North Devon in 100 Objects: 70. Footprints from Westward Ho!

This block of consolidated clay preserves ancient hoofprints from Northam Burrows.

This block of consolidated clay preserves ancient hoofprints from Northam Burrows.  In winter 2008 storms damaged the pebble ridge causing it to retreat and to expose a surface in which were preserved the prints of animals, most probably deer. These must have been made before the pebble ridge was formed and were therefore ancient. Such delicate traces could have been washed away unrecorded, but fortunately a local resident out walking noticed and photographed them and reported the find to the museum. Soon afterwards Exeter Archaeology arrived to record the prints and to gather any environmental evidence. Very quickly an area of the clay was cut out and taken to the museum for consolidation.

Examination of four layers of deposit suggested that a herd of probably red deer had moved across a surface of soft clay leaving prints which became filled with sand and silt as high tides washed over them and the wind blew sand about. Laboratory examination of matter from the topmost layer found pollen and spores painting a picture of saltmarsh with grasses, bracken, moss, dandelions and fat-hen, thrift and sea-lavender, while mixed woodland was not far away. Very different from the Northam Burrows of today.

Where the waters of the Bristol Channel are now, there was once a coastal plain with woodland and marsh. The hoofprints and the plant remains tell of a wild landscape which over centuries became overwhelmed by the sea. Thanks to an observant walker, we have retrieved some of the story of this changing and vulnerable environment.

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