Authors: Peter Helton
âWe're just foot soldiers; we do the work while the rest of them talk,' confirmed Adam happily.
âNot just you two, I hope,' I said.
âLor' no,' said Julie, pointing across the lawn. âThere's eight of us diggers. We're a big circus. There's us and then there's geophys â two of them are students on loan from Bristol Uni â so that's ten of us in the woods already.'
âIn the woods?'
âYes,' Stoneking confirmed. âThey're all camping down near the lake. I'm afraid there was only room for the star performers at the house. No offence, guys.'
âWe're used to it,' Adam said evenly.
âToo right, we are,' Julie said. âField archaeologists are paid really badly, so we're practically always under canvas. It's a scandal, really, but we all knew that when we started. And it didn't stop us, did it?'
âNope,' agreed Adam.
âSo what's happening now?' I asked.
Just then a very large white van nosed backwards past the far end of the great house, bleeping reverse-warnings as it went. It stopped in the lee of the north wing.
âThe catering van's arrived, that's what,' Julie said. She stuffed her paperback into a back pocket. âExcuse us, most important matters to attend to.' They both pushed off towards the van.
âPretty,' said Stoneking.
He snorted. âYou're right, both of them, really. They're so damn young. How old do you think they are?'
I looked at their slim shapes retreating up the lawn. âOh, twenty-five, twenty-six, perhaps?'
âBlimey. I think I had made my first million by then and was busy spending it on crap. And all
want is to stand in a hole and dig up stuff.'
âYes, where did you go wrong?' I said.
Stoneking laughed. âQuite, quite.'
I nodded towards the catering van that was setting up at the edge of the house. âYou're not feeding them then.'
âToo many of them. I mean Carla, my housekeeper that is, Carla's fine about serving breakfast to everyone who is staying at the house but the rest of the meals are all provided by the caterer. I might throw a dinner or two for a few of them at some stage and they can have afternoon tea if there's time for that but I'm not running a restaurant. Carla would kill me. And I can't afford to piss her off. I can't live in this bloody pile without her.'
We had reached a shady clump of old and twisted trees I didn't recognize. âWhat are these?'
âAncient sweet chestnuts. Aren't they fantastic? Probably older than the house.'
âYes, I meant to ask, how old is the house?'
âOh, ancient. Bits of it anyway. It's been messed about with for hundreds of years. Added to, mostly.'
âOnly about ten per cent of it,' he said happily, âor I wouldn't have been able to put in the pool and decent bathrooms and things. The Cunninghams, the family who owned it since Victorian times, were quite a weird bunch. They were spiritualists and into all things gothic, and they were vegetarians, which wasn't at all considered normal in those days. They made so many alterations between the wars, pulling stuff down and rebuilding it, that it's hard to fathom what's original and what's fantasy. I had no idea how strange the place was when I bought it. Nothing here is quite what it seems.'
âLike for instance .Â .Â .?'
âOn the first-floor gallery is a door that doesn't open. It has no keyhole but it won't budge. Eventually I got a tape measure and figured out that the door is a fake. There's no room behind it. It's just there to confuse people. I mean, there is a room behind it but you enter it through a different door. It's just a visual joke. Like up there.' He pointed up to the house. âSee that window right up there? Third from the left? The one that looks a bit darker than the others? That's a fake too. No room behind it; it's where a service staircase goes up. The place is full of stuff that doesn't add up. That's where the gothic feel comes from. You see all those gargoyles and urns everywhere around the roof? Those weird stone figures and eagles? All added in the 1920s. Some of it isn't even British. They'd go round Europe and India and buy up anything that took their fancy, then drag it into the house or stick it on the outside or just plonk it in the garden, like this one.' We were passing a four-foot terracotta griffin half-swallowed by ivy. âNutters. And they're all still here, too.'
âWhat do you mean?'
âYou'll find out.' He stopped for a moment and breathed in deeply. âI don't know, I might get myself buried here when the time comes. I don't fancy a crowded cemetery.'
âSo you can haunt the place.'
âThe place already has a full complement of ghosts.'
âHa! You may mock.'
I could hear running water. We took a left through an arch in a hedge that was in dire need of trimming and there beyond it lay the ornamental lake, fed by a lively cascade of water tumbling over suspiciously picturesque rocks at the edge of the dense woodland. At the lake's centre was a tiny wooded island and a small rowing boat made fast to a rickety landing stage near the inlet seemed to invite exploration. Ducks were skirting the reed beds.
âQuite a duck pond.' It was probably thirty times the size of our mill pond at home and again it struck me that scale made all the difference.
âYeah, I come down here a lot.' He waved an arm towards the woods on our left where a less than picturesque row of green portable toilets marked their fringe. âThe archaeologists are all in the woods with their tents. I just hope they don't set fire to the place .Â .Â . Hang on.' He stood still, listening. From up behind us in the distance came the growling sound of an engine. âI bet that's the mini digger they use; they must be ready to start. Come on.' He walked back quickly, loath to miss any of the goings-on.
He had been right, a yellow digger â not as mini as all that â was crawling along the lawn. Any other lawn owner would have greeted the sight of its caterpillar tracks on the grass with dismay but to Stoneking it spelled entertainment. Shortly afterwards a much larger vehicle arrived at the hall. It was a cherry picker for those overhead camera angles. An unimpeded route on to the lawn would have been on the north side, only that already had the catering van and its paraphernalia established on it. No matter, Stoneking personally waved the big Iveco lorry straight through a flower bed at the south end where it left broad tyre marks. What was his gardener's name again?
Two girls in identical checked shirts and khaki shorts were now walking their geophysics equipment up and down a marked-out area, scanning the ground. It was another hour before the filming got underway and the activities on the enormous lawn took on a shape TV audiences would have recognized. Stoneking had infected me with his enthusiasm and I stayed close to listen. Enthusiasm was what the director wanted too, and she got it. Guy Middleton and Andrea Clementi, the team leader, did a lively question and answer session about what they were expecting to find.
âSo, Andrea, do you really think there could be a Roman villa under here?'
âWell, there has been a small excavation here already, done by amateur archaeologists in the late nineteenth century, and that is the conclusion they drew from their finds, which included coloured tesserae and some substantial stonework.'
âDo we still have any of those finds?' Guy asked, as he had been told to.
âUnfortunately the drawings and all those finds are lost. But just
at the geophysics results, Guy.' She produced the A3 printout she had held hidden under the map of the estate. The cameras zoomed in, and Guy wowed at the geophysics results as though he had never seen them before.
âThat's extraordinary. Could those really be walls .Â .Â .?'
And so it went on. Most of it had been scripted or discussed before, some of it had to be repeated, and yet it all sounded fresh and quite convincing every time. Mark Stoneking himself had refused to be mentioned, nor did he allow Tarmford Hall to be named, but he was constantly there, just out of shot, as close as the TV crew allowed. A decision was made to open two trenches; Andrea herself marked out the areas with spray paint and the mechanical digger moved in. It wasn't long before the real diggers, the low-paid field archaeologists that included Adam and Julie, were beginning the task of painstakingly scraping away the centuries with their trowels. The spoil heaps that were building up on tarpaulins nearby were being swept with a metal detector for anything that might have been missed.
Lunch was called at one o'clock and predictably it was first call for the production team and celebrities. And their minders. The catering was provided by a woman called AdÃ¨le who everyone called Delia. She was the very picture of a jolly cook who enjoyed her own food a lot and was assisted by her nephew Jamie, a spotty teenage boy with bad posture and translucent ears. We took our place in the queue where I stood in line behind the director.
âThere seem to suddenly be a lot more people, where did they all come from?' I asked her.
âOf course, you only met about half of us,' Emms said. âThere are so many people working behind the scenes. Mark here kindly found us what we call an incident room in the upper floor of the coach house.'
âIt's really just a garage now,' Stoneking said modestly. I made a mental note to check out what the rock star had parked in it.
âAll the information goes to the incident room, where we have computer operators, graphics people and so on. It's where all the finds get logged, too. If we get any,' she added, crossing her fingers.
The lunch served from the catering van turned out to be above-average canteen food and I ended up eating quite an acceptable piece of fish and a mountain of salad on the lawn, watching the real diggers at work. Once the mechanical digger had hit archaeology, no matter what the producer would have preferred, the machine had stopped and shovels and trowels had taken over.
elite had finished their lunch and drained their wine glasses the diggers downed tools and took their turn in the lunch queue. Guy was already in discussion with Cy, Emms and Andrea again, going over schedules and scripts. I took myself off for a walk in the grounds.
The catering van was at the north end so I decided to explore that side first. The digging and most of the geophysics had concentrated on the other end so I felt sure that I was in nobody's way as I ambled down the gentle incline of the majestic lawns. A paved path of weathered York stone appeared to my right, the width of two wheelbarrows, and soon it ran along a high and dense hedge. I followed the pavement through a clump of trees. Weeds and algae had colonized the path beneath, making me wonder how long the gardener's sabbatical had been going on, when I heard a grunting noise of effort coming from just out of sight where the hedge curved sharply to the right. The grunts were cut short by a slap of feet and seconds later someone jogged right to left across my path and immediately disappeared again behind the next line of hedges that screened the lake from view. Doubtless he never noticed me. I'd not seen him before but from age and attire I had him immediately listed as a digger. A digger who was skipping lunch.
When I turned the corner to the right I saw the beginnings of an explanation. A simple but tall iron-grill gate barred my way through an opening in the hedge that ran on for another twenty yards or so to the next corner. Through the gate I could see into an enclosed area which at its centre had a long Victorian glass house. There were sheds, cold frames, water butts and several upturned wheelbarrows. Long snakes of terracotta pots of all sizes, stacked one inside the other, sheltered on the ground in the lee of the big greenhouse. Here was the working heart of the gardens, kept out of sight and, as I noted when I tried the gate, under lock and key. So my jogger had perhaps climbed out of that area and jumped down from the top of the gate. Because he was a closet gardener? Being naturally nosey, a prerequisite to detective work, I briefly considered scaling the gate but it really had been quite a generous lunch and I decided to postpone my climbing trip. There'd be more than enough time for acrobatics later.
I wandered off in the direction the climber had taken with little hope of catching up with him. The series of hedges with their staggered gateways were designed to delay walkers in three successive garden areas, each with some absurd statuary in its centre, before allowing them to arrive at the lake they had only been able to glimpse thus far. When I got to the shore of the lake I spent a few minutes sitting on a mossy slab of stone under a large fig tree, enjoying the view. The sound of the stream splashing on the far side, the sun glittering on the water and the little island in its centre all stirred Treasure Island impulses in me. I might have followed them had I not noticed that the rowing boat had disappeared from the rickety landing stage.
Back on the lawn the first excitement was simmering. Coloured tesserae, inch-sized cubes from a Roman floor mosaic, were beginning to appear in the smaller trench furthest from the house. Filming was in full swing now, with Paul, the main cameraman, following all the action, helped by his melancholic sound man, closely shadowed by Emms and watched over by Cy. A second camera was mounted on top of the now-extended cherry picker, recording from above and operated remotely from a laptop on the ground. I had never given it much thought before then but realized that all these man hours, all that equipment, all that expertise could not come cheap, even taking into account that the diggers were underpaid and some of them even volunteers from local university courses.
Being new to it all, the afternoon seemed to fly by. I made sure I was seen always to keep an eye on Guy and the people surrounding him to justify my extortionate fee. Middleton seemed to go through a considerable dip in energy levels after lunch and kept making mistakes.