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A little bit of local history … and everywhere in Britain has something similar to say

5 March 2012

The Slough Observer last week had a report on the history behind the Montem Mound at Salt Hill in Slough. In various sources this was associated with a mysterious trade in salt that in some way involved Eton College, which until the 20th century owned much of the land to the south of Salt Hill, down to the Thames in the valley below. In the early medieval period this was a watery landscape and the line of the Roman road to Bath takes the high point along a ridge above the Thames valley, including Salt Hill. The line of the modern M4 differs as it runs half a mile to the south in order to avoid the urban sprawl of modern Slough. Below the M4 the modern Thames Relief Scheme shifts water from the Thames near Maidenhead and flushes it back into the Thames at Datchet, a village to the east of Windsor. The castle stands on a crag of chalk overlooking the river – and the new channel. According to the Slough Observer sleuth, archaeologists have in the past poked around the Montem Mound to see if it might be an ancient tumulus – but no burial has been found. This does not mean it is not ancient as Silbury Hill and Marlborough Mound were built blind for purposes that can only be guessed – presumably as viewing platforms. It may have been, or developed into a motte and bailey monument (from the Norman era) but again, there is no evidence of this. The other alternative, put forward by the sleuth, is that it was a 'swannicote' or Anglo Saxon meeting mound (or was used as a meeting mound which would leave open when it was actually built in the first instance). A famous meeting mound can still be seen, just, at Kingsbury in what is now the urban sprawl of west London but was once also in fields within Anglo Saxon Middlesex. Slough was a blink in the eye until after WW1 and the development of a trading estate (lots of factories) on land that had been sequestered by the MD as a supply base for troops in France, situated on the side of the railway track. It's main claim to fame was that Herschel, the astronomer, lived there was a while, but it was generally small beer, outsized by nearby villages that today make up its suburbs (such as Upton). Slough was part of the Hundred (administrative district) of Stoke Poges and Montem Mound lay at a joining point of several medieval roads, namely the Bath road (east to London and west to Reading), and to the north, Stoke Poges Lane and Farnham Road (leading to prominent villages of the day). Slough was also at the head of a watery landscape, mainly bog (Eton College was built on land salvaged from the marshes, in the 14th century) as can still be seen in modern place names such as Chalvey, Dorney, Boveney, and Eton itself (ey denoting an island, or a swell of higher ground above the bog). The sleuth appears to have struck the proverbial nail on the head and no doubt many other such mounds exist in diverse parts of the country, unsung or neglected in the modern era. Eton also stood aside from the Protestant revolution, and has preserved older traditions associated with the Church. In the 16th century the Montem Mound was involved in College initiation ceremonies for new boys. For some reason they were sprinkled with salt (hence the name of Salt Hill, later expanded to the district of the same name but presumably just fields at the time). In the 18th century it developed still further and became associated with the military – or boy soldiers. This may reflect College ties with the officer class. In the 19th century this too came to an end and the advent of the railway brought Slough into the modern world, developing as a dormitory town. Going back to the 16th century it is possible to see this as part of the salt trade – and the College would have been the biggest local customer. The salt came up the Bath Road to Montem Mound and the boys ferried it down to the College. Salt was an important commodity, not only in the medieval period but earlier, in the Roman period for example, and specific routes are associated with the trade. It was vital as a feature of diet and in the preservation of food (such as fish, ham, bacon, butter etc).

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