My first experience of digging the earth for purposes other than planting or weeding, dates back to early childhood.

After being given a second-hand copy of the illustrated British Fossils by Duncan Forbes, a Black’s Young Naturalist’s Series book, the text then beyond my reading capability, I decided to go on a fossil hunt in the back garden of the family home in Wilcot Avenue, Oxhey. I had found chalk in the soil for my blackboard, but this time I wanted to try my hand at fossil hunting. My parents permitted the excavation, with the proviso that I did not disturb the flower beds. Before long, I had found small trace marine fossils to which I later applied plaster to create casts. But knowing that the coast was far away, why was I finding small shells and oysters? I wanted to know more. During a subsequent visit to the Natural History Museum in London I left a number of fossils and artefacts from the garden in the hope that a kind person might identify them for me. They were swiftly returned in a box, with identifying labels and a typed letter from the museum. I still have the fossils and that letter of which I was so proud!

Fast forward to around the age of 12, and my great uncle in Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire, was involved with land from which gravel was to be extracted; land on which there had been a known Roman settlement. Unable to resist the opportunity when the excavating machines first moved in, my parents took me to the site and I found a number of Roman pottery fragments. Around the same time, I joined a memorable excavation near St Albans Abbey at which Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s widow was present and Roman coins were unearthed. Then holidays at Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove in Dorset reignited the fossil hunting urge, which has never gone away.

Watford Observer:

Archaeological Society excavation, August 1979. Tony Rawlings in foreground, author and archaeologist Stephen Castle on right.

Interest in what lies beneath the ground culminated in membership of the then-named Watford & South West Herts Archaeological Society. Joining as a young adult was a foregone conclusion, despite the fact that the majority of members were considerably older. Learning about the early history and archaeology of my home town, attending related lectures and being able to join in local excavations proved irresistible. I well recall the interesting and varied evening lectures above Watford Central Library, the speakers introduced by the ever-enthusiastic and knowledgeable chairman Tony Rawlings who, in 1954, had been a founder member of the society. After a lifetime’s interest in archaeology, his excavations were well organised and meticulously documented.

Watford Observer:

Dalton House, Lower High Street, 1905. Picture: William Coles

In the 1970s the destruction of many historic buildings in Lower High Street in particular gave the society regular windows of opportunity to excavate prior to redevelopment. The compact site bounded by Bridge Place in the south and the boundary wall of the gardens of the long-demolished Dalton House in the north, for example, revealed traces of a dwelling dating back in part to the end of the 13th century, a 14th century pit in which sherds and tiles lay, an early 14th century circular bronze brooch, a brass spur, and clay tobacco pipes. Quantities of early tin, salt and lead-glazed wares were also discovered. I was spellbound by the finds from under our feet, a number of which would have then been displayed in the glass-topped cabinets that once lined the sizeable entrance area of Watford Central Library.

Watford Observer:

Lower High Street c1905. The old Hit or Miss Public House in middle distance. Picture: Frederick Downer.

I remember in particular one of the Lower High Street excavations during which I found a fair-sized fragment of a Dutch-made 17th century stoneware Cardinal Bellarmine drinking vessel. It was from the neck of the vessel and bore a striking raised image of the face of the bearded Italian cardinal; a fierce opponent of Protestantism who sought to ban alcohol. I can still see it clearly; unmarked after more than 300 years in the soil. The exciting moment of the find, albeit a minor one to most, has remained with me and I often wonder what happened to the fragment, which I never saw again. I remember wishing that I could have travelled back to the 1600s to see who was drinking beer poured from that once-intact vessel in what would then have been a small country settlement.

Lesley is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.