The Ancient Mounds of the Crouch Valley

Plumberow Mount as it stands today.
Despite having lived in the Rochford borough for most of my life, I've never once heard anyone speak of the ancient earthen mound situated in the town of Hockley. The mound in question, called Plumberow Mount, stands three to four meters proud of an already high vantage point overlooking the river Crouch to the north and the town of Hockley to the south. It always amazes me that local history as interesting as this could remain almost hidden in plain site. Despite the council having put up signs at the site explaining possible theories on its purpose, a part of me wonders whether the reason as to why these monuments do not receive greater publicity is in an attempt to try and preserve them - and given the local area's growing population (and encroaching urban spread) that's probably not a bad idea.

Of course officially the site is protected under law, and is a scheduled monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaelogical Areas Act of 1979, having being recognised as being of national importance. You may be wondering then, why exactly this random mound of earth is so important. Its an easy and obvious question to ask, but unfortunately far more difficult to answer.

Plumberow Mount at some point in the 1910s, 
complete with summerhouse on top.
Most mounds of this shape were typically used as burial mounds or a tumulus. Many examples exist across the British Isles and further afield (in fact it seems to have originally been a cultural expression used by Indo-Europeans all across Europe and beyond the Caucasus.) The issue with them however, at least from an archaelogical point of view, is that the use of burial mounds existed for thousands of years and was still in use in England as late as the 5th century during a period of Anglo-Saxon dual faith observance. Even locally, an example of a Saxon burial mound exists just outside Priory Park in Southend. Therefore if Plumberow Mount was a burial mound, its use could have been anywhere between the late-neolithic until the early-to-mid Saxon period. To make matters even more confusing, the Saxons would very often re-use much older tumuli and bury their dead inside a pre-existing mound. Providing a correct date for them then is therefore solely reliant upon any substantial artifacts or remains found inside.

An antiquarian group called the Morant Society did an excavation of the Plumberow mound back in 1913 by cutting three trenches into it coming in from different angles, and working their way into the centre. At that time, no doubt owing to the locals ignorance to the site's historical importance, a summerhouse stood atop of the mound for use by the local children.(1)

No doubt the Morant Society performing the excavation was in a state of great expectation as they had successful retrieved a number of early Roman era treasures from a similar site at Mersea in Essex a short while beforehand. The excavations at Hockley however failed to turn up anything significant and so even to this day, the site remains an enigma. No traces of burial was found inside, and the only artifacts of note was some Romano-British pottery, a few beads of jet and a coin from the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (84AD.) A few shards of Saxon pottery found in the upper part of the mound may also allude to a later re-use by a local Saxon, but given that Plumberow was also a Saxon hamlet later on, that claim would be difficult to support.

So what could Plumberow Mount be for, if not a burial mound? 


  • There are a few theories. The first and most obvious is that were this a burial mound to begin with, it may have been subjected to grave robbers. Being highly conspicuous, the monument would certainly imply to any would-be robbers that it had interred treasures within - but it is unlikely that any relic hunter before the 19th century at least, would have had the consideration to carefully back-fill the mound so to prevent its collapse. 
  • The second theory, considering the hill commands views over the river Crouch and surrounding areas, is that Plumberow was in fact either a signalling station or a watchtower. Such a rudimentary observation tower would have been particularly helpful in the latter part of the Roman period in protecting the Essex marshes and creeks from any encroaching Saxon raiders.
  • The third theory, which is as good as any other, is that the mound was a pagan religious grove. Its notable that almost all of the churches in this area are built on top of hills, which considering the generally flat topography in this part of Essex, should be seen as somewhat significant. It is generally accepted that Christianity in the middle-ages embarked upon a policy of deliberate iconoclasm throughout Europe and the Orient, by destroying pagan religious sites and erecting their own churches on top of them. This is precisely what happened in the nearby village of Thundersley located between Rayleigh and Benfleet, as the village actually derives its name after an original grove dedicated to the Saxon God of thunder, Thor (or Thunor as he is known to the Saxons.) It may just be that Plumberow Mount is one of the few local sites that escaped the ignorance of the early Christian church.

Mounds on the North Bank

An aerial photograph of the largest 
grouping of the mounds near Clementsgreen Creek.
Whilst I had originally intended this post to be nothing more than a quick research piece on the Plumberow Mount mound, by chance I happened upon two other books in the local library penned by the Morant Society, which may or may not be linked to what has already been discussed so far. In the book Marsh Mounds written by Miller Christy and W.H Dalton in 1925, it details the investigations held into the origins of a collection of strange earth mounds near the north bank of the river Crouch near South Woodham Ferrers. Whilst these mounds are dotted over a wide area, the vast majority of them lay just outside the Marsh Farm Country Park just south of Clementsgreen Creek. The mounds at this site however differ substantially to the one found at Hockley in that many of them are oblong instead of being more or less circular.

For many years, antiquarians had associated the existence of these mounts near South Woodham Ferrers with the battle of Assundun (Ashingdon) which is alleged to have taken place three or four miles to the south east on the southern side of the river Crouch in 1016. Why exactly these early historians believed the remains of fallen soldiers would have been transported to the other side of the river is never explained, but as we might have expected, later excavations of the site in the early twentieth century revealed nothing to suggest that this was the case. In fact in the partial excavations performed on selected mounds, no substantial artifacts or human remains were found at all. The only artifacts found were a few shards of medieval pottery which, as with Plumberow Mount, makes dating them all the more difficult.
Members of the Morant Society digging for neolithic
artifacts on the Crouch's riverbank, circa 1911.

The consensus made in 1925 following the investigation, was that the mounds were the result of a medieval salt manufacturing industry, although the exact period is hard to verify. Redhill salterns, more typical of the bronze and iron age also occur quite regularly in the surrounding area along the Crouch and elsewhere. This shouldn't be too surprising, as the history of this salt industry is even written into modern maps, Saltcoats Park is less than mile or so away from this main cluster of mounds. However there still remains some confusion even to this day as to the actual purpose of the mounds themselves.

Salterns were usually built by digging large tanks in the earth into which salt water would be allowed to flow. The salt water would then be left to evaporate until salt crystals began to form on the surface, which a labourer would come along and scim off for storing. The basic principle was exactly the same in the bronze age as it was for the Romans and in fact, in some poorer countries such as Sri Lanka, its still performed in more or less the exact same way even today.

The trouble is, if these mounds were simply the result of the earth having been dug up to create the saltern tanks, why would you go through the effort to stack it up into mounds to begin with? With the creeks nearby and with it being surrounded by marsh, its not as if there was nowhere else to dump that excess soil. It seems an awful frivolous waste of manhours, especially for the time period, to have half your work force constructing pointless mounds of earth in some form of Coggleshall Job. Therefore it has also been supposed that the earth works here might be the remnants of medieval farms, with the mounds perhaps being left to provide livestock with shelter during floods. Many more publications have been released about the site's use since that initial excavation in 1925, but none have yet concluded as to whether these mounds are the remains of Romano-British salterns or later medieval farms. It may well be both. Or neither.
Illustrations of the stone tools 
found in the Hullbridge river bank.

Its pretty unlikely that  the Plumberow and South Woodham Ferrers sites should share much in common aside from general geographic location, but it certainly begins to build a picture in the mind of what this part of the Essex landscape looked in prehistoric days.

Believe it or not though, the late bronze to early iron-age isn't the oldest evidence of human settlement found in the Crouch Valley. I happened across another book in the library whilst doing this research entitled On A Neolithic Floor by Francis Reader written in 1911. Inside it details neolithic artifacts found on the river Crouch's banks at Hullbridge that had been become dislodged through soil erosion. Between a layer of clay and a bed of peat, a number of flint tools were uncovered during excavations there.

It may well be that there are many more neolithic artifacts laying around all over the surrounding area.  As an example, on Hambro Hill (or Hamborough Hill as it was written in 1911) between Hullbridge and Rayleigh town centre - a number of neolithic knives, arrow heads and pottery was found there. It does make you wonder what is still in ground, covered up by the rapid urbanisation this part of Essex has been subjected to since the end of the second world war. Development in this area seems to be sucking the soul out of the smaller towns and villages, and modern society seems far too fast-paced to notice the relics in the landscape left behind by people that came before the pseudo-wealthy London commuters arrived. Unfortunately, such development seems to continue unabated. As the landscape of Essex are tamed beyond all recognition, we're sadly losing all links to a past that has been 6000 years or more in the making.

Sources:

(1.) Hockley, Hullbridge & Hawkwell Past written by Lesley Vingoe
(2.) Marsh Mounds written by Miller Christy and W.H Dalton for the Morant Society in 1925
(3.) On a Neolithic Floor written by Francis Reader for the Morant Society in 1911.

Further Reading:

Historic England's Webpage on Plumberow Mount: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1017451

Essex County Council PDF explaining re-wilding efforts on the marsh land by encouraging cattle crazing. Mentions the existence of the mounds to quite some extent: http://content.historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/essex-historic-grazing-marshes-project/Final_Grazing_Marshes.pdf/

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