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By Dr Sandy Gerrard
In the moorlands of Western Britain are two very similar stone rows. They have a great deal in common but whilst one is in England the other is in Wales. The English one was discovered in 1917 whilst the Welsh one was found nearly 100 years later in 2012. Both:
- have been damaged by industrial activity
- sit within a prehistoric context
- have a cairn at their upper end
- are composed of small stones
- have the largest stone at the lower end
- are not straight
- have a significant change in orientation at a point where a coastal headland becomes visible
- have sea views along their upper length
- have no sea views along their lower length
- are associated with cairns
- have not been positively dated
There the similarities end. The English row is a scheduled ancient monument whilst the Welsh one is not because there is “insufficient evidence”. The peculiar thing is both rows have exactly the same amount of evidence to support a prehistoric interpretation and yet whilst English Heritage considers this sufficient Cadw do not. As we have seen, a lack of evidence does not normally prevent Cadw from scheduling sites so why are they so reticent to schedule this one?
Lines of stones leading from mounds of stones have traditionally been treated as stone alignments. So why is it that in England this is seen as sufficient evidence to offer protection, whilst in Wales it is not?
These lines of stones are so similar it is difficult to appreciate why one can be seen as nationally important and the other as not.
QUESTION: When is an alignment of stones leading from a stony mound within a rich prehistoric ritual landscape dismissed as probably post-medieval?
ANSWER: Perhaps when it is embarrassingly found by a third party after the archaeological mitigation work has been completed.
The British Government (who else!) is spearheading a move to roll out biodiversity offsetting throughout the world. It has just hosted in London “the first global conference” on it (called“To No Net Loss of Biodiversity and Beyond”). At the same time those opposed to the concept have held a counter-conference of their own called “Nature is not for sale -the 2nd Forum on Natural Commons” in Regent’s Park right opposite the Government’s one. In their own words their belief is that “biodiversity offsetting ignores the difficulties in recreating ecosystems, it overlooks the uniqueness of different habitats, and it disregards the importance of nature for local communities. Once a harmful development project goes ahead, communities lose access to it forever.”
But has this relevance to heritage? It must have, for often enough if you rip up fields or forests to build houses you also destroy heritage features and knowledge, things that can’t be “offset” for once they’re gone they’re gone. On that basis it follows that archaeologists should be involved in many of the anti-biodiversity offsetting battles which the “nature lobby” is currently fighting. As well as the “Nature is not for Sale” forum perhaps there should have been a “Heritage is not for Sale” forum.
So it was pleasing to see one recent instance of archaeologists joining with the nature lobby – The CBA is supporting the Woodland Trust’s campaign to exclude ancient woodland from biodiversity off-setting schemes. The original biodiversity offsetting green paper indicated that some habitats (including ancient woodland) are irreplaceable and should be excluded from the scheme. However recent comments from (who else!) Environment Minister Owen Paterson suggest that this advice has so far been ignored. The Woodland Trust calculates there are at least 380 Ancient Woodland sites across the UK currently under threat from development – and it is inevitable that archaeology will be threatened at many of them. It will be interesting to hear Mr Paterson explanation of how the irreplaceable can be replaced!
They say conservation is about choices. We can’t save everything and we can’t turn the country into a museum. It’s sadly true. So how do we decide?
There are lots of formal methods. EH has criteria for inclusion on The Heritage at Risk Register and for Scheduling and has published guidance such as The Settings of Heritage Assets [October 2011], Seeing the History in the View [May 2011} and Conservation Principles – Policies and Guidance  that Planning Committees, Inspectors and they themselves can follow. There’s even Section 7.2 of the November minutes of the English Heritage Advisory Committee, which covers “settings”, just released. And yet and yet …. some things that just about everyone feels should be protected are sometimes lost. Why?
It doesn’t help that the conservation pendulum has been hijacked lately by those who benefit from building stuff. Nor is it exactly good news that the official definition of conservation has consequently morphed into “the process of maintaining and managing change to a heritage asset”. (See here).
But even so. Some things just shouldn’t have happened. Digging up gravel in the setting of Thornborough? Building an estate of houses close to Avebury’s henge? And currently: allowing someone to target Oswestry Hill Fort’s setting without throttling the plan the moment it was hatched? Come on! It’s hard to see how bad some plans and some consequences are without holding them up against comparable decisions that went the other way and in the case of Oswestry we’ve already done that several times recently – see here for instance.
When decisions ARE held up and compared with others they are sometimes revealed as eccentric – bizarre even. What are the people of Oswestry to make of this for instance, news of a recent case tweeted with justified satisfaction by EH’s Legal Director: “Public benefits of wind turbine does not outweigh harm to setting and significance of hill fort. Appeal dismissed.” http://ow.ly/d/2aDM Would they say “Public benefit of the proposed development does not outweigh the public harm to the monument, eh? Lucky for some!”
Meanwhile, elsewhere, more decisions that look bizarre when one is compared with another – a comment on Rescue’s Facebook page: “They want to (substantially damage) a 1830 railway station in Manchester (the first in the whole world) but in London they want to keep 1960′s Elephant and Castle shopping centre because it was the first American style shopping centre in Europe.” I have no knowledge of the relative merits of those two cases but there is surely an argument for usefully holding one against the other in some way? All the public ever wants is consistency. Is there a way to tweak EH’s database of planning decisions to further promote it? Have they the nerve to set up a classification marked: “awful decisions, please don’t use as evidence” ?
The CPRE has issued “a wake up call for the Government”…..
“We are saying loud and clear that whatever their original intentions, the reformed planning system is not working. Local people are being disregarded, open countryside is being developed while suitable brownfield land is left unused, and still too few homes are being built. We have evidence from across England that the effects of current policies on the countryside are devastating, with the Green Belt, protected areas and, above all, our ‘ordinary’ but hugely valued countryside, destroyed or threatened with destruction. Our latest research into adopted and emerging Local Plans shows at least 500,000 new homes planned for greenfield sites. This could result in the loss of 150sq Km of irreplaceable countryside. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Destruction on this scale is totally unnecessary when there are enough suitable brownfield sites for around 1.5 million homes.” More here.
The National Trust concurs…..
“Councils are being “hustled” into allowing development on greenfield land by central Government” (their Director) and “the green belt is no longer sacrosanct …. At the present moment 150,000 applications are in for the green belt…. This should be absolutely inconceivable.” (their Chairman). More here .
Depending on who you believe you may wish to sign the CPRE’s Charter to Save our Countryside HERE
People often say “I rather like wind farms, they look sort of majestic”.
Indeed. But presumably it’s all a matter of personal taste and also where and how many. So here’s a perfectly genuine current proposal for a wind farm in an area that contains at least thirty scheduled ancient monuments. (Can you count how many turbines there are and work out the location?).
Does “where” matter? Are developments on that scale acceptable in some places? Which places? Please nominate specific areas or landscapes in Britain or Ireland where developments on the above scale would be reasonable!
A while back we complained there were very few prehistoric sites in the list of British sites being considered for nomination as candidates for World Heritage status. So we suggested….
“If there aren’t going to be any specific prehistoric sites amongst the front runners, we’d probably support The Lake District – on the grounds that it includes many amazing prehistoric sites – and is anyway a marvelously strong contender for a host of other reasons as well.”
So we were happy to learn that The Lakes have indeed been chosen as Britain’s nomination! Next step will be for UNESCO to be persuaded – but that should be relatively easy, surely?
As prehistoric site enthusiasts we thought this was excellent. It’s part of EH’s extensive set of teaching resources and what struck us as particularly effective were the series of questions designed to get children to think a bit more deeply about any “bunch of old stones” they may visit.
“If you are visiting a prehistoric site, you can become a landscape detective… Often these sites weren’t just put anywhere but were carefully designed either to be seen from miles around or to have good views.
When you are being driven or are walking to the site, think about how soon you can see it… Could you see it for miles and miles or was it a surprise when you got there because it was hidden away? Did you have to walk or drive up a big hill?
Have a look at what you can see from the site… You might have to think about what wouldn’t have been there thousands of years ago (roads, walls, telegraph poles for example). Can you see a long way? Can you perhaps see other prehistoric sites?
Now, being a landscape detective, can you decide whether the site you are visiting was meant to be seen by lots of people or was the view from it more important? maybe it was meant to be a secret?”
Then they suggest the fun bit….
Make some sketches and take some photographs when you are there and draw or paint a picture of what you think the site might have looked like when it was first made… Collect between 15 and 25 stones from somewhere – perhaps your garden or a driveway or even the beach…. Think about the colour, texture, shape and size as your stones, just as they did in prehistory…. and so on.
What child could resist?
As we reported here and here, faced with growing opposition to onshore wind farms in the UK, Tory MPs are backing a plan to outsource the production of wind power to Ireland. Turbines will be built over there using British Government subsidies and the energy will be exported back to Britain using cables running under the sea to Wales. It’s the brainchild of American company Element Power who say “the Irish have a less reactionary attitude to onshore wind turbine developments than the British.”
It has just been announced that that slightly insulting claim is going to be tested because there’s going to be a public consultation. If the Irish public don’t like the idea that’ll be the end of it. Or will it? In Britain the public’s clear wishes sometimes get ignored – hence the phrase “Oswestry democracy” – a process in which the people of Oswestry have given a resounding “no” to building next to a hill fort and Shropshire Council is acting as if they’d said yes.
There are indications that the die is now cast in Ireland whatever the public says. Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte has just said “the views of local communities must be at the heart of the transition to renewable energy” – “at the heart of the transition”, note, not “at the heart of the decision”. It’s ironic that this is about to happen in Ireland to supply Britain’s energy needs just at the moment when the British have decided to step away from such things at home and Energy Minister Greg Barker has stated that the rush to develop on-shore wind farms is “over” as “They have turned public opinion against renewable energy” and “We put certain projects in the wrong place” and “We are very clear about the need to limit the impact on the countryside and landscape” and “future wind farms will be developed off-shore”.
Well, Ireland is certainly off-shore! How fortunate Britain has always treated the population of Ireland well else people might think we’re doing something duplicitous!
Last week we highlighted the eloquent words of National Trust chairman Sir Simon Jenkins (“Our glorious land in peril”) about his fears for the future of our countryside under the impact of the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” which he describes as “the most philistine concept in planning history”.
This week Sir Andrew Motion, chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England was equally eloquent and we highlight some of what he said below. Once again we make no apology for featuring a plea for the countryside on a website that is concerned with ancient monuments since damage to the one so often involves damage to the other as has often been seen.
.“The English countryside is our great collective masterpiece – and any development that needlessly damages it is an act of vandalism….the Coalition’s controversial changes to the planning system have created an atmosphere where all development is seen as good development…. When even our protected countryside is at risk, what hope is there for our unprotected but equally loved ‘ordinary’ countryside? ….. David Cameron has previously been at pains to emphasise that National Parks and AONBs are safe from the planning reforms, which ripped up hundreds of pages of protections…. However, the CPRE has warned of a surge in the number of applications to build in national parks, AONBs and locally valued landscapes after the relaxation of planning rules. ”
National Trust chairman Sir Simon Jenkins recently explained with great eloquence why he fears for the future of our stunning scenery. We thought it worth highlighting here because so often encroachment into the Green Belt also involves encroachment into the settings of monuments. Damage to settings tends to attract less public indignation than damage to scenery but if it can be resisted at the same time that’s fine.
“From the Iron Age fort at the south end of the Malvern Hills is a view of incomparable beauty. West lies the Severn vale towards Evesham, with the Cotswolds stretched across the horizon. East is the soft green of the Wye Valley, and south the dark outline of the Forest of Dean. Here, Elgar sought inspiration for marches of pomp and circumstance. Here is the landscape that Anglo-Indians are said to have recalled most often when dreaming of England.
To a modern government minister, such talk must seem sentimental tosh. The Severn Valley is an ideal growth zone, sprawling round the M5 corridor northwards from Gloucester to the Midlands, perfect for warehouse estates and out-of-town housing units. Already, plastic polytunnels are spreading up the Wye Valley, while the hills of the Welsh border are sprouting wind turbine applications. This is the new “coalition landscape”, and it has nothing to do with Elgar.
I have been to every corner of industrial England and there is no shortage of places on which to build. Thousands of acres of post-industrial sites and infill land, in the South as well as the North, are lying idle. They offer a tremendous challenge to English planning. But location, setting and some thought for beauty are all. The Government’s policy of an ubiquitous “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, defined merely as profitable, is the most philistine concept in planning history”.