Six miles or so to the north of Birmingham city centre lies an area that is not a housing estate nor a business park. That, in itself, is remarkable enough, given that it is roughly equidistant from West Bromwich, Walsall and Aston.

Sutton Park seems to have more in common with rural Staffordshire and Warwickshire than with the conurbation it neighbours.

Its 2,300 acres came courtesy of royal charter, granted by Henry VIII to Bishop John Vesey in 1528. As a consequence, the corporation that Vesey established found itself with a resource of extraordinary richness, and one still enjoyed by the people of Birmingham today.

That famous Tudor charter, and perhaps the presence of a Roman road – usually referred to as Ryknield Street – is often all that the public know of Sutton Park’s history. There is considerably more to it than that.

Dr Mike Hodder’s new book, The Archaeology of Sutton Park, peels back the layers of a landscape that has continued to evolve over the course of several millennia. The fact that Bishop Vesey’s gift takes up less than a page in his book hints at the depth of history and archaeology to be uncovered.

Mike has been Birmingham City Council planning archaeologist since 1994, with a mission to reveal and to protect the city’s hidden histories, and a job description (I hope) to match. Sutton Park represents a relatively tranquil corner of his duties, which currently involve the challenging archaeological implications of HS2 and the Beorma development in Digbeth.

Time was when all an archaeologist had at his or her disposal was a spade. How this has changed. The detective work on Sutton Park, presented here, involves aerial reconnaissance and LiDAR (light detection and ranging), as well as subsequent ground recording, and desk-based research.

In this, his second book on Birmingham’s history, Mike is drawing on work he began as a Ph.D. student at the University of Birmingham on the archaeology of Sutton Coldfield. Inside its pages we have, as it were, privileged access to his research notes and filing-cabinet.

At the centre of Hodder’s book, then, is not Bishop Vesey’s Tudor charter, which arrives comparatively late in Sutton Park’s history, but a document four centuries earlier than that. In 1126 Henry I gave the manor of Sutton Coldfield to Roger de Newburgh, Earl of Warwick, in part-exchange for land the King wanted in Rutland.

The Archaeology of Sutton Park by Michael Lodder
The Archaeology of Sutton Park by Michael Lodder
 

At this point, or shortly before it, the area was turned into a deer park, some 3,000 acres in extent, an enormous status symbol for the Earl and his descendants. This was, in many ways, the golden age of courtly hunting, and Hodder compares the development of Sutton Park to its close contemporaries at Windsor Great Park, Woodstock (now Blenheim) and Clarendon in Wiltshire.

Emparking Sutton (not quite the same issue Suttonians have with parking today), involved a huge circuit of banks and ditches – to prevent the deer escaping – and further sub-divisions within the park as well, many of which can be traced on the ground or through LiDAR. Indeed, the boundaries of Sutton Park today largely reflect the limits of the hunting reserve, except where the later town of Sutton Coldfield has grown up and nibbled away at its eastern side.

Thus the topography of the park, much of it still evident, was nurtured and managed to provide the ideal environment in which to keep and to hunt fallow deer, a delicate balance of woodland and heath. And alongside these, there was terrain for cattle to graze, and fishponds – five in number – to provide fish for the Earl’s table and those of his tenants.

Hodder sees the history of Sutton Park not so much as one of BC and AD, as before and after the creation of the deer park.

That is not to say, of course, that every Suttonian mystery has now been solved. Take what has long been known as the “Ancient Encampment”, for example, close to Blackroot Pool on the eastern edge of the park. Hodder shows that, for all its aura of antiquity, the name originated only in the late Victorian period, and that its bumps and mounts over-excited the antiquarians of the day.

The site may, indeed, only be the result of gravel excavation in the early 19th century. Yet there is still a fence to be sat on here, and more archaeology may still reveal an older history. Provisionality and subjunctive verbs – may, might – come as standard in archaeology.

In fact, Sutton Park’s ancient history turns out to be not quite as rich as the antiquarians would like it to have been. Despite the presence of burnt mounds, flints and other Neolithic and Bronze Age debris, Hodder shows that there is no evidence of human settlement in the park prior to the Romans, and even they simply put a road through and did not linger.

When Henry I made his deal with the Earl of Warwick in the 12th century, it may be that what we call Sutton Park was already considered a place to visit, and not to live. And that, in the remarkable whirligig of time, is what it remains today.

* Michael Hodder, The Archaeology of Sutton Park, is published by the History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire at £17.99. His previous book, Birmingham: The Hidden History, is also published by the History Press.