Hidden East Anglia:
The Puddingstone Track: Deconstructed
The Flawed Search for Puddingstone
1. A Painstaking Search?:
"At all times" said Rudge, "we have conducted a painstaking search for puddingstone boulders far beyond the region crossed by our line". With regard to his home turf, he added that he and his wife had submitted many areas "to the same meticulously-careful examination as we employed in the vicinity of our alignment. Very few surface puddingstones in Essex can have escaped our notice".1 At other times he spoke of their 'systematic'2 and 'intensive'3 searching.
So, Rudge's search for puddingstone - not only along his hypothesised route, but 'far beyond' it - was, in his own words, 'painstaking', 'meticulous', 'systematic' and 'intensive'. While he and his wife undoubtedly spent more than twenty years on their quest, spread out over a multitude of weekends and holidays, just how intensive could it have been? Consider this - Rudge accepted onto his final Track stones in the following locations:
Beside roads, paths and farm tracks
In house gardens
In pub yards
At the edges of ponds
In farmyards (sometimes almost buried)
Built into the walls of houses and barns
In churchyards and the walls of churches
In fields (sometimes dug up, sometimes still buried)
On the banks of streams
For their search to be meaningful, the Rudges would have had to thoroughly examine every such location for several miles on either side of their projected line to be certain that there were no other hidden conglomerates.
To better understand the potential scope of such a search, I decided to scrutinize one tiny slice of the Track in Essex. This was the stretch between Parvills Farm and Hayleys Manor Farm, all in the parish of Epping Upland, along with the regions only one mile north and one mile south of a straight line between the two. I chose this area for a variety of reasons: for one thing, Rudge had more opportunity to explore it, as it was only a few miles from his home, and for another, he called it a "well-marked section".4 Also, the Track follows one basically continuous road, with multiple stones beside it. The area contains no towns, airfields, housing estates, industrial sites or major roads that would interfere with a search. It's almost purely rural, and barely changed since Rudge's time. In addition, I was able to obtain a copy of the same Ordnance Survey map that Rudge would have used at the time, the 2½ Inch Provisional Edition map TL40, revised 1946-7, and published in 1951.
His own results from this small slice of Epping Upland are hardly impressive. The stone still extant at Parvills Farm is at least a conglomerate. The Orange Hill boulder was said to be puddingstone, but was buried before Rudge even knew of its existence, while the stone at Chambers Manor Farm was actually fossiliferous sandstone. The fragments in a pond at Pinchtimber Farm and the stone in the 'moat' at Hayleys Manor have no provenance, and that from the Manor Field was one of those simply unearthed by a plough. A little less than a mile to the south is the HPS block at Epping Bury Farm, which was discarded from the Track when it no longer fit Rudge's preferred route.
Parvills and Hayleys Manor are 2.16 miles apart. Extending this by a mile above and below the line between them yields a search area of 4.32 square miles or 2765 acres. To me, a mile either side would still be well below the minimum requirement for a valid and purposeful exploration.
Within that 2.16 x 2 mile block are:
5.9 miles of public road.
15.3 miles of public footpath.
4.5 miles of field and farm tracks.
94+ acres of woodland.
23 miles of streams.
118 ponds and 4 moats, plus an unknown number of unmarked pits.
12 farms complete with yards, gardens and barns.
Rudge would need to have examined both sides of all those roads, paths and tracks, as well as plunging into every metre of every hedge and ditch beside them. He would have to scour every wood and thicket, examine both banks of every stream, and probe the edges of every pond and pit. Every farmyard barn and building would need to be searched, as well as the walls and gardens of every house. With all that done, there would still be over 2500 acres of field and farmland to be covered.
To be 'painstaking' and 'systematic', and to produce remotely credible results, that intensity of search would have be carried out along the entire 193 miles of the Track, and for several miles either side of it. And it still wouldn't be nearly enough, because it only involves looking for surface stones. The Rudges also accepted as markers on their Track 12 boulders that had been found by accident, buried in the ground. How many others might still be there, just below ploughing depth in fields, or beneath untouched plots of land, whose locations would make their hypothetical route a nonsense?
The majority of the surface stones 'discovered' and seen by Rudge, and incorporated into the Track, were actually visible at the roadside, or on the many farms that he visited. Those in more inaccessible locations were usually reported to him by correspondents who encountered them while out walking, or had local knowledge of them. "During each weekend" said Lilian Rudge in 1957, "we called on farms and manor houses and vicarages, and examined the farmyards and barns".5 At no point is there any sense that they actually combed the countryside for puddingstone, walking every path, searching every bush, or traversing every meadow. Even if that were feasible, there could always be a stone hidden beneath an impenetrable hedge, at the bottom of an overgrown pit, or a metre below the soil in any field.
In an apparent dig at his critics, Dr. Rudge said the following in 'The Lost Trackway': "So, for fourteen miles from the White Notley stone to Boyton Hall have been found a series of unusually large boulders, in conspicuous situations, with no scatter of smaller specimens between. Intensive searching over several years failed to find any other conglomerate stones, emphasising the truth that this exercise has never consisted in drawing an arbitrary line through a scatter to suit the whim of the searcher [Rudge's italics]; for every stone recorded is related to the route being followed".6
Since he put this particular stretch of the Track forward as a significant example of his 'intensive' search, it deserves to be briefly examined in closer detail. White Notley to Boyton Hall is actually a little under 10 miles, not 14. So the fact that he located seven stones there in a shorter distance should carry greater weight for his argument. The Herts Puddingstone at White Notley and the ferruginous conglomerates at Boyton Hall and Broomfield church are certainly acceptable stones under Rudge's criteria (although only that at Boyton could be regarded as 'unusually large'.) The composition and location of the 'Chelmer ford' stone at Broomfield remains uncertain, as it was destroyed before Rudge knew of it. The puddingstone at Belsteads seems not to have been there in the early 1900s, while the supposed stone in Ivy Wood should be discounted entirely. It was never found, and had only been described to him as a 'block of concrete'. Finally, as has been detailed elsewhere in this study, any of the 'original' locations given for the Mashbury boulder place it nearly a mile from the Track's course, requiring a ridiculous detour for no reason. Even if the 'ford stone' is included, that only leaves four stones on the Track.
His claim that he "failed to find any other conglomerate stones" is disingenuous at best. He omitted to mention four other stones in the area, which had featured on an earlier version of the Track and were later discarded. This passed slightly to the north, via stones at Fairstead church, Great Leighs church, Howe Street, and Langley's Farm at Chignal Smealy. He should also have known of another stone at Great Leighs (no longer visible), a 'considerable mass' of conglomerate mostly buried opposite Fulbourne Farm (wrongly called 'Melbournes' in the source.) This was in Alfred Rowe's 1887 article on boulders in the Field Club's own 'Essex Naturalist'.7
When closely inspected, the apparently continuous nature of the Track begins to fail, and the sum of the parts no longer constitutes a whole. More pointedly, Dr. Rudge's 'painstaking search' for puddingstone was nothing of the kind - nor, in purely practical terms, could it ever have been.
1. E.A. Rudge: 'Statistical Evidence for a Conglomerate Alignment in Essex' in Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, part 3 (1954), p.178-80.
2. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'Evidence for a Neolithic Trackway in Essex' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.28, part 4 (March 1950), p.174.
3. E.A. Rudge (ed. John Cooper'): 'The Lost Trackway' (Cooper, 1994), p.15.
4. E.A. Rudge: 'Further Observations on the Conglomerate Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, part 4 (1955), p.258.
5. Lilian Rudge: 'The Mystery of the Puddingstone Track' in 'Essex Countryside' Vol.5, No.19 (Spring 1957), p.98.
6. Rudge (ed. Cooper): ibid.
7. Rev. A.W. Rowe: 'Some Essex Boulders' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.1, No.6 (June 1887), p.117.
2. A Confusion of Stones:
As suggested elsewhere in this study, the quantity of surface Herts Puddingstone boulders alone is now a tiny fraction of what must once have littered the landscape, never mind all the other 'erratics' of sandstone, limestone, basalt etc. Thousands of years of land clearance and the use of stone for other purposes have disposed of the vast majority; and yet such stones - some of which fooled Rudge himself - can still be found along and close to the Track's course to this day. He conveniently made no mention of sarsens to be found at Feering, Fordham, Magdalen Laver, Stonor and Kintbury. All are right next to, and just as 'ancient' as, the conglomerates of his Track. His letters reveal other sarsens on or very close to the Track such as at Great Missenden, Denner Hill and Chesham1 - which he doesn't record in his published work. In one letter he actually suggested that they might "ignore the confusion at Denner Hill, with its many sarsen 'side tracks', and cast around a little further afield."
In both Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire Rudge initially found himself confused as to the 'true' route because of the "profusion of puddingstones" to be found there.2 What he called his 'practiced eye' led him onward, by distinguishing between 'man-placed' stones and those occurring naturally - which would be of no use whatever to the traveller having to rely on sighting from one stone to the next. The region between St. Albans and Chesham was for him a difficult one because of the "much more numerous natural boulders".3 To get through it he came up with two almost-parallel routes running south-westwards about ⅔ of a mile apart. Although both were valid by his own criteria, one was later dropped. If there were indeed two such lines of stones running from St. Albans, one would think it somewhat confusing for the prehistoric traveller.
At one point he was convinced of a second 'puddingstone track' running south from Denner Hill towards High Wycombe and Marlow.4
For a time, he believed that his Track ran south-west from the Thames at Streatley to Ramsbury in Wiltshire along another trail of conglomerates.5
Yet more stones persuaded him of another line running down the Gade valley from Whipsnade, to join the main Track near St. Albans6 - all this despite his claim in 1957 that "no branching trail of similar boulders has yet been found".7
Given that all these boulders still existed in the landscape of the 1950s, how did Rudge choose which ones were a part of his Track? As I previously suggested in the section on geology and topography, after countless millennia of human habitation and cultivation many such boulders will be 'man-placed.' Very few will be where glaciers, erosion, river action, outcropping or land movement have left them. What then were Rudge's criteria for deducing that the ones he recorded on his Track were actually set in place in prehistoric times?
As might be suspected, he revealed very little of his methods. He wrote that in Essex, 'special precautions' had to be taken to avoid confusing glacial erratics "with monoliths erected by human agency".9 He gave no hint as to what these precautions might be. We know that he was keen to rule out "those which have been placed in position in living memory".10 That's fine of course, and in Rudge's time 'living memory' could theoretically (at a stretch) take us back to 1850. But he could never be sure that someone hadn't set the stone there in, for example, 1849.
"In every instance the boulder of the track has an undoubted antiquity." This he claimed in his article defending his theory in 1954, specifically referring to the stones of Essex and Hertfordshire.11 Then in 'Lost Trackway' he spoke of the 'plentiful scatter' of puddingstone around Aldham in Essex, "but only those of apparent antiquity have been considered".12 We seem to have gone from 'undoubted' to 'apparent' antiquity. Leaving to one side those in the fabric of pre-Reformation churches, exactly how did Rudge establish the age of any of his boulders? When speaking of other conglomerates in the area between Chipperfield and Bovingdon (Herts), he said that the one at Tower Hill "appears to be much more ancient".13 This one he indeed included on his Track (after first rejecting it), but the reason is elusive. It's a small 'hump' of conglomerate only 27cm high, deeply embedded into both soil and pavement at the corner of an unmetalled byway. There is nothing to indicate how long it has been there. The embedding itself can't have been part of Rudge's criteria, as he accepted so many Track-stones that weren't.
At Bovingdon he noted "a natural-looking stone against churchyard wall on verge of (east) skirting road...Not convincing".14 As he wasn't 'convinced' by it, I have to assume that to him, 'natural-looking' was a negative characteristic. That stone is still there today, next to the curving north-east corner of the wall in Church Lane, a rounded conglomerate of small pebbles about 50cm high. It looks exactly the type of stone that he would have included on his Track - if he hadn't already decided that it ran further to the south.
Not far away at Game Farm Lodge he described the Track-stone there as "a large rectangular block, weathered, and unlike any newly excavated stone".15 He clearly wanted to differentiate it from the nearby pile of puddingstones that had been dug up more recently. More generally, he described the stones of his Track as "not shaped in any way, neither are they uniform in size. Most have the appearance of waterworn and weathered stones from the beds of the many streams crossing the path of the track".16
Weathering thus seems to have played a part in his decision to accept a boulder - but therein lies another problem. Unless composed of a particularly friable material, any rock (which after all was formed millions of years ago) will look virtually the same after 500 years of exposure to the elements as it will after 5000. The weathering of undressed stone in a static location - in the sense of actual degradation of its surface - is a very, very slow process, especially when of the hardness of Herts Puddingstone. How long it has been on that spot is impossible to tell simply by its appearance. Near Hyde Farm at Bedmond Rudge he noted two boulders at the edge of a field: "One was ploughed up recently, the other is weathered".17 I suspect that what he meant by 'weathering' was if a rock was smooth and perhaps mossy.
Of all the stones along Rudge's Track - again excluding those built into churches - only one is recorded before the 20th century. This is the fine puddingstone at White Notley, mentioned in a letter of 1884. Since it was a notable object in the district, we can assume that it had already been there for some time; but just how long can't be determined.
On reviewing the section from Thornwood in Essex to the Ver ford at St. Albans, he said that "no less than forty [boulders] were located, many in their original positions".18 Since he could not possibly have known those 'original positions', his argument is specious. Conversely, he admitted that "many [of his Track-stones] were quite obviously not in their original positions, for some had been built into church foundations of a later date, some moved to form wheel-guards at corners of buildings, and others moved from the middle of a field to its border, in the interests of farming".19
He was, in effect, having his cake and eating it too. If it was in the general area, he would find some way of fitting a stone into his Track no matter where it was located or originated. To Dr. Rudge, the impression that a boulder 'looked old' and 'looked right' seem to have been key determining factors, with the strongest being simply how well it fit his theory.
That brings us to the next part of this investigation - just how probative and honest were his choices in 'discovering' the route of the Puddingstone Track?
1. Letters from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 20/2/1950 & 16/5/1950.
2. E.A. Rudge (ed. John Cooper'): 'The Lost Trackway' (Cooper, 1994), p.17.
3. Rudge (ed. Cooper): op cit, p. 6.
4. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 8/5/1950.
5. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 28/9/1950.
6. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 18/4/1951.
7. E.A. Rudge: 'The Puddingstone Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.30, part 1 (1957), p.53.
8. Rudge (ed. Cooper): op cit, p.9.
9. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'Evidence for a Neolithic Trackway in Essex' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.28, part 4 (March 1950), p.172.
10. Rudge & Rudge: op cit, p.174.
11. E.A. Rudge: 'Statistical Evidence for a Conglomerate Alignment in Essex' in Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, part 3 (1954), p.184.
12. Rudge (ed. Cooper): op cit, p.14.
13. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 7/6/1950.
14. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 20/2/1950.
15. Rudge (ed. Cooper): op cit, p.18.
16. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'The Conglomerate Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, part 1 (March 1952), p.18-19.
17. Rudge (ed. Cooper): op cit, p.18.
18. Rudge (ed. Cooper): op cit, p.17.
19. Rudge (ed. Cooper): op cit, p.9.
3. A Matter of Choice:
The late Professor John Catt commented that "Throughout most of its course in Hertfordshire, puddingstones are so abundant on the surface that the Rudges must have made an unconsciously biased selection to produce a clearly defined trackway".1 The notion of unintentional bias is at least a more charitable one than "drawing an arbitrary line through a scatter to suit the whim of the searcher." But the more I looked into Dr. Rudge's search for puddingstone, and the paths he chose to follow when creating the route of his Track, the more I came to realise that he was, as Warren had suggested in 1954, 'putting his own ideas into them.' Some hints of this can be found in his printed works, but more is revealed in his private letters.
Of the first five puddingstones that he knew about, he only ever saw one himself, at Holyfield. But the approximate locations he was told for the others were enough to set him off in a roughly ENE direction across Essex, following an apparent trail. That first summer of 1949 took him as far as Marks Tey in his home county, but then the trail seemed to have gone cold. After several weeks of searching north of Colchester and into south Suffolk, a dash to Boxford for petrol resulted in a chance encounter with the conglomerate at Whitestreet Green in Polstead parish.2 Despite the fact that it was more than ten miles between that solitary stone and Marks Tey, his first instinct was to draw a line between the two and try to connect them by searching along that course. In another case of 'find the most where you look the hardest', he came upon nine more stones - although four of them remain unconvincing, three weren't even conglomerate, and one of them was put in place only in 1862.
This finding of isolated boulders then forging a connection with his Track by searching only along a line between them is a common feature of Rudge's work. To the south-west in Buckinghamshire he heard of a puddingstone at Fingest, then combed the seven miles between there and his last site near Denner Hill, finding four stones to add to his tally. (One has since vanished, but the other three are once more not conglomerates.)
Having only read about puddingstones at Chesham church, he told his first 'acolyte', Mrs. Pilcher of Chalfont St. Giles, that "Some day I am hoping to trace this new track across Hertfordshire to Chesham and beyond".3 He had already decided the general future direction that his search was to take, and soon gave Mrs. Pilcher more specific instruction on how to help him in that search. He suggested that she "draw a pencil line on your map from the Verulam Ford [St. Albans] to Chesham...Now look along your pencil line and note all the places on it or near it...Visit these places, looking for your stone..."4 The instruction was only to visit specific locations, not scour the roadsides, hedges and fields within a certain radius. Not exactly 'painstaking' and 'systematic' search parameters.
Through local knowledge and her own stone-hunting expeditions, Mrs. Pilcher was able to produce for Rudge a very large map in pencil of the region between Bovingdon (Herts) and Bradenham (Bucks), marking the positions of many puddingstones and sarsens. "I hope to explore the area during Whit week" he told her, "and your notes will save me a lot of time".5 And again the following spring he wrote: "we wish to explore minutely the section Chesham - Bradenham which you so successfully traced out last year".6 With much of the preliminary work done for him, Rudge simply had to see the stones for himself and pick and choose which were suitable for his idea of the Track. Any kind of wide-ranging and intensive search was hardly necessary.
Just as he was convinced that his Track was heading for Chesham to the west, so he was sure that the flint mines of Grime's Graves were its prime destination to the north. This conclusion had also been reached by the end of that first summer of 1949, and his "attempt to link the Grimes Graves area at Thetford to the Essex section" was very much a conscious one.7 When he saw that his procession of stones was heading north from the Essex border, and apparently aiming for Thetford, according to 'The Lost Trackway' it was his "inspired guess" that the mines were "the ultimate objective".8 Back in 1949 however, he said it was a trip to north Norfolk which led to that realisation. He found five stones (all later rejected) leading southwards from Heacham, in a line which when extended passed through Grime's Graves.9 Whichever was the truth, his early intention to link Chesham and the mines with his imagined line of Essex boulders was certainly a bias that led to a limited 'corridor' of search activity.
To the south-west, beyond Stoke Row and into Wiltshire, there isn't even a semblance of a coherent Track. A handful of widely-spaced boulders, never seen by him and only heard about, became part of his route only because they seemed to point in the direction of Stonehenge, his long-held theoretical terminus.
Looking at Dr. Rudge's work on the Track as a whole, it can be seen that he had locked himself into a way of thinking that could only lead to his hoped-for result. Once the desired terrain with its reliance on sandy and gravelly soils and adherence to higher contours was established, along with the supposed antiquity of stones at churches, the concept became fixed. But the route itself was being continually developed and corrected to provide a 'best fit' outcome. Rudge can't be faulted for adhering to the principle of adjusting a theory when necessary in the light of new evidence - even though the results sometimes ended up casting a dubious light on that very theory.
For example his published articles give us six separate occasions, across four counties, where he came up with a 'better' stretch of Track than one he had already established. A letter of 1950 gives another that was never printed. He thought that he had "closed the last gap" between Grime's Graves and Semer in Suffolk: "Very characteristic stones in a line were found at Wattisham, Buxhall, Badwell Ash, Stanton, and Rushford".10 (I've seen the first three of these, none of which are conglomerates.) Each route was valid according to his theory until they no longer were. This is fine: he discovered new evidence, and modified his approach accordingly. Unfortunately this leaves us with seven lengths of (often parallel) 'ghost' Track, which usually start and end at the same places as the final version. As Warren pointed out in 1954, not only was Rudge misled, but any prehistoric traveller would similarly be led astray.11
Dr. Rudge spent years in an attempt to consolidate his hypothesis of the Puddingstone Track. He and his wife's countless hours of fieldwork lessened after his retirement in 1959, but only ceased when age and infirmity took their toll. The whole thing was a noble concept, but weakened by bias, contradictions, failures of logic and basic errors of fact, as will be summarised in the next section of this study.
1. John Catt (ed.): 'Hertfordshire Geology and Landscape' (Herts Natural History Society, 2010), p.116.
2. Lilian Rudge: 'The Mystery of the Puddingstone Track' in 'Essex Countryside' Vol.5, No.19 (Spring 1957), p.99.
3. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 8/11/1949.
4. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 23/11/1949.
5. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 16/5/1950.
6. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 24/4/1951.
7. E.A. Rudge (ed. John Cooper'): 'The Lost Trackway' (Cooper, 1994), p.4.
9. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'Evidence for a Neolithic Trackway in Essex' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.28, part 4 (March 1950), p.179.
10. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 28/9/1950.
11. S. Hazzledine Warren: 'The Conglomerate Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, part 3 (1954), p.177.