Bypass dig reveals how much has changed – and how much hasn’t

This story was published 15 September 2021

Digging into the past along the route of Bedale’s bypass revealed that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Peter Rowe

As part of the project five years ago to provide a relief road for Bedale, Aiskew and Leeming Bar, archaeologists and other heritage specialists surveyed the length of the road’s site for archaeological remains and conducted excavations along the line of the route.

Now their findings have been published in a booklet, Before Bedale, which is available to the public from the libraries in Bedale and Northallerton. It gives a remarkable insight into how people lived in this area from around 2,500 years ago onwards.

The volume details the work, which resulted in the uncovering of an Iron Age ditched enclosure at Bedale and the unexpected discovery of a Roman villa at Aiskew. There had been no hint of the villa’s presence before the archaeological investigations.

But there was a third interesting discovery that not only physically connected the two ancient sites but also connected them to the present. It was a routeway, a track large enough and well-made enough to take carts, that ran along the higher, well-drained land on which the settlements sat.

This route was expected, but excavation funded by us and undertaken by Pre-Construct Archaeology allowed it to be understood much better.

As the introduction to the booklet says: “This routeway, established over 2,000 years ago, is a remarkable precursor of the bypass constructed in 2015.

“Both the builders of the ancient and the modern routes chose that higher, well-drained land alongside the becks. While the modern road now connects Bedale with Leeming Bar, the ancient routeway allowed the earliest communities in the area to connect to their neighbours both to the east and to the west.”

Peter Rowe, Principal Archaeologist, said: “The discovery of the Roman villa enabled the archaeologists to compare a native style of life, farming that largely relied on keeping cattle in enclosures, with this more developed Roman farm, with stone buildings and crops. It demonstrates the way the landscape changed in that critical 500 to 600 years when the Romans were making contact with the natives.”

County Council Leader Cllr Carl Les and Cllr John Weighell, member for Bedale and Leader at the time of the funding bid for the relief road, provide a foreword to Before Bedale.

They say: “Although separated by 2,000 years, the engineers behind the ancient route and those who built the relief road – more commonly known locally as the bypass – were linked by the knowhow that led both to choose the higher, well-drained land for their endeavours.

“But more than that, in all these things we see people striving to do the best for themselves and those around them, to move forward and to take their communities into the future. That urge drove the Iron Age natives and the Romans and us, here and now, in the creation of the bypass.”

Archaeology began on site in the winter of 2014, which was particularly wet, making conditions on site very difficult, with mud and waterlogged excavations.

Involving the community was integral to the project.

Jennifer Proctor of Pre-Construct Archaeology said: “Involving the public as much as possible was important to us, and we did a lot of work with local schools and groups.

“This included a site tour and finds display for pupils of Bedale School, plus community events during the work and involvement afterwards. Following the excavations, pupils from Mowbray School in Bedale enjoyed a talk and finds display as well as an outdoor finds processing session. Local and national archaeological societies and regional community groups also enjoyed talks and displays.

“Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group helped to process finds, including washing the many animal bones, fragments of pottery and other artefacts, and members of Bedale Archaeology and History Society sieved soil excavated from one of the large quarry pits at Aiskew to recover small artefacts and animal bones.”

Potentially, the site still has much to offer.

“With the villa itself, we have only just tickled it,” said Peter Rowe. “Only one room has been excavated and the rest of it recorded in plan, so we have seen perhaps five per cent of the overall villa. There is so much more potential in the site that maybe one day researchers can go back to. There is still this fantastic archaeological resource beneath the fields in Bedale, which one day might give up its secrets.”

Copies of Before Bedale can be picked up from libraries in Bedale, Northallerton, Caterick, Ripon and Leyburn as well as County Hall and the County record Office in Northalleton, Bedale Hall and Kiplin Hall. It can also be downloaded from our archaeology page under the “current research and recent discoveries” heading.