A Summer Working with Archaeologist John Gibson-Hill

Colour photograph of a black and white booklet.

Ifield Mill, A Survey by J. Gibson-Hill and E.W. Henbery

In 1975 I was fortunate enough to spend the summer with a friend, Keith Young, working with archaeologist John Gibson-Hill. I was reminded of this the other day when, whilst having a clear out at home, I found a little booklet written in 1979 by John and his colleague Ted Henbery entitled simply “Ifield Mill, A Survey”. But first, a little background.

I was born in Kent in 1957 and when I was 3 my parents decided to move from Orpington to the New Town of Crawley. My father worked in advertising in London, and I guess the easy train commute from Crawley into Victoria, and the cheaper housing in Crawley, made it an attractive option. Later in life I went to university in Bristol and studied Urban and Economic Geography The subject of my final year dissertation was the development of the new towns with a comparative study of Crawley where I had grown up, and Redditch from where my future wife came – the two towns emerging from different phases of new town development. As we will see this has relevance to this short article.

Black and white photograph of a field with bits of soil dug up.

The team on site during the Broadfield Excavation.

My friend Keith and I (we’re still close friends all these years later) met at Collyer’s in Horsham, which in those days was a boy’s grammar school. Keith left after taking O levels and went to Crawley College to do his A levels. I stayed at Collyer’s. One day, at the end of our first year in sixth form, Keith called me to say that the college had details of two summer jobs working with local rescue archaeologist John Gibson-Hill and would I be interested. At that time I had vague pretensions of becoming an archaeologist so I jumped at the chance. Furthermore, the job was based at John’s cottage, Mill Cottage, next door to Ifield Mill, the mill itself being little more than a ruin. This was just a 15 minute walk from my home on Rusper Road. Keith lived in Horsham but it was an easy walk from Ifield Station.

Black and white photograph of two people in hard hats sitting next to an archaeology trench.

The team on site during the Broadfield Excavation.

I remember John as a tall lean man with black scruffy hair. He lived in the cottage with his wife and I think they had an infant child. John was a human dynamo as I recall and a jovial guy. The summer was to be full of laughter. The main purpose behind our summer job was to work on a rescue dig at what was to become Broadfield. The site was a Late Iron Age furnace for the working of iron ore found in the Weald Clay. Crawley was growing at a prodigious then and we had little time to excavate and record what John said was part of the largest iron working complex to have been excavated in Britain, covering some 60 acres from Southgate West to the southern edge of Ifield Mill pond. Inevitably most of what we pulled out of the trenches was charcoal and slag, trenches that had to be dug by hand.

Working with John that summer was a young undergraduate from a university in Texas. Unlike Keith and I she knew what she was doing and being a little older took us under her wing. Apart from working at Broadfields on occasions all four us bundled into John’s Citroen 2CV for the hair-raising drive out to St Leonard’s Forest to work on a Roman villa. As 17 year old lads Keith and I used to fight over who would sit in the back of the car with our colleague from Texas! John’s driving skills were probably better suited to rallying and how we survived the trips to St Leonard’s Forest I’ve no idea. But survive we did and I can remember sweating in roasting hot temperatures as we excavated the site. I also remember the thrill of finding a sizable piece of green Roman glass, marvelling that this had last been seen nearly 2,000 years before. I think the fact that the villa had glass in the windows was an indicator that it was occupied by a fairly high-status individual.

Black and white image of a derelict four story building surrounded by trees.

Ifield Watermill in 1974 before restoration started.

The final area of our work with John was the restoration of the late 17th century Ifield Mill which had commenced the year before in 1974. We did this when the weather was simply too wet to work on the digs when the clay became a quagmire. I recall a scene of almost desolation inside the mill and wondered how on earth it would ever be restored by a handful of amateurs. I remember another guy working with us – could that have been Ted Henbury? Apart from wearing hard hats I don’t remember much else in the way of safety equipment. I’m not sure the term PPE was even a thing back then. Working high up in the building amongst rotting beams I just recall it being a long way down. But I think a lot of what we did was barrowing out the debris inside to make space.

It is interesting to note that in the booklet John and Ted write this of Crawley “Of all the new towns it is the only one without any form of museum facility…”. As I understand it the newly formed Crawley Museum Society obtained the lease on Ifield Mill in 1977 for use as Crawley’s first museum. I’ve long had an interest in conservation and the natural environment, and it is good to see in the booklet a list of the flora and fauna found in the area around the Mill in the 1970s. This included all three of our native snake species (amongst which a 3’9” inch grass snake in the pond) and Nightingales.

Our summer jobs ended far too soon. We were only paid a little money but the enjoyment and experience more than made up for it. Sadly neither Keith nor I pursued careers in archaeology. After years away Keith now lives in retirement with his wife back in Sussex. Also retired myself, my wife and I have lived near Stonehenge in Wiltshire for 30 years, closer to the Hampshire Crawley than the Sussex Crawley. I make a little money as a photographer these days and am co-author of a website called Hidden Wiltshire. We also produce a podcast of the same name and a lot of what we write and talk about is the history and archaeology of this county, which is similar in many ways to the chalk downland of Sussex.

I have not visited Ifield Mill since those days nearly 50 years ago. I have seen many photographs and they bear little resemblance to the bucolic rural idyll firmly lodged in my memory. I am undecided as to whether I should allow my curiosity to lead me back.

Paul Timlett

Ifield Watermill is open seasonally, please look for upcoming open days here. 

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