gems and its brilliant that Friends of Hyde Gate and Hyde900 have been engaging the public about its future.”

Currently, Winchester City Council is installing electric scarers to keep off pigeons.

New plans are afoot to build a D-Day memorial in Stokes Bay, Gosport, where many of the huge concrete caissons or Phoenixes for Mulberry Harbours were constructed, before being towed across the Channel. The idea was apparently first sketched out by Winston Churchill in a memo to Lloyd George in 1915.

Excavations have been carried out on Morn Hill by a team from Winchester University led by Dr Phil Marter on the site of the WWI camp used by thousands of Americans en route to the Western Front. The dig uncovered the prison where unruly ‘yanks’ were punished. Estimates suggest that at any one time as many 50,000 soldiers were stationed here.

The Spitfire continues to make news. Despite herculean efforts by the Spitfire Makers Charitable Trust, which gathered 50,000 signatures to save sheds used to build the plane on Wide Lane, Swaythling, it was decided by Southampton City Council in November to demolish them to make way for ‘industrial units’.

Much about the people who made, supported and flew the Spitfire can be found in Alasdair Cross’s recently published The Spitfire Kids, reviewed in the Chronicle by Tom Bromley, who wrote: “Alisdair described how in the years leading up to the war, Southampton and the south coast was something of a high-tech hub, a ‘Silicon Valley’ of the 1930s, with the Thornycroft shipyards also [like Supermarine] in Woolston, building corvettes and destroyers, and the Pirelli factory making machine parts for planes, boats and munitions.”

The Supermarine S5 Seaplane Charity is commissioning work to build a replica of the machine that was a forerunner of the Spitfire. Within a few years this iconic plane designed by RJ Mitchell might be seen on the water off Calshot, where it won races for the Schneider Trophy in 1929 and 1931.

Another Spitfire landmark is a memorial to a collision between two trainers over Abbotstone in July 1944, when three pilots lost their lives. The project was run by Glenn Gilbertson and the Alresford Historical and Literary Society and dedicated in September during Wings Week. A fragment of one of the planes is for display in Alresford Museum.

Hampshire local history groups have made great strides, despite the pandemic. The Ropley History Network won a large National Lottery Grant, as well as a grant of £500 from the Hampshire Archives Trust. The money will be used to create a digital archive and website.

Also supported by HAT with a grant of more than £1,700 is Bishop’s Waltham Oral History Group working with Bishop’s Waltham Museum to record interviews and preserve them. A by-product in the town is the ‘talking bench’ in Basingwell Street, where you can take a rest and listen to wartime memories from the 1940s.

The HAT grant is part of £178,000 given by the charity to 32 different projects. Together with the Hampshire Field Club, HAT has also run pandemic-beating ‘Hands-On Local History’ zoom sessions. Videos of all 12 events are on the HAT YouTube channel (www.hantsfieldclub.org.uk).

Another prize for HFC is the Celebrating Hampshire’s Historians project, which was selected in competition with other counties to mark the centenary of the Institute of Historical Research.

The past comes alive in old photographs, like those from the collections of the Hampshire Cultural Trust on areas of Winchester, which were run in the Chronicle – on Stanmore, which celebrated its centenary in October, on Weeke, Winnall, and Highcliffe.

Historians continue to unearth fascinating stories, like the adventures of HMS Calliope in a hurricane off Samoa in 1889, researched by Tom Watson and Ian Glenday, and Robert Nurden’s new book Between Heaven and Earth on the extraordinary life of Four Marks writer Stanley B James.

Similarly, Ian Denness has told the story of North Walls Recreation Ground and also discovered a lost cricket ground in the grounds of Hyde Abbey School (later Winchester’s first library and museum) – where PM Canning and others were educated.

The past often speaks to the present. I recently wrote about the history of plant-hunting (Chronicle, December 16) and mentioned the Lattice stinkhorn (Clathrus ruber), a rare fungus that has only been recorded six times in the whole of Hampshire. Out of blue came an email from Chris Pines saying that his garden is full of them. He wrote: “Each year since then [1950s] 2-20 ‘stone eggs’ appear in the paths, followed by the red foetid baskets of the fungi, making the whole area smell of rotting vegetable matter. I suppose in total we have seen numbers in the low hundreds in our garden.”

And he sent photographs to prove it.

For more on Hampshire, visit: www.hampshirearchivestrust.co.uk and www.hantsfieldclub.org.uk.

barryshurlock@gmail.com.