IT has been 25 years since Channel 4’s classic programme Time Team was first broadcast – and it all started in a small Somerset village.

Time Team ran from 1994 until 2014 and was hosted by actor Sir Tony Robinson, who was best known for playing Baldrick in Blackadder before he fronted the archaeology show.  

For its first-ever episode, 'The Guerrilla Base of the King', broadcast on January 16, 1994, Robinson and a team of archaeologists, historical illustrators and archivists descended on Athelney to document their attempts to uncover evidence of King Alfred the Great’s abbey and fort.

The Isle of Athelney – which means ‘The Island of Princes’ – is around 10 miles from Taunton and was slightly raised above the swampy marshes of the Somerset Levels.

Alfred, King of the West Saxons, hid there to avoid a Viking army led by their King, Guthrum.

He built a reputation as a man of the people who was trusted, liked and followed.

“He’s like some kind of ninth-century Che Guevara,” said Robinson.

Despite his status, he found himself in an awkward situation when he fled to Athelney.

Robinson said: “Poor old Alfred’s stuck down there somewhere. All that’s left of his kingdom is about 25 square miles of bog." 

“Any moment now, Christian England could be wiped out, and we could all end up speaking Danish.”

After hiding out at his guerrilla base in Athelney, Alfred defeated the Danish invaders at the Battle of Edington in 878, converted Guthrum to Christianity, and supposedly paraded him around Somerset.

The Danes left the West Saxon kingdom, and Guthrum later ruled as the Christian king of East Anglia until his death.

A year after his victory, King Alfred founded Athelney Abbey. 

The Time Team was called to Athelney by farmer Tim Morgan, who wrote a letter to the show.

“Dear Time Team,” it read.   

“For over 50 years, my family and I have farmed at Athelney. We are aware it is the site of Alfred’s abbey, and it is believed he had a fort here.

“Can you produce any evidence of those buildings and show what Athelney looked like in Alfred’s time?”

There is a small Grade II-listed monument on the farm in the same location that the abbey is believed to have stood.

Somerset County Gazette:

On this occasion, the Time Team consisted of: Bristol University landscape archaeologist Mick Aston; Bristol University environmental archaeologist Geraldine Barber, Wessex Archaeological Trust field archaeologist Phil Harding, Carenza Lewis of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, archivist Robin Bush, and historical illustrator Victor Ambrus.

They were based at the George Hotel in Wedmore, and they had three days to find evidence of Alfred’s ties to Athelney.

Very little archaeological work had previously been carried out in Athelney, despite its historical significance.

Archivist Robin Bush said: “At this point in 878, Alfred’s kingdom had shrunk to the few acres that surround Athelney.

“At the time that we’re talking about, he was just coming to up to 30. He was the fourth son of his father and, in fact, he was the fourth son to be king. I don’t suppose he ever expected to be king in his early years.

“He had a horrendous situation to face because the Danes had literally split England in two. They had cruelly slaughtered the kings of most places like Northumbria and East Anglia and were obviously intent on taking the rest of England.

“I think he wanted to go where people who do not know the exact lie of the land wouldn’t find him.”  

The team carried out assessments of the site from the air, field walks and a geophysical survey of the area.

On the field walks, the experts picked up interesting objects and put them in bags for analysis – including one piece of metal slag, which was later revealed to be of great importance to their project.

The geophysical survey of the abbey area allowed historical illustrator Victor to create an artist’s impression of how the site would have looked in Alfred’s time.

The same technology was used to survey the fort site, which found two ferrous (containing iron) ditches which, along with the piece of metal slag they discovered, suggests that it was once a site of industrial activity.

Archaeological scientist Gerry McDonald determined that the metal artefact was made after the Roman era but before the tenth and eleventh centuries, so it was likely Anglo-Saxon and may have been around during King Alfred’s time.  

“It’s been a very successful weekend,” said Robinson at the end of the episode. 

“The geophysics work has produced the first-ever picture of the medieval abbey and also produced the outline of an earlier building that could be the remains of a smaller abbey built by Alfred.

“But the discovery of the two ferrous ditches and the lumps of slag from the fort site is, in many ways, the most important development of all.

“It may mean that we found the first evidence of the place where Alfred made his swords and other weapons used to defeat the Danes in 878.”

Their work also showed how different the land looked in Alfred’s time: Victor’s drawings showed that the Isle of Athelney was surrounded by salt marshes, and there was a causeway linking it to Lyng and bridgehead fortifications.

In 2003, Time Team returned to Athelney for its 100th episode, 'Back to our Roots'. 

The final Time Team special aired on September 7, 2014.