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Thatcham - the oldest in Britain?
By Dr Nick Young
Thatcham Historical Society

A sketch of a Palaeolithic camp
Did Palaeolithic man settle in what is now known as Thatcham?

It has been claimed on numerous occasions that Thatcham in Berkshire is the oldest 'continuously inhabited' place in Britain.

It even has a place in the 1990 Guinness Book of Records as being the strongest claimant.

Whether this is true or not is still a hotly debated subject and is covered in a new history book on the town.

However, there is evidence of human occupation within and around Thatcham covering the past 13,000 years or more.

Hand axes and flint tools

Evidence for the Palaeolithic Age, which ended around 10,000 BC, consists of two hand axes found in Lower Way gravel workings by R.A.Sheridan in 1962.

These people were nomadic and would have followed their food source, wild animals, as they moved around.

It is entirely possible they did camp for brief periods in the area, but little evidence exists to support it for this period.

A Palaeolithic hand axe
Two Palaeolithic hand axes have been found in Thatcham

However, there is strong evidence to support the case that people settled in Thatcham in the Mesolithic Age (10,000BC - 4,000BC).

There are a number of sites in and around Thatcham which were visited by people of this period.

One of the most notable sites, which lies around the modern Lower Way sewage works, was first unearthed in 1920 when workmen were carrying out levelling operations.

During the excavations which followed, flint tools as well as animal bones and pollen were uncovered.

They would have used the river system for transport and even camped on the ancient lake shore which would have covered the area.

Like the Palaeolithic people, they also would have been nomadic; however, there is evidence to suggest that they did stay in the area for extended periods.

Moor Brook
Moor Brook as it might have looked in the Mesolithic period

The Mesolithic Age gave way to the Neolithic Age (4,000BC to 2,500BC).

Unfortunately, like the Palaeolithic Age, there are few finds in the area for this period in history.

There have been a few flints as well as hand axes found locally, usually on local farm land near the river.

However, a few have been found on higher ground, namely Crookham and Greenham Commons which indicates a shift away from the river system.

The Bronze and Iron Ages

Arguably it is the Bronze (2,500BC - 750BC) and Iron (750BC - 43AD) Ages which make Thatcham more notable that any other, and indeed makes Thatcham a nationally important place.

Evidence for both Bronze and Iron Age sites, on the same land, have been uncovered at Dunston Park and Cooper's Farm.

However, it is sites in and around Hartshill Copse that are most notable.

In 1986, field evaluation of Hartshill Copse by the Oxford Archaeological Unit indicated a Bronze Age cremation cemetery and dense settlement.

Excavations at the site by Cotswold Archaeology in 2001 and 2002 found evidence for later periods including Iron Age, Romano-British and Medieval occupation.

A later excavation found evidence of Iron working. Although Iron Age settlements had already been found on or near the site, this was different.

When the finds were dated, they were dated to around 1,000BC, at least 250 years before the Iron Age was supposed to have started.

The Romans

Drama reconstruction - a Roman legion on the march
Romans settled near Henwick Worth Field in Thatcham

What is not in question is the fact that Thatcham was occupied by the Romans.

This settlement, which lies on or near Henwick Worth Field, is known to have been associated with a Roman road, Ermin way.

Evidence includes coins, dishes, leather shoes, pottery and wells dating from the second to the fifth centuries. Like many other parts of Thatcham's Heritage, whether this Roman settlement is the long lost town of Spinae is another debated topic.

Thatcham Broadway is considered by many to be the historic heart of Thatcham.

Saxon chief Tace

However, this is only true thanks to the Saxons who founded what we know today as Thatcham.

It is believed that in the seventh century a Saxon Chief set up a settlement here. The Chiefs name was Tace and this was his settlement or ham. Hence Tace's ham which evolved over the years to become Thatcham.

It is also believed that a Saxon Church was built in around 675AD. However, physical evidence to support this is sparse.

Exactly what happened between the Romans leaving in the fifth century and the Saxons settling in the area is unknown, as is the exact arrival of the Saxons.

Thatcham and Newbury

The Doomsday book
Thatcham can be found in the Doomsday book

However, Thatcham is in the doomsday book and is noted as being richer, both in monetary value and land, than its neighbour, Newbury. Hence it can be assumed that Thatcham was a substantial settlement by this time.

By the end of the 10th Century, Thatcham was a royal manor, a market was established in the 12th Century, and the town continued to grow.

However, it did lose in the end to its neighbour, Newbury, which had not only the Great West Road (A4), but also a north south road (A34).

The evidence shows almost every period of history is accounted for within the area.

So, "is Thatcham the oldest continuously inhabited place in the country?" You will have to decide for yourself...

Thatcham: An Historic Town In A Changing World is available directly from the Thatcham Town Council in Brownsfield Road, or via the Thatcham Historical Society.

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