On Saturday the 17th October, the chalk pits on Watlington Hill were transformed into a Viking camp. Upon entering the chalk pits, participants would be greeted by warriors, fully equipped with Viking weaponry and old Anglo-Saxon relics, all the while with a welcoming fire burning cosily and a Viking tent in the background.
The session was run by archaeologist Kim Biddulph, and participants were welcomed with a fascinating talk on the history of the Viking invasion of England in the 9th century and the mythology that surrounds King Alfred the Great. In particular, Kim explained how he fought off the Great Heathen Army and the events that would have led to the burying of the Watlington Hoard. Following this, participants were given the opportunity to examine replicas of part of the hoard, such as the two-emperors coin which challenges the Anglo-Saxon chronicles and the events surrounding that period. Whereas the Anglo Saxon chronicles dismiss the King of Mercia, Ceolwulf, as simply a puppet of the Vikings, the two-emperors coin indicates an alliance between Ceolwulf and Alfred against the Vikings, shown on the coin by them sitting side by side.
Participants of all ages could also learn how to light fires in the Anglo-Saxon way using just a flint and steel (admittedly to varying degrees of success!).
Moving on a few centuries, Kim talked about the history of the chalk pits and how they played a key part in the development of our local area, from agriculture to the local buildings. It is possible that kilns would have been found in the pits when they were exploited. Chalk land also enables the presence of great botanical diversity. We were then given the opportunity to see how difficult it is to carve something out of chalk, with just your bare hands and imagination.
To finish, participants were treated to a Viking battle between Andrea Brewer and Kim (who, as it turns out also happens to be a qualified sword-fighting instructor) with demonstrations vividly illustrating how Vikings would have fought over a millennia ago. Very useful if you ever happen to find yourself in a sword fight against a Viking warrior! A few brave people then took up the invitation to challenge each other with spears, shields and swords.
Once the sessions finished, many took the opportunity to look round the extensive chalk pits, which as well as boasting a rich history, hosts a wide array of biodiversity which has led to its status as an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).
This event was organised by the Watlington Climate Action Group in association with the Chilterns Walking Festival and due to Covid-19, participants had to adhere to government regulations by staying with their bubbles, sanitise hands and equipment regularly and observe social distancing. As such two eras of great significance were represented on that day.
For anyone now intrigued to find out a bit more about the Watlington Hoard which was discovered in a farming field close to the ridgeway in 2015, a book will be coming out next year, to build on the brief account that has already been written. A full replica of the Watlington Hoard is kept in the Watlington Library whist the original copy can be seen at the Ashmolean Museum.
Alex Wooster (volunteer) – 21st October 2020