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Last week, Highways England’s contractors drilled two boreholes directly into the most sensitive area of Blick Mead. These boreholes, installed for measuring water levels in relation to the A303 tunnel scheme, were excavated without anyone present from the Blick Mead team that over many years has painstakingly researched 100% of every bucket of material recovered from the site.

Not for the first time we are obliged to question the lack of awareness and sensitivity in the approach Highways England have adopted in their surveys on behalf of the A303 tunnel project. Does anyone honestly still believe Highways England’s claim this Stonehenge tunnel scheme is a “heritage project”? Come off it Highways England! Come off it Historic England! Come off it National Trust! Come off it English Heritage Trust! This is self-serving vandalism!

Pictured Andy Rhind-Tutt discovers the Highways England borehole that has been sunk in the path of the auroch hoof prints the Blick Mead project revealed in 2017.

We recently received a letter from one of our readers, who wished to remain anonymous. Although only conjecture, the letter makes some interesting points regarding the proposed Spanish amendments to the World Heritage Committee’s drafts to the UK re the A303 scheme at Stonehenge. We reproduce the letter here in full:

Dear Sir/ Madam,

Why Spain’s stance on the A303 scheme near Stonehenge?

I wish to support our country. Often I scratch my head at money seemingly taking some precedent in decisions, but one wonders whether it is more important to protect wonderful sights and have imagination fuelled beyond the calculations. Some say yes, some say no, and many do not seem to care, their imaginations increasingly filled by with ever the reality of being able to put a plate on the table and spend more time with their loved ones.

For the last 100 years the car has become a necessity for many, and a driver, excuse the pun, for economic development and continued growth, it keeps people in purpose and freedom. Granted, there are probably too many of them, but this is what we do, we find things and make them into something else that enables a cycle, just like how people once built Stonehenge and made it from boulders from a landscape far away. But there is only one Stonehenge, unlike the cars; and whatever you may think of it, be it a big calendar, a grand gathering place for people to share or enlighten or a sacred place, it’s just there and it’s made it this far.

And so, to question of the Spanish intervention at the WHC42; backed by Burkina Faso, Hungary, Brazil, and Zimbabwe. It was interesting to see that the Spanish amendments (see below) to the World Heritage Committee were in order to undermine protection advised in the initial drafts presented by the WHC mission to the UK.

One wonders whether it has anything to do with potential tenders to Ferrovial / Cintra who are lined up as possible contractors (the others being Hochtief or Skanska/Strabag) and the proposed £1.6 billion finance scheme, or a timetable? I infer no wrongdoing or bias here, or indeed any lack of integrity, noting that the qualified diplomacy on display at the WHC was very impressive. However we must be careful with wanton speculation as there could be a plethora of other reasons; some have said Gibraltar, others may note that the WHC Spanish delegate is the wife to the ex-Secretary of Spain for Industry and Tourism, who knows, the PP in Spain are noted for dodgy deals?

But perhaps if the site wasn’t protected and debated about as it has been, the less scrupulous amongst our own might have bulldozed it already and stuck a big Mickey Mouse ride and a McDonalds on the site for a fist full of dollars; no EH jokes required.

Of course, we are not in the halls of power to make the decisions about cashing in and developing the land or highway, or for me, even comprehend other significances that may be a bit stranger. But if it is the case that it may be done deal, then the best possible solution needs to be found, as was originally proposed by the mission who came to assess the site of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), so that other people can wander past, or get some vibes, or whatever in generations to come.

Sometimes I think it is just that simple, imagination is a treasure. Is it greater to us folk, than not sitting in a traffic jam for a bit longer, and is it worth more than a public/private contract deal that could literally cut corners?

We have failed in the past through not knowing how to best understand or protect our places of interest, and we learn and guide from this. The OUV should be looked after, all agree, looked after for future generations; but only to the very best of our engineering and planning ability, and with the utmost credence given to the concerns of the community whose work it is to protect and learn and teach from our heritage, alongside the developers. The Spanish amendment reduces this real value for this scheme required for some of the community and was unnecessary. And just maybe, if they were around today, the engineers of Stonehenge might well agree.

Kind regards,

(redacted)

London

Hmmm… so would you or anyone feel it right that a developer that wanted to build in your neighbourhood was allowed to sit in final judgment of the planning department’s recommendations?

That, in short, is what is happening with the now £1.7 billion Stonehenge tunnel.

The Transport Secretary instructed Highways England to adopt a tunnel within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, and following the planning process will make the final decision whether or not it goes ahead unless successfully challenged in the High Court.

The “result” of consultations on options for widening the A303 across the Stonehenge World Heritage Site is yet to be announced – or “presented through an undemocratic lense” one might say. There will be no surprises. It will be said to point to popular and expert enthusiasm for the protection and enhancement of the World Heritage landscape – hoorah! – but a version of protection and enhancement which will have an unspoken opposite effect. How could it be otherwise, given Highways England’s and the Government’s stated aims? Let no-one be in doubt: their primary aim is not to protect and enhance the World Heritage landscape and it never was. They can only do that without building a surface dual carriageway.

This is a tragedy that has been long in the making. In 2012 Simon Jenkins smelt a rat about the Olympic opening ceremony. Was its depiction of rural Britain as “a land of fields and ploughmen, cottages, cows, sheep and horses, of Glastonbury, cricket and the Proms” a cover for a more radical vision, and was the countryside in the cross hairs of the Government and its developer friends (who kindly helped them fashion the new Planning approach)? Should the name of the ceremony be changed from “The Isles of Wonder” to “Goobye to all that”?!

Time showed that his discomfort with the direction of travel was justified and in the following year, in a piece titled “Our Glorious Land in Peril” he reiterated his view that the new presumption in favour of sustainable development, defined merely as profitable, was the most philistine concept in planning history and he spoke witheringly of the architects of the policy:
“None of these politicians shows any awareness of the beauty of the rural landscape. All live in prosperous cities and probably holiday abroad. Urban renewal is beyond them. That English people should treasure their countryside, as polls show they do overwhelmingly, is beyond them.”

Now that one of our most loved views, the free view of Stonehenge from the A303, is intended to be snatched away forever, his words still have great resonance:Ministers may win Right-wing guffaws in think-tank saloons. But it is their deeds now being scratched and scarred across the face of England that we shall remember.” The scratches and scars, if allowed to happen, will outlive Chris Grayling and the rest by millenia.

After years of biased advocacy, the short tunnel supporters (the Government, its 3 “yes-bodies” and a thin veneer of allegiant archaeologists) just had a clear reply from UNESCO: the short tunnel should be scrapped! So the question now arises, what will they do? Accept it? Or ignore it and carry on regardless?

Highway’s England’s hurried initial reaction suggests the latter: “We remain confident our scheme will enhance and protect the Stonehenge landscape.” That meaningless statement often works for developers seeking to build a few houses in small villages. But this is no village, it’s the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and this is no parish council UNESCO are talking to – it’s the world.

So far as we can see the Government can react in one of two ways. It can say, fair enough, we’ve miraculously found the finance to avoid harming the landscape. OR, and this is our guess, it can get some friendly archaeologists to start discrediting UNESCO in the public mind. Keep watching. We’ll know soon!

.

What do you do when the world’s leading heritage body opposes your ambitions? Demonise it? Is Simon Thurley, ex English Heritage leader, doing exactly that for the British Government?

This NGO (ICOMOS UK, the national advisory body to UNESCO) it is widely felt, adds another layer of complexity and (often) confusion to an already complex landscape of heritage protection and planning.” It “limps on as a membership organisation producing reports on UK World Heritage Sites and other conservation matters. It rarely sees eye to eye with Historic England and its views are more or less ignored within government – but it guides and advises UNESCO on UK World Heritage Sites, and thus has some influence.”

“The UK has a sophisticated and democratic planning system, and the government and local authorities have questioned the right of unelected international ‘experts’ to challenge what has been decided under UK law. Indeed, some believe that UNESCO should concentrate on making lists of pizza-makers and endangered sports rather than involving itself in the complex issues of national planning policy.”

Oh Simon! Who asked you to write that?

The various current proposals for altering the A303 around Stonehenge all share a common theme in that they will all be bad for local wildlife. The Great Bustard Group (GBG) has worked hard to try and ensure the iconic Great Bustard is at least considered during the various meetings, consultations and reviews.

It has been an uphill battle with each new team of consultants or experts having to be identified and then briefed from scratch. One expert working for Highways England confidently announced they had been told there were no Great Bustards in the area.  GBG staff took them out and showed them over 15, almost in sight of the Stones. The next meeting comes along and there is a new face, who knows nothing about the birds.

A new threat to the recently restored population of Great Bustards now exists. Ground Water & Ecological surveys are taking place in the fields around Stonehenge. These are now involving teams in hi-viz clothing and vehicles with loud reversing beepers and they will be roving the fields used by some of the rarest birds in the UK for nesting.

That this should be taking place anywhere during the bird nesting season is concerning, but in an area with nesting Great Bustards and the rare and sensitive Stone Curlew it is particularly concerning.  The birds will either be denied the places to nest, or the worse scenario is that they will abandon their eggs due to the disturbance. The GBG was told about the latest works but only days after they had started.

No Great Bustards have been released within miles of Stonehenge and the birds have moved into the area naturally, and have nested there.

The GBG works closely with local farmers and land owners to do everything possible to ensure the Great Bustard nests are successful.

David Waters
Executive Officer
Great Bustard Group

In response to the Heritage Journal’s plea to the world’s media to monitor Highways England’s invasive work in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, David Bullock, Highways England’s project manager for the A303 Stonehenge scheme said:

The suggestion that survey work will destroy layers of archaeology is alarmist and untrue.

Perhaps the public can judge if this is the case.

The attached images are of one of the dozens of trenches Highways England excavated in the field where Mr Bullock was interviewed by Paul Clifton of BBC South yesterday, it cut straight through Bronze Age archaeology already known to be there. Why then destroy it? Oh, we forgot, according to Highways England they were looking to see if anything was there and if it was then it isn’t destroyed – David Bullock can perhaps explain how the layers of archaeology and context destroyed by this trench simply reassembles itself when backfilled?

The worrying actuality of this typically brutal assault in the Stonehenge landscape is that more archaeology has been destroyed by ruthless evaluation schemes connected with visitor centre sites and proposed road routes in the World Heritage Site than anyone wants to publicly admit. The vast majority of this destruction, as in the present case, is carried out in the name of a perceived threat as opposed to a scheme that was actually known to be going ahead. Depressingly, the methods used in these cases have not been to the same standards to which academic research is carried out. As for what happens to the archaeology that isn’t dumped back in the trench as spoil – even the archaeological evidence painstakingly collected by Julian Richards during the Stonehenge Environs Project was dumped without even asking him or the landowner if they wanted it back.

“Alarmist and untrue”? We think not!

See:

BBC News

New Civil Engineer

In recent weeks farmers have kept machinery off the fields due to the wet conditions, pedestrian access to the Stonehenge permissive path has been closed by English Heritage and access to Avebury henge has similarly been closed by the National Trust to prevent footfall erosion. And yet Highways England’s contractors have been using a mechanical digger to excavate archaeological evaluation trenches in a field adjacent to Longbarrow Roundabout, just beyond the western boundary of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS). This work is being undertaken in connection with the proposed Stonehenge tunnel scheme.

The use of a heavy machine, which in continually moving back and forth in the current wet soil conditions would likely devastate any fragile archaeological deposits, underlines the threat that will soon reach the WHS. This was signalled when Highways England’s contractors started hand digging test pits in a nearby farmer’s field within the WHS last week. Located alongside the A303, between the area currently occupied by pigs and the A360 at Longbarrow Roundabout, this area is ankle deep in a crop masking the environs of an Early Bronze Age settlement lying across and within the boundary of the WHS.

This area of archaeological interest lies in the path of a proposed 1.2 km length of dual carriageway within the WHS, which would lie in a cutting 40–78 metres wide and 8 metres deep. The cutting stretches east from the A360, through the area now occupied by pigs to the proposed western tunnel portal location, at Normanton Gorse. We are told hundreds of archaeological test pits are proposed, to be followed by a herringbone pattern of trenches over the whole area.

Why has Highways England started this archaeological evaluation now when a growing crop will thwart field walking surveys, cloying earth is difficult to sieve for finds, and the introduction of a digger onto saturated ground could see fragile archaeological evidence lost forever?

If the investigations had been put off until the ground dried out the risk of damage would considerably reduce, but the timetable has been compressed by Highways England’s failure to engage constructively with landowners and farmers in the WHS, with no account of the farming calendar or extremely wet conditions exacerbated by periods of heavy snow. More to the point perhaps – why is this invasive and destructive investigation taking place at all when, if the road scheme is agreed, the archaeology in its path would have to be properly excavated anyway?

The public traveling along this stretch of the A303 will unwittingly bear witness to the impact of Highway England’s industrial approach to WHS archaeology. The archaeological work will continue for many weeks to come, yet the public can hardly be aware of what this activity means without the focus the media can bring. We hope the world’s media will help by monitoring what Highways England is doing, supposedly in the public interest, because there is no one that will keep an eye on this activity like the independent media can!

Further press enquiries: theheritagejournal@gmail.com

The final end of the land train era. Six “greener, cleaner buses” have arrived. But pardon us for mentioning it but exactly eight years ago, in April 2010, we wrote:

“Why not just use buses? These days there are as many environment-friendly innovations applying to them as to land trains – electric, hybrid, low-impact, you name it. And in addition, they are arguably just as or more flexible, inexpensive, safe, weatherproof, robust, long-lasting, reliable and easy to load – and they have a pretty small turning circle (hence require only a small footprint near the stones). Half a dozen of those and the job could be done – with no expensive, exclusive maintenance agreements with manufacturers, no equally expensive “custom built” elements – and let’s face it, buses are rather well-tested technology so they’d definitely give a high degree of reliability. There are thousands currently on sale, you’d get some beauties for £15,000 each so we’ll wager you could solve the whole visitor transit issue for a shed load less than the combined supply and exclusive maintenance packages the land train companies are quoting.”

and pardon us for also mentioning that exactly two years ago in April 2016 we wrote:

“The latest, and most eye-wateringly expensive debacle is the purchase and now abandonment of the Stonehenge land trains in favour of buses. The claim that they were privately financed seems rather economical with the actualité but it’s a fair bet we’ll never hear exactly how much money was lost. What IS absolutely true is that not a penny of it would have been if they hadn’t been so insistent that they were right and all those who said otherwise weren’t worth listening to. Less arrogance, more listening to the public seems to be the lesson to be learned”

Is there a moral? Listen to the public, sometimes they’re right? (And that goes for the Stonehenge tunnel too, as some in English Heritage are now admitting, we hear!)

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