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Archaeologist's delight at castle find in Shropshire countryside

In the grounds at Soulton Hall near Wem, there has always been a grassy mound.

Nat Jenkins shows visitors to the dig some of the trench
Nat Jenkins shows visitors to the dig some of the trench

Generations of children have played on it and drains have been laid under it to dry out the surrounding farm land.

And, while the Ashton family has always wondered what lay beneath, it is only now that it is revealing its secrets.

And how! For the archaeologists and students from Cardiff University invited to spend a fortnight organising a dig on the mound came across such historical treasures they believe they have found the remains of nothing less than a castle.

The man leading the dig was Nat Jackson, archaeologist and community project officer with Dig Ventures.

"Two years ago Tim Ashton invited us to do test with two 2x1 metre trenches," he said.

"They didn't yield a lot of information but we decided to return and explore the area where we found some burnt material."

The first week of the dig in July brought up various bits and pieces.

But it was the second Thursday, with just days to go, when the incredible discovery was made.

"We had found a wall with substantial stones in it. But then, working in the wet ground, one of the students said to me 'come and have a look at this'.

"They were really hefty timbers under the wall that were wonderfully preserved in the waterlogged site."

Tom Jenkins with pottery that he found
The dig

Nat was quickly convinced that what had been found was a bridge that would have been over a castle moat.

"It was so substantial, a cross stream 40 centimetres square, a big post that had collapsed, and another supporting post. It is excellent wood preservation because of the waterlogged ground - the flood plain of the Soulton Brook."

"I love castles, and to find one is just amazing," he said.

"It's not something you find every day."

It is too early to be able to say how old the remains are but Nat says they will date back somewhere between the 13th and 15th centuries.

"We think it was a small castle that dominated the road to Wem. The moat around it seems to have been made by manipulating what was a sandstone peninsula created by the stream to turn it into an island with a moat around it."

He was delighted for the university students.

"It was the first time they had been out in the field because of the lockdown, the first excavation for them and what an incredible first dig."

Finds also included a large collection of pottery, evidence of cooking and two of the most exciting finds, a pilgrim's badge and an ampula that was used by pilgrims to carry holy water around dating back to the 14th century.

"You can just picture a pilgrim walking across the bridge across the moat and dropping a bag with the badge and ampula in the moat - lost for centuries until we discovered it."

The pilgrim's badge found on the dig
Finding the bridge over the moat
One of the tiny finds

Nat said the finds were a tantalisingly glimpse of what could be found under the mound.

"We found some tiny hazelnut shells that we might be able to carbon date. They would have been hazelnuts that those living in the castle would have eaten and thrown the shells away. It paints such a lovely picture of life at the time."

As well as working with the Cardiff University students Dig Ventures also had local children onsite for a morning and also led a workshop with members of the local community.

"We can't thank the Ashton family enough. They were so supportive of what we were doing and Tim and his family even got in the trenches. I think we got one of the youngest members of the family hooked. I was eight when I went to Crete on a family holiday and fell in love with archaeology."

One of the more modern finds can be traced back to the Ashton family itself - a 1970s Star Wars figure.

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