Left Brian Philp at Reculver in 2002, still working there half a century after he first started.
Brian Philp archaeology’s Man of Kent
‘Can you tell me which rooms had tessellated floors?’
The questioner is standing on the floor of a Roman villa facing a line of London school kids on the walkway. He wears yellow hardhat and practical outdoor clothes. He looks fit, trim and agile, and talks and gestures in a clipped, confident style. It is Brian Philp, the veteran Kent rescue archaeologist.
A hand goes up. ‘Number 11.’ ‘Yes. Which others?’ A forest of hands. ‘Yes, numbers four and five.’ He is a natural. Most professional archaeologists would have subjected them to a jargon-filled monologue, and they would have been fidgeting and poking each other within half a minute. But Brian is one of the those archaeological allrounders – like Mortimer Wheeler (whom he admires) – someone not only first-rate at doing archaeology, but also firstrate at presenting it to every kind of audience from primary school kids to academics.
As he talks, he weaves things together – the evidence the kids can see in front of them, the techniques archaeologists use in excavation, and insights into life in a Roman villa. And all the time he fires off questions to keep them engaged and attentive. Thus he holds them for a full 20 minutes. Then they go off to draw artefacts, make mosaics, and dress up as Romans.
Brian’s wife Edna and other Crofton Villa volunteers organise this, so he and I were able to escape to a local pub for the interview.
We ended up in the Eagle Room of the Queen’s Head in Downe. Brian knew all the history. This was Charles Darwin’s home village. The local vicar had banned him from the parish church. The Eagles were American civilian flyers who had joined the RAF to fight the Nazis before the US entered the Second World War. They had flown out of nearby Biggin Hill and this pub was their retreat. (Thirteen of them had never made it back: Brian knew the number.)
The war, as it happens, provides Brian Philp with his earliest memories. Born in Bromley in 1938, Brian has lived in Kent all his life, and he remembers watching the Blitz – the air raid sirens, the roar of the approaching enemy bomber squadrons, the night sky erupting in a crescendo as the antiaircraft batteries opened up; next the rattle of incendiary bombs and shell splinters raining down on suburban roofs. These memories spanned six long years, culminating in more near-misses from intensive V1 rocket attacks. He thinks it left him with a strong sense of what things really matter. And for him, above all, that came to mean a life dedicated to leading others in a struggle to rescue the past.
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