Saturday, 26 January 2008

The things we dig up in the garden

This is my favourite thing I've dug up in my current garden. An Unidentified Ceramic Object. Yay!

There's not much to relieve the tedium of digging at this time of year, as I make my annual futile stand against the couch grass roots. Digging is a bit of a chore for me. This is a large garden for one person to be managing on their own, and I struggle to keep up with it. And I'm afraid I don't go in for the double-digging that all the beefy blokes on the telly seem to think is necessary for the successful cultivation of vegetables, because (a) I have the body of a weak and feeble woman and (b) if you dig down more than a foot or so in my garden you get to solid sand, and there's not a lot to be gained by dredging that up into the topsoil.

But one of the curiosities I come across when I'm digging is all the little shards of pottery. Small pieces usually, white with occasional bits of blue on them. Old-fashioned willow-pattern stuff.

Our house was built in 1936, so the garden has been a garden for just over 70 years. I've noticed that many gardens of this age seem to have broken crockery mixed into the soil. It's a bit odd really. I mean, on the rare occasions when I break a tea-plate, I can't say my immediate instinct is to open the window and frisbee it across the vegetable patch.

I suppose the most likely explanation is that some previous gardener has used them as crocks in the bottoms of flower pots, and over time they've been dumped out onto the soil. I find it quite fascinating to find these little relics of my predecessors' domestic china. Cups and plates which served tea and biscuits to people in my house in another era. Seeing the china they ate their meals off is a strangely intimate glimpse into the everyday lives of the long dead.

The ghosts of tea-sets past.

My previous house was newly built, on the site of a small television factory. Most of the factory was still there, underneath six inches of topsoil, as that was evidently what the builders thought would serve as a garden. I nearly killed myself digging out all the buried rubble. Bits of glass and wire and concrete and other crap would show up from time to time. But once I got most of that out, I started unearthing bones. Quite large ones, in some cases. And huge teeth. They were old brown bones which had obviously been around for a while. I had visions of somebody burying their pet horse out there. Or had I finally found Shergar?

The mystery was eventually solved by a neighbour whose ancient uncle had lived in the street all his life, and who remembered there being a pig farm and abattoir on the site back in the 1930s. Charming. I'm not sure I'd have bought the house if I'd known it was built over a former slaughterhouse, but there you go.

Anybody else digging up interesting stuff in their plots?


Magic Cochin said...

We know our garden has been cultivated for veg at least since 1793 when the surrounding wall was built. We dig up lots of blue and white china (I've used some as mosaic decoration on a large plant pot) I think broken plates were just thrown in a general rubbish pile in the garden. There are also shards of glass by the bucket load - the garden used to have greenhouses and frames demolished about 50 years ago, obviously the smashed glass just got left in the soil! My favourite finds are bits of clay pipe - the tobacco smoking sort - I like to picture the gardener puffing on his pipe outside the greenhouse. And we have animal bones too - I think they were buried under fruit trees - blood and bone!


sarahsvegetablepatch said...

Growing up in Australia, I remember often finding broken blue and white China in the garden when I was digging with my mum. She always keeps the pieces that she finds. So the broken China in the garden is common in Australia too! Haven't found any in Austria yet though, as I mostly have raised beds.

Sue Swift said...

This is to let you know that one of your posts has been nominated for the Garden Blogger's Carnival. If you've not heard about the carnival you'll find full details here :
I hope you'll be happy to take part - if by any chance you don't want to, just let me know.
The links to the nominated posts will be published in the first week of February, and I'll contact you again when yours is up.
Congrats on the nomination!

Pete said...

I've only just moved into a house with a garden and am planning on growing some vegetables. We have been busy digging up the brambles and bindweed roots and I have come across lots of pottery. I wonder if it is because it dates from before the days of organised rubbish removal so people had to dump it in their gardens?

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thanks folks. Celia, your garden is amazing, it's obvious from the photographs that you have something special there. (The house where I was born had a walled garden of similar age but I was too young to remember it.) Ah, I forgot about the clay pipes! I haven't found any yet in my current garden but I did used to find a few in my previous pig-farm garden, which may have dated back to an even earlier time when the site was divided into small farming plots (according to an 1834 map). I love the pipes, but I've only ever found bits of the stem. My brother once found a whole one.

Funny that blue and white china should find its way into Australian gardens too. Maybe it is just a relic of the days when rubbish was dumped in the garden ... though it does seem to have got evenly distributed through the whole garden.

Best of luck with your veg, Pete!

Matron said...

I remember as a child finding little bits of white clay pipes on the allotment. My dad told me that when they got soggy from all the sucking, you just snap the end off and get a new bit. Just like those liquorice sherbet fountains!

Anonymous said...

Me too - blue and white china, clay pipes etc and like Celia I'm saving the blue and white bit to make a mosaic table top!

Anonymous said...

All I've found is bits of garbage and a piece of lego.

Anonymous said...

Ah, so I am not alone then with the broken-crockery-in-the-soil-mystery!

Yep, lots of blue and white china and glass in my soil, as I dig up the old lawn, ready for a bigger and better replacement.

I understand that the Victorian house next door, which now has a flat roof, lost one or more upper floors during Bath’s blitz. I had a romantic (if that’s the right word) thought that this crockery detritus in our garden was from the bomb damage from that night in 1942.

On the other hand it’s just rubbish. Oh well. I still enjoy uncovering it, and look forward to the elusive clay pipe!

Robert said...

I'm on an allotment in Birmingham which has been cultivated since 1840. I find bits of crockery, fragments of clay pipes, and the occasional piece of shrapnel. When I took the plot on, the remains of an Anderson shelter were holding up the stream bank. I have an account of how they put it on the plot during the war, and it promptly flooded. They moved into the shed to escape the bombs, but had shrapnel hitting the roof from an AA gun on the railway, and once got in trouble with the ARP warden for setting the roof on fire. The bits I've found have too large a curvature for shells, so I think they must have come from a blast bomb.

Going back a bit earlier, there are loads of old crucibles round the site, from early factories.

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Nehalennia said...

Its a while ago since anyone blogged about the broken crockery.Guess the viagra man put everyone of.
Lived in uk since 1995 and after harvest time I "beachcombe" or rather fieldcombe the ploughed fields and find indeed lots of pieces of broken china well scattered over the field.
Find it very relaxing.Was told that the victorian ladies did this as a pasttime too.And to confirm that story today I found an early victorian coin whilst "combing" the fields.Anyone know more about Victorian ladies looking too?And not sure what to think how they got there as all over acres and acres of farmfields in different areas of the country.Never found in clumps these crockery bits?Aiming to make a mosaic too.Nice to know indeed there are more of us.

Anonymous said...

Obviously it's been a long time since there has been a post here,but I'm glad to know that I'm not the only once who likes hunting and digging in their yard to find treasures! I find a lot of blue glass, blue and while floral glass and wrought iron. I've heard that my house sits on a lot that used to be a dairy farm. Which might explain why I've found old pieces of barbed wire and odd metal or iron buckles, loops and glass jars!

StarryTowers said...

I so want to know the definitive answer to this question. I'm in the central belt of Scotland and dig up mostly blue and white pieces of crockery, it's the same in my parents garden in the next county.

Robert Brenchley said...

I know the stuff well. It was a popular type of crockery, if it's what I''m thinking of, I think from the 19th Century. Of course, blue and white has long been a popular mix, and it could be something else the same colour!

StarryTowers said...

I've been having a look round the www for more information, "... people were intrigued by also finding broken bits of china in very old gardens throughout the UK, Australia, US and Canada…perhaps other places. There were varied reasons for this, many seemingly frivolous. But after much thought, I speculated there had to be a very good reason. I believe the Victorians put their broken china and pottery in the garden, not just as a way to dispose of the ruined item, but to also amend the soil in the process. Bone china and many ceramics are comprised of animal bone ash. Bone ash contains nitrogen and phosphorus, excellent natural fertilisers. It made perfect sense to me and these gardens seem to really flourish." It makes perfect sense to me too, from