Why Bingham is where it is

In an ancient land like ours the reasons why towns and villages are where they are have long since been forgotten. In fact, there are not many reasons why our forebears would have chosen any particular site for a settlement. The most likely are that the site was close to a supply of food or some other exploitable natural resource. There would always have to be fresh water close by and, for much of our early history, the site would have to have been capable of being defended against aggressors.

Among the most likely natural resources to influence the choice of location for a settlement are mineral deposits. This is clearly evident now, when nearly all major towns in Britain are sited either on coalfields or are ports or are both. Most of them grew into being major urban areas during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the demand for coal to fuel the Industrial Revolution was at its height, but nearly all of these places grew out of tiny villages that were then already centres for the exploitation of various minerals. There are Neolithic flint mines under Norwich. In Cornwall nearly everywhere is situated by a copper or tin mine, both of which have been mined there since the Bronze Age. Many small towns and villages in Sussex have grown out of Iron Age settlements adjacent to beds of iron ore that our ancestors mined and smelted. Salt was mined under Droitwich in Roman times and probably before. Coal is known to have been mined throughout the English coalfield at least since the twelfth century.

The link between other aspects of geology and settlement, however, is not always as obvious as this. Bingham is a good case in point.

The story in Bingham begins about 250 million years ago when all the continents of the world were joined together in one giant supercontinent called Pangaea. Britain was situated near the equatorial zone and the landscape around where Bingham now is was a flat, arid muddy plain with large, temporary lakes not far from the sea. There was major river near by, the source of which was a range of mountains where the Pyrenees now is as high as the Himalayas. The river periodically flooded, covering the plain with deposits of fine sand. With time the sea level gradually rose. The course of the river shifted to the west and the plain was periodically inundated with seawater, which evaporated leaving salt and other minerals in the soil. Over time beds of the salt called gypsum (calcium sulphate) formed.

All this can be seen in the bedrock under Bingham. The red mudstones that give rise to the heavy red-brown soils in gardens along and to the south of Long Acre represent the flat muddy plain and lake beds; the beds of skerry in the fields south of the A52 show where the river overflowed its banks and, beneath the surface north of the railway line, are beds containing gypsum formed by the evaporation of seawater.

The next important geological event took place about 100,000 years ago when the last Ice Age started. Bingham was never covered with ice, but instead it was tundra with permanently frozen ground. Only the surface unfroze during the summer months. The Ice Age was as its coldest about 23,000 years ago, after which the climate gradually warmed up and the ice began to retreat northwards. Then, 10,000 years ago the ice finally disappeared from Britain. After nearly 100,000 years during which it was frozen the underground water in the rocks began to flow again. One consequence of this was that the gypsum in the rocks in the land north of the railway line was dissolved and washed away. Gradually, this area subsided and filled with water, creating a lake about two miles long and nearly one mile wide.

This lake was like a magnet to our prehistoric ancestors. It offered fresh water for them to drink. There were fish in it. Water fowls nested by and in it and big animals would have come to it to drink in the evenings. Evidence that Stone Age hunters did indeed come here some 14,000 years ago is present in flint tools from that time that have been found in the fields in the south of the parish. Gradually the lake filled up to become marshland, but there are so many artefacts from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods that it is likely that people were actually settled around the edge of the marshes in those times.

The oldest known settlement is on Parson’s Hill, believed to be Iron Age dating from about 600 BC. At that time Parson’s Hill was an island probably surrounded by marshland and linked to the mainland via a causeway on the north side, where only a narrow strip of water bordered the island.

View of Parson’s Hill looking north from the railway crossing at the end of Cogley Lane. The flat area in the foreground is the site of the post-glacial lake. The low Parson’s Hill was always an island in the lake, a safe place for Iron Age Britons to live. Parson’s Hill has been continuously inhabited since then.

It was an ideal place to live for the warlike Britons of the time, easily protected on all sides. When the Romans came and chose to build their settlement at Margidunum it was almost certainly because of the proximity of the marshes. The Roman villa at Carnarvon School is at the south-eastern edge of the lake. By that time, though, the edge of the marshes had begun to recede. This meant that the peaty soils in the flat areas over what was once marsh were available for agriculture with a little draining. It also meant that there would be springs where the clay that was laid down on the bed of the lake abutted against the sandstones of the bedrock. The Romans, who lived in the villa at Carnarvon School, had converted one such spring into a well that was revealed during building work in 2002.

By early Medieval times it is likely that the marshes had dried out and had no standing water, which means that another source of fresh water had to be sought by the villagers. Both the deserted Medieval village in Crow Close and the present centre of Bingham are situated on relatively high ground caused by rocks with beds of sandstone it them. The sandstones hold water, which can be accessed fairly easily in shallow wells. All houses in Bingham built before about 1920 had their own wells or access to a shared well.

Thus, the circle is complete. Gypsum, deposited when Bingham was a desert was dissolved from the bedrock at the end of an Ice Age nearly 250,000,000 years later to create conditions that human beings found very amenable. So they settled here, maybe as long as 14 thousand years ago, and have been here ever since.

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