Second World War Drama ‘Stronghold of Happiness’ at the Dorset County Museum

Kitty Sansom and Toby Ingram in the play 'Stronghold of Happiness'

Kitty Sansom and Toby Ingram in the play ‘Stronghold of Happiness’

In 2015, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the ending of Second World War, Dorset couple, Peter and Ella Samways, have answered an advert placed by the local drama college, for couples who were married in Second World War to write in with their story.

They are excited when their story is chosen for dramatization, and are invited to watch a rehearsal of the play and to answer questions posed by the actors about the war and local history.

Watching their story unfold, with its shattering wartime events, turns out to be more dramatic and cathartic than the couple initially realised.

Stronghold of Happiness PosterThe play based on the book ‘Stronghold of Happinessby Devina Symes is fiction based on fact, and includes the true story of the RAF’s 151 wing’s unique mission to Russia, where the latter were the only members of His Majesty’s Forces to serve alongside the Russians as allies, and were on the first convoy to leave the United Kingdom.

Intrinsic to the story is Peter’s father, Archie, who, like other Dorset characters, copes with the dark side of life through humour and wisdom, and makes innocent observations about life at that time, little realising he is standing on the cusp of a vanishing world.

The performance is at the Dorset County Museum on Saturday 17th October 2015.  Tickets for the play cost £7.00 each to include a complimentary glass of wine or juice, and nibbles. Tickets are available from Dorset County Museum Shop or by telephone on 01305 756827. All proceeds will go to the refurbishment of the William Barnes Gallery at the Dorset County Museum.

  • 1940s dress optional!. Please note this event contains adult themes and is not suitable for children

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Archaeology Gallery at Dorset County Museum being redeveloped in spring 2015

Dorset County Museum Archaeology GalleryThe Archaeology Gallery at Dorset County Museum is currently being redeveloped as part of a £250,000 project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) with the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the South Dorset Ridgeway Landscape Partnership (AONB).

Upon its completion in autumn 2015 the new gallery will become the visitor centre for the South Dorset Ridgeway Landscape Partnership. Ultimately it will link in with information panels to be displayed along the ridgeway itself helping visitors explore the AONB and understand the sites that can be seen there today.

“This is a very special project for us,” said Jon Murden, director of Dorset County Museum. “The archaeology of Dorset is the history of over 10,000 years of human habitation in the county – our collections are nationally significant and cover the entire period from paleolithic times to Saxon and Viking Dorset.”

When the new Ancient Dorset Gallery (the new name for the former Archaeology Gallery) opens at the Museum, the centrepiece will be a special display of the Viking skeletons found during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in 2009.

Jadeite Axe

Jadeite Axe © DCM

During the initial work (December to March 2014) the existing gallery will be open but artefacts from some display cases will be removed for conservation. Other key objects will be redisplayed in the museum during this time.

The design of the new gallery will ensure that when work starts on the Museum’s planned Collection Discovery Centre, the improved displays will be moved into the new extension at minimum cost.

While the work is being undertaken, visitors will be able to enjoy a special spotlight loan from the British Museum of three jadeite axes and some mace heads from their own collection. Dorset County Museum’s own jadeite axe will be displayed alongside these loans.

For further information visit www.dorsetcountymuseum.org. Dorset County Museum is open Monday to Saturday, 10.00am to 4.00pm.

Geology Lecture: Treasures from Space by Dr Caroline Smith

MeteroriteChance and a fascination for discovery brought a young geologist to the Natural History Museum – she now looks after the oldest specimens in the collection.

Dr Caroline Smith became a meteorite expert almost by accident. At the end of her geology degree, she badly injured her knee, meaning she was unable to go on fieldwork for her thesis. Instead, she went to the Natural History Museum in London and was handed a box of meteorites from Antarctica and asked to categorise them.

Ever since, she’s been attached to both meteorites and the Museum, looking after their important collection, planning exhibitions and talking to the public. She says some of the most thrilling days are when big news breaks and she’s asked to talk to the press, such as in February 2013 when a huge meteorite streaked across the sky in Russia.

Dr Caroline Smith at the Natural History Museum

Dr Caroline Smith at the Natural History Museum

The collection also includes two Martian meteorites that fell almost exactly 100 years apart. They contain evidence that Mars was once a wet place, and that some rocks could lock away carbon dioxide, as they do on Earth.

‘It’s another piece of the puzzle that shows that Mars and Earth are actually quite similar,’ she says.

Dr Smith will talk about these fascinating specimens and more during her lecture at Dorset County Museum on 8th October 2014. The lecture takes place at 7.00pm and doors are open from 6.30pm. The event is free but donations are welcome and all are welcome to attend.

For more information please Tel: 01305 262735 or visit our website at www.dorsetcountymuseum.org.

New Book of a remarkable Viking age mass burial near Weymouth featured in British Museum Viking Exhibition

Archaeologists excavate mass grave of executed Vikings

Archaeologists excavate mass grave of executed Vikings

In 2009 during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology made one of the most exciting, and disturbing, archaeological discoveries in Britain in recent years. Around 50 skeletons, predominantly of young adult males, were found in an old quarry pit. All had been decapitated. Their heads had been placed in a pile located at one edge of the grave, and their bodies thrown into the pit. Archaeologists knew they had found something special as they uncovered the tangle of human bones, but it was only as the scientific analysis of the skeletons progressed that the full international significance of the discovery became clear. What the archaeologists had found was a mass grave of executed Vikings.

Oxford Archaeology Project Manager David Score said: “To find out that the young men executed were Vikings is a thrilling development. Any mass grave is a relatively rare find, but to find one on this scale, from this period of history, is extremely unusual.”

Angus Campbell, the former leader of Dorset County Council and now Lord Lieutenant for Dorset, said: “We have a tremendous historic environment here in Dorset but we never would have dreamed of finding a Viking war grave.”

The excavation, commissioned by Skanska Civil Engineering on behalf of Dorset County Council, combined traditional archaeological methods with revolutionary digital and three-dimensional recording to identify the exact position of each individual. After the skeletons were carefully lifted and removed to the laboratory, experts undertook forensic studies of the bones and applied a raft of scientific techniques to gain as much information as possible about who the individuals were and what circumstances led to their dramatic and gruesome demise.

The results suggested that the burial took place at the time of, or shortly after, the men’s execution which had probably been performed at the graveside. Using methods normally employed to investigate modern day mass graves, it was estimated that between 47 and 52 individuals were present. The individuals may have been stripped of their clothes prior to burial, but were unbound. Defence wounds on the hands, arms and skulls imply that not all men died without a struggle. Wounds to necks and shoulders indicate that the process of decapitation was no less chaotic, and in some cases several blows of the sword were required to remove the heads.

Chemical analysis of the teeth suggested that none of the men were from anywhere in Britain,  but originated in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia.

Dr. Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, who carried out the work on the teeth, said: “These results are fantastic. This is the best example we have ever seen of a group of individuals that clearly have their origins outside Britain.”

One individual had deliberately-filed teeth (Photo 2), which may have been a symbol of status or occupation

One individual had deliberately-filed teeth, which may have been a symbol of status or occupation

Examination of the bones indicated that most of the men were 18-25 years old. The youngest was in his early or mid teens, while the oldest was over 50. One individual had deliberately-filed teeth, which may have been a symbol of status or occupation. The phenomenon has previously been recorded in Scandinavia, but until now was unknown in the UK.

Curiously, many of the individuals suffered from infections and physical impairment, and none of showed convincing evidence for previous war wounds; hardly the picture of an elite group of Viking warriors. The burial was radiocarbon dated to AD 970-1025, which places it in the reign of Æthelred the Unready or Cnut the Great. This was a time in England of Viking raids, war, hostages and retribution, but ultimately questions of how the men came to be in Dorset remain open.

There has been a huge response to the discovery, both in the UK and internationally. Over 7000 people attended an exhibition dedicated to it in Dorchester in 2010, and stories have appeared in newspapers and media outlets around the world. The mass grave has also featured on TV. An item about it was shown on the Swedish science programme, ‘Vetenskapens Varld’, and the burial was the subject of an hour-long special, Viking Apocalypse’, on the National Geographic Channel

‘Given to the Ground’: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset, by Louise Loe, Angela Boyle, Helen Webb and David Score.

‘Given to the Ground’: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset, by Louise Loe, Angela Boyle, Helen Webb and David Score.

In recognition of its global importance, the burial will feature in ‘Vikings: life and legend’, a major exhibition exploring the world of the Vikings from 6th March to 22th June 2014 at the British Museum. Visitors will be able to see a display of some of the skeletons and learn more about the individuals buried and the ground-breaking investigation. Elements of the exhibition, including the skeletons, will move to the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin from September 2014 to January 2015, where visitors will be able to walk around a specially reconstructed burial pit and see the skeletons in their original positions.

This extraordinary story of conflict and punishment in early medieval Britain has now been published by the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society in a new book , ‘Given to the Ground’: A Viking Age Mass Grave on Ridgeway Hill, Dorset, by Louise Loe, Angela Boyle, Helen Webb and David Score. The book will be available to buy at the British Museum and can also be purchased from Oxbow Books.

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A Fisherman’s Tale: The Monster Fish of the River Frome

Monster Fish -  The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum

Monster Fish – The Sturgeon hangs suspended in the Dorset County Museum © DCM

Visitors to the Dorset County Museum may have noticed the large fish suspended in the Victorian Gallery. Believe it or not this is a Common Sturgeon (Acipenser Sturio), also known as a European or Baltic Sturgeon, is one of the largest fish ever to be caught in an English river using a fishing rod. Nearly three metres in length and weighing 92 kilograms, this fish was caught by Major Charles Robert Eustace Radclyffe of Hyde House, Bere Regis in the River Frome at Bindon Mill on 2nd July 1911.

Here is his amusing fisherman’s tale taken from the Dorset Year Book 1918 -1919 from Major C.E. Radclyffe’s article ‘My Years of Sport in Dorset’:

“And now we tune to the gentle art, so well beloved by Issac Walton.  Here again in Dorset rich in rewards for those who frequent the banks of her silvery streams.  True it is that the River Stour is not so noted for its pellucid waters as for the size of the great course fish which frequent its dark and deep pools.  But in the clear waters of those beautiful streams, the Frome and the Piddle, which teem with all kinds of fish from salmon and trout to grayling pike, roach and dace, an angler must be hard to please if he cannot there find anything to amuse him.  No two men beautiful streams are to be found in England than these which meander over their winding courses and glide gently into Poole Harbour by two months situated a short distance apart.

The Frome in its upper reaches yields magnificent trout fishing, whilst in its lower stretches salmon run up to 50 lbs. in weight, and enormous pike and countless coarse fish, and a few sea trout, frequent its waters.  The Piddle is without doubt one of the best trout streams in England, and teems with fish for many miles.

Born and bred on the finest stretch of the latter river, it is not to be wondered at that in early youth I took fishing as a duck takes to waters to their mouths, that I have not explored and fished in the past 35 years, and during that time have taken from them many hundreds of fine trout, and many scres of salmon.

An angler is always expected to have some great yarn to tell of each river he has fished, and the writer does not plead to be an exception to this rule; in fact he could fill a book of yarns on Dorset angling.  The difficulty is to get people to believe them all.  But the following is a well authenticated event which happened seven years ago.

Radclyffe Family and the Sturgeon

The sturgeon after its capture, on top of the roof of Major Radclyffe’s Daimler. In front are his four daughters © DCM

Early in the season I was fishing the lower waters of the Frome for salmon with a friend. Shortly after we had started, my friend came running wildly towards me across the meadows, as if chased by a mad bull. Breathlessly he explained that he had seen the biggest salmon in the world I reasoned with him that even a 40-pound salmon looked ‘some fish’ in a small river like the Frome. Whereupon he swore solemnly that this fish was at least 140lbs. As the old saying goes ‘seeing is believing’, so we went to the spot, and soon in the centre of the pool appeared a huge back fin shaped like that of a shark. A closer inspection showed the back of an enormous fish, which my friend had clearly underestimated at 140lbs. But this great back with scales like armour plating was familiar to me, since I had killed sturgeon in Russia, and hence was able to say at once that my friend is a sturgeon, and a big one; but how to land him on our light tackle is more than I can say. Repeatedly the monster rolled on top of the water close between our feet, and finally we decided to borrow a gun from a neighbouring farm and shoot the fish.

The gun having arrived we waited until the fish again showed on top of the water, and then gave him both barrels in the head at a distance of five yards. The only result was to make him take a series of wild rushes across the stream, where he began to roll about as before, apparently none the worse for a double dose of No. 5 shot.  Seeing that big things required strong measures, I sent my car home for an elephant rifle, and we waited. Just before the rifle arrived the fish disappeared in a deep pool, and although we patrolled the river, and had scouts out looking for him for days afterwards, we did not then find further traces of the fish, and decided he must have returned to the sea.

Two months later, a man arrived from Bindon Abbey with a request that I would go next morning to try, and catch the biggest salmon in world, which was then in a big weir pool. From the man’s description I had no difficulty in deciding that here was our long-lost sturgeon.

Early next morning, armed with the strongest rod and line I possessed, and having rigged up a grappling tackle of the largest-sized salmon flies, a party of five of us stood watching the weir pool. After an hour’s waiting, there suddenly appeared the great shark-like fin, and then the back of our friend the sturgeon.

Major Radclyffe and Sturgeon

Major Radclyffe (right) and his Gillie with the 230lbs. Sturgeon, caught by the Major near Bindon Abbey. The largest fish ever caught in fresh water in England. © DCM

Since a sturgeon belongs to the family of bottom-feeding fish, it was obviously impossible to hook this one with any form of bait. Hence it became a problem of casting over the monster and trying to get the hooks to grapple in some soft spot. This was no means easy owing to the thickness of its skin and armour-plated scales. Finally, however, I grappled the fish under the jaw, and then the fun began. For one hour and forty-five minutes I and a friend took turns at the rod, as the continuous strain on one’s arms was more than one man could stand for long; and at last it felt like trying to hold or turn a motor car with a rod and line.

As a last resource we had to requisition services of a small seine net, and floating it down stream until the fish struck into it. The fish tangled itself up like a fly in a spider’s web, and was thus hauled into shallow water. It took three men with two gaffs to land this leviathan, which measured no less than 9 feet 3 inches from nose to tail; verily the largest fish ever captured with rod and line in an English river.

According to a time honoured custom, I presented the fish to His Majesty King George, who graciously returned it to me with a request that it might be preserved in my private museum at Dorchester; all of which was done in due course.

An amusing incident occurred as the fish was landed. A local labourer arrived with a towel on his shoulder for a morning bathe.On seeing the fish he said, ‘Lord, zur, do ee think there’s another of they girt brutes about, cause if ‘tis I bain’t agoin’ to bathe in thik pool agean,’ and I don’t believe he has done so since then.

I have often heard a fine fisherman say he considrers the Frome to be the most sporting, and best all-round river in England.  And although I can claim a somewhat unique record of having caught salmon on almost every country in the world where they are known to exist, from Iceland Scandinavia and Russia, to Siberia, Kamchatha, Japan and Alaska; and from the Bristish Columbia to Newfoundland; yet I look back with great pleasure of all to the days on which I have landed my first and many subsequent great salmon, on the banks of the dear old Frome.

‘Big things with fins’

SturgeonSturgeon are rare visitors to our rivers. Most of the population is found in the Rivers Gironde, France and Guadalquivir, Spain and in the Baltic and Russian rivers. They have four barbels which are tactile organs in front of their toothless mouth that seek out food on murky river bottoms. Sturgeon are covered with bony plates called scutes rather than scales; the Victorians made jewellery out of these, setting them in silver and gold.

Most species of Sturgeon are highly prized for their caviar and, as they are slow growing and mature very late in life, are consequently at risk of extinction, as a result of over fishing, poaching, black market trading, and habitat loss. Caviar comes from the Persian word Khaviar which means ‘bearing eggs’ and can cost several hundred pounds for a small pot. Now the Common Sturgeon is protected and can no longer be caught for its caviar.

It has been suggested that sturgeon have been the origins of some sightings of the Loch Ness Monster.

In Morris Collman’s book ‘Hants and Dorset’s Legends & Folklore’, published by James Pike ltd, 1975. He mentions a local Dorchester tradition that monster fish once inhabited a lake near Poundbury Hillfort.

“Poundbury is an ancient British earthwork which the Romans adapted for their use.  It was placed on high ground above the river, and in its early days a great lake which fed by the river Frome, lay to the north of the camp. There are stories of monsters which used to inhabit this lake, but no description of them seems to have been attempted.  They were just monsters, ‘Big things with fins’ according to one old Dorchester lady.

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