Pincent's Hill in Tilehurst is 2,000 Years Old

Pincent's Hill is a high, grassy patch of land between the villages of Tilehurst and Calcot, near Reading. It has horse paddocks, a recreation ground to the left and a network of public footpaths that curl out from under tufts of tall grass and rabbit holes. It was once a golf course, with hilly landscaping and a pond, now abandoned and grown over, giving us a reminder of nature's power when it's left to take control. As you'd imagine, the area is rich in wildlife, including badgers, red kites, deer, foxes and rabbits. In the summer, as you approach the hill from Oliver's Copse, you can hear a chorus of grasshoppers and crickets chirping and humming from under the gangling grass.

As I watched my dogs pad up the hill, noses to the ground and tracking a recent scent, I got to thinking: what about the history of this place?  Is there any? 

The history of people on Pincent's Hill is not often talked about, so I did some digging. And I was surprised to learn that there was human involvement on and around this site 2,000 years ago. 

Roman activity
In 1897, archaeologists uncovered Roman tesserae (mosaic pieces), brick and tile on Pincent's Hill - and a coin struck during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, dating it to the years 81-96 AD. In the 1960s grey shards of a Roman cooking pot were unearthed here, adding to the archaeological record. And in a more recent dig in 2009, Oxford Archaeology found a number of Roman pottery shards dating from the late Iron Age to around the 2nd century AD here on Pincent's Hill. These were from a number of different pots, including storage jars and one more high-end piece of Samian pottery. It doesn't seem as if the shard contained the stamp, but Samian pottery was originally stamped with information about the maker on its base, which appears in  this case to have been frustratingly lost. The report also mentioned a series of Iron Age/early Roman ditches that had been dug on the land, possibly marking an ancient boundary. (1)

The archaeological report suggests that there could have been a Roman settlement somewhere on Pincent's Farm or in the immediate area although no evidence of it survives today. With the finds of more expensive Samian pottery and mosaic pieces, it's possible that if true, this could have been a wealthy or significant Roman household. The report stated it was 'significant' and added: "The finds recovered suggest settlement activity in the vicinity. This evidence may relate to the evidence of a Roman building (UID241363) found close to Pincents Farm 400m to the west." (1)

Medieval activity
Tilehurst and Calcot aren't mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, but there's plenty of evidence that the area, including Pincent's, was active in the Medieval era. The first mention of the name Pincent's comes from the early fourteenth century, when the Pincent family - originally from Sulhamstead - owned parts of the manor (and also parts of Tilehurst) after an exchange with Reading Abbey. The document, dated 1316, shows that Edmund Pincent (son of Gilbert Pincent) held 3 virgates (each virgate being equivalent to around 30 acres), 3 and a half acres of land, plus another 10 acres of meadow and 12 acres of moor. Could any of Pincent's Hill's land have been signed over in this document? He also gained three dwelling houses, but their site is unspecified. Edmund, named as a parishioner in Tilehurst in 1341-2, therefore acquired the equivalent of over 100 acres of land in and around here. 

Pincent's manor then passed through the Sambourne, Drew and Windsor families before being owned by Anthony Blagrave in 1598, under Elizabeth I. (2) The surrounding areas including Pincent's Manor, Tilehurst, Calcot and Beansheaf all have strong Medieval histories and so it makes it likely that there could have been at least some overspill activity on Pincent's Hill, too.

There was certainly Medieval building close by. The barn at Pincent's Manor, on the site of the hotel and immediately adjacent to Pincent's Hill, was destroyed by fire in 2003, thought to be due to an electrical fault. The oak-beamed, thatched-roof barn was said to date from the fourteenth century, around the time of Edmund Pincent's lifetime, although some estimates of its age vary. (3) The 2009 archaeological survey on Pincent's Hill unearthed six fragments of Medieval tile, although there's no explanation as to how they might have got there. Perhaps they were discarded after building at Pincent's Manor. There's no evidence so far of any permanent Medieval buildings on the hill.  

The historical record is clear: Pincent's Hill was used by the local community 2,000 years ago.

The evidence of Roman pottery - including a piece of the more expensive, high-end tableware - points to early Roman activity in the area, maybe even the existence of a large house or fairly wealthy family. The possibility of a Roman house on or near the hill is also promising although as far as I can tell, no archaeology has been discovered of any of its foundations or other remains. The area was named after a landowning family - the Pincents - who lived in Tilehurst in the 1300s and their name is preserved in the historical record. The Medieval barn built at the edge of the hill in the manor also testifies to its use and suggests possible Medieval activity would have been likely on Pincent's Hill just metres away. At some point, a Medieval person dumped some tiles on the hill, for some reason, at least.

If we have Iron Age, Roman and Medieval activity in the area, it's possible to speculate that there would have been Anglo-Saxon activity in the gap between these periods which would have dated from the fifth to the eleventh centuries (approx). We just haven't uncovered any evidence of it yet. 

It's interesting that the archaeological investigations didn't find other artefacts indicating a more consistent use over the following centuries. Pincent's Hill appears on historical maps of the 1870s as open fields and is central to Pincent's, Beansheaf and Tilehurst.  It would have been an ideal walking route between these places, although if this were true we'd expect to find dropped coins, belt buckles, buttons or other evidence which was certainly missing from the 28 trenches dug here in 2009. Of course if this evidence was ever here at all, it could have been disturbed by the building of the golf course - pond, raised features and returfing -  in the 1990s. Overall, it seems to have been privately owned land and not in continuous use by the public in the years following the Medieval period. 

Now, Pincent's Hill acts as a boundary between Tilehurst and Calcot and is a place for exercise, wellbeing and walkers to enjoy the  nature that it offers. Over the last twelve years there have been multiple planning applications to build homes on the site, and West Berkshire Archaeology's stance is that they do not object to this, as long as any historical finds discovered during digging are reported to the service. I can't help but think that most of the bits from a Roman house might be out there somewhere, its stony foundations silently waiting to be scraped away from the soil. Or maybe some sixteenth century Tudor and Stuart coins, dropped from leather purses on a hilly, breezy walk to Calcot.  

I only hope we get to find them. 

Want to see more posts like this? Sign up to my newsletter!

Notes and sources
3.Get Reading, 2003: Historic Hotel Barn Destroyed in Fierce Fire. (Estimates of the age of the barn seem to vary from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, depending on the source).