The Pub Dig team are back, and this time they are exploring picturesque Alfriston in East Sussex. This sleepy little village, with a history stretching back to the Domesday Book, is all timber-framed houses and winding rural lanes, but behind the chocolate box scenery Rory Mcgrath and Paul Blinkhorn hope to uncover ‘evidence of historical naughtiness’. After all, this was once home to a notorious band of smugglers, the Alfriston Gang. And where better to hunt for these 19th-century miscreants than beneath the beer garden of Ye Olde Smugglers Inne?
Built in 1358, the pub was reportedly once home to the Alfriston gang’s leader, notorious smuggler Stanton Collins. The search is on, and the knockabout fun that is rapidly becoming a defining characteristic of this series begins right away. In fact, the spontaneous, unplanned feel almost causes things to become unstuck within the first few minutes, when the team realise that the alley providing the only access to their dig site is too narrow for their mini digger. Did no one think to bring a tape measure on the research recce? But all is not lost; the remarkably game landlord comes to the rescue, taking his door off its hinges and laying down cardboard so the digger can be driven through the pub. Now that’s real dedication to archaeology!
Tales of smugglers’ coves and daring escapes from customs men have a potent romance, though the first archaeology encountered is rather more down to earth. Stanton Collins may have been a smuggler, but by day he was the village butcher and almost immediately the team find evidence of a Victorian slaughterhouse, including large quantities of butchered bone and a beautifully-preserved cobbled floor. But the Pub Dig team are masters of finding magic in the mundane, and they use these perhaps unglamorous finds as a springboard to launch into absorbing historical insights and social commentary.
We learn that, during the Victorian period, the industrial transformations we traditionally celebrate were having a catastrophic effect on rural communities, with wages being driven down by the advent of new farm machinery. In coastal villages smuggling provided a vital boost to struggling local economies, involving as many as 40,000 people in the south of England. There are no records of successful raids by customs officials in Alfriston – probably because the whole village was in on it. Paul Blinkhorn also has a knack for using artefacts to bring the lives of ordinary people into vivid clarity. A cache of oyster shells are pounced upon as examples of historic bar snacks, ‘the Victorian equivalent of a packet of crisps or a bag of peanuts’, far from the high-class dish they are seen as today. We also learn about the gin trade, with some wind-battered tomfoolery from Rory.
It was in smugglers’ interests not to leave too many traces of their activities, but that doesn’t mean that this was a fruitless dig. Without giving too much away, the team uncover tantalising evidence that someone in the village was able to access tea at a rather cheaper rate than it usually retailed at, with a pound once costing a week’s wages. It is strange to think that putting the kettle on in a crisis was once a privilege of the upper classes – unless you knew the right people. We are also treated to a tour of the pub itself by architectural historian Richard K Morris. Legend has it that Collins’ house had six staircases and as many as 48 doors to outwit snooping customs officials, and with its twists and turns and secret hiding places the building does not disappoint.
Smuggling is a pretty apt subject for this series to cover as, once again, a lot of technical information sneaks in amongst the silliness, with Paul instructing Rory in archaeological terminology and pottery identification between jokes. The unexpected discovery of what is apparently the first material evidence of Alfriston’s Roman past also serves as a reminder, if needed, that this boisterous project is also uncovering a lot of valuable information. Next week the hunt for Romans continues as the Pub Dig team head to St Albans. If the last two weeks are anything to go by, there should be some great stories to uncover. We’re in for a treat.
You can read our review of episode 1, hunting Elizabeth I’s lost dockyard - once home to the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada, here.
To see our interview with Paul Blinkhorn and for more information on the four pubs featured in the series, click here.
Review by Carly Hilts
Next time, join Paul and Rory as they discover Roman cults and Medieval pilgrims in St Albans, Herts. Channel 5 at 8pm, April 17.