Sunday, 7 February 2010

Digging a hole

To quote Bernard Cribbins: "There we was, a-digging this hole, hole in the ground, so big and sort of round it was......"
And a very nice hole it was too. I was looking down to the bottom, about 4 metres, and thinking back to the 1950s. In those days we lived in the shadow of World War 2. We still had rationing and they still tested the air raid sirens every week. The planes I saw were Spitfires, Dakotas and Sunderlands, and the best fictional adventures always featured children being evacuated to the country to escape the Blitz. We played on bomb sites, exploring the rubble in cellars; picking up bits of shrapnel, and hoping to find an incendiary bomb.

I jokingly asked my colleagues how we might tell the difference between a British bomb and a Jerry one. They said that it wouldn't matter; they both make a hell of a mess. I asked what the German was for "Bang".

The small mechanical digger kept chugging away and we watched as the bucket broke through the deep, compressed, sandy coloured, gravel bed and eagerly sank into the blue clay below. Having watched the big diggers at work in the nearby quarry, I expected the clay to come out in one sticky block, but it was soft and loose so it fell apart. It smelled pretty nasty too.

I took pictures of the hole from various angles because it revealed the classic geological profile that tells the story of the valley. The clay is about 450 million years old and contains marine fossils of ammonites and ichthyosaurs. The gravel, which sits on top of it, only came along in the last ice age, just 12,000 years ago. So what happened to all the layers between? It seems that a previous ice age extended much further south. During the Big Chill in 45,000 BC, a glacier pushed right up the valley of the Ouse and the Ivel, past Sandy and Biggleswade and on to Stevenage. (I'm always amazed that the A1 and the railway remained intact.) That big glacier carved away the greensand and the chalk at the bottom of the valley, exposing the blue clay.

I was eager to get my hands on the first dollop of blue clay to come out of our hole, hoping for a decent fossil. I found something pointy sticking out of the pile, possibly a belemnite? When I had it in my hands, it was obviously a big bit of ammunition, still in its cartridge. I put it down carefully, took some photos and asked "What do we do now? Call 999?"

The digger operator knew just what to do "Run like Hell!" We decided to clear the area, including the nearby visitor centre. Most people thought that we were joking and had to be told twice. Our health and safety officer didn't hang about though; he went back to Huntingdon very swiftly.

The Fire Brigade arrived within minutes and cordoned off the area. They were soon supported by the police and then, after an hour, the bomb disposal team arrived from RAF Wittering. This left us a lot of time for conjecture. Had we uncovered a WW2 ammo dump? If so, how big a bang would it make? Had a plane crashed here in the war? Or was it just a single item buried when the field was back-filled in the 60s?

Every now and then we were surprised by dog walkers who had broken through the cordon, perhaps they considered that being blown up was better than having to retrace their steps? More likely a simple knee jerk reaction to being told what to do? 'Foolish, all the same.

The bomb disposal squad cleaned up the shell and brought it out in a sand bucket to be disposed of later. It was probably from an anti-aircraft unit based locally. It's difficult to find out more because, although we were surrounded by airfields and the area was bombed in the war, with craters appearing in the common and a possible incendiary fire in the village, the censors kept information to a minimum. Careless talk costs lives..... Subsequently in the 60s, the field was excavated for gravel so all the debris and detritus has been moved around.

What about the hole? 'Can't have anyone falling in it can we? "The hole's not there, the ground's all flat and beneath it is.... " Who knows what?

Oh, I didn't mention what the hole was for. The plan is to join our toilets to the mains so we don't have to empty the septic tank every month. This means putting in a big, expensive pump, but it will save us a fortune in the future. We were digging a test hole to see what the substrate and water table are like. I asked the military man if it was safe to dig more holes and he cheerily answered. "You just can't tell, but if you find anything, give us a call."

"Can we have our bomb back please mister?"
"No its mine!"