As a presenter on new ITV series Secrets from the Sky, Ben Robinson is exploring some of the country’s best-loved historic landmarks from a bird’s eye view. Amy Hulyer caught up with Ben to find out more.
The next episode on Friday 31 October at 8pm explores the story of Stonehenge.
What is your role at English Heritage?
I am Principal Adviser for Heritage at Risk in the East Midlands. This means that I work with my colleagues and our partners to turn 'heritage at risk' (buildings, monuments, designed landscapes) into places that can make a contribution in today's world and in the future. It is very rewarding indeed to help bring important heritage sites back from the brink of destruction, knowing that they will be appreciated and loved for years to come.
How does aerial archaeology differ from normal archaeology? How did you get into it?
I have been into flying as long as I have been into archaeology and history - which is before I can remember! Right from my first real flying experiences as a teenager, I think I have spent as much time looking down at things on the ground and wondering what they are all about, as concentrating on flying the aircraft. This is just one of many reasons why I still fly small light aircraft, rather than one of the Red Arrows.
Aerial archaeology is a catch-all term that describes the work of people who fly to discover new archaeological sites, or take photographs of archaeological sites, or who interpret aerial photographs to map archaeological features. For me it has largely been an evening and weekend passion that has intermittently crossed over into my weekday professional work.
What sort of things do you look for?
I look for anything that adds to the story of how our world has been used and shaped by people over time, whether that's vague marks in ripening crops that betray the buried remains of a buried prehistoric settlement, patterns of building foundations that hint at some special industrial or military function, or earthwork lumps and bumps that show how our ancestors laid out their villages and fields. Even a wiggly hedgerow can indicate some interesting forgotten aspect of our history. These features are rather like memories in the landscape - it just takes someone to notice them and start asking questions.
How did you get involved in Secrets from the Sky?
When I am flying alone, trying to track the history of the land as I go, I always think that more people really should get to see the country like this – it is fascinating stuff. I gave talks and lectures for years and have also been lucky enough to do some of this on TV previously. I love to spend my leisure time flying over heritage sites or visiting them on the ground, talking to interesting people doing interesting work. So when somebody rings up and says "would you like to see some wonderful places from above, then talk to people about them?", what's not to like? 'Secrets from the Sky' shows some of our prime heritage in a different way. Aerial views are often used on TV as background, but seldom does anybody try to share aerial exploration with viewers and discuss what it all means. In short - 'aerial archaeology' doesn't usually get much of an airing and so it was great to get the opportunity to work on Secrets from the Sky!
What is the benefit of using an Octocopter for archaeology?
As a flyer I get to experience, not just see, the landscape below. Simply looking at a photograph, especially one taken from high level, can make everything look a bit abstract and map-like, which is useful for many purposes but not something that everybody can relate to. The octocopter flies at heights which give a very human (or at least small bird) scale view, so you are still intimately connected with the populated land.
It's a dynamic, manoeuvrable view, rather than a static view. It really places you in the pilot's seat. In fact, it’s better than that because the octocopter can go where no aircraft or helicopter pilot could go. Octocopter technology just gets better and better. Their endurance is much improved, they can now lift good quality cameras, and they are much more stable than they were.
Did you make any new or exciting discoveries?
You will have to see! I think people will be surprised by what shows up from the air. Even the really well known sites have whole chapters of their history that you only really appreciate from above.
Do you have a favourite English Heritage property?
That's a really unfair question! There are so many wonderful properties, great and small, right across the country that I simply could not pick one - it would seem disloyal to my legion of other favourites. I have especially enjoyed staying in the holiday cottages attached to properties. Getting to know places like Mount Grace Priory, Walmer Castle, Battle Abbey and Witley Court after hours is hard to beat.
Secrets from the Sky on ITV
In ‘Secrets from the Sky’ Ben Robinson is joined by historian Bettany Hughes to explore six historic landmarks including Tintagel Castle, Old Sarum, Stonehenge and Maiden Castle. The series airs on ITV on Fridays at 8pm from 17th October.