Monday, June 27

‘Unique opportunity’: HS2 discovers the history of the medieval church | HS2

For 150 years, in a small wooded corner of a Buckinghamshire field, a large pile of stones lay overgrown and almost forgotten. A flourishing local parish church for nearly 800 years, the small building of St Mary’s near Stoke Mandeville had gradually fallen into disuse and had been abandoned. In 1866, its collapsed walls were deemed dangerous and it was torn down, leaving its rubble to grass and weeds.

The Old St Mary church site is no longer silent. The ruins sit on the route of what, most people in Buckinghamshire now grudgingly concede, will become the HS2 rail link and, like dozens of other landscape features along the 150 miles of the line, they are being busily excavated before the construction of the road. This week, HS2 archaeologists announced that they had identified 3,000 burials in the cemetery that will be carefully exhumed and reburied elsewhere.

Much attention is paid to giving a small pile of tumbled stones, but, says Rachel Wood, the site’s lead archaeologist, St Mary’s offered a “unique opportunity” to excavate an entire medieval church and cemetery. “Most of the churches you can think of are all still standing. We don’t normally have the opportunity to excavate a building in this way and understand the changes and developments that it went through. “

A computer-generated image shows what the Church of Santa Maria might have looked like when it was built
A computer-generated image shows what the Church of Santa Maria might have looked like when it was built. Photograph: HS2

The remains date from the early years after the Norman invasion, around 1080. At that time, according to the Domesday Book, the town of Stoke (the Mandeville would come later) was home to 24 families, three enslaved people, enough forest for 30 pigs and a mill valued at 10 shillings.

The church expanded throughout the medieval, Tudor, and Victorian periods, and burials continued into the early 20th century. Several of their identities are known to local historians, partly through wills dating back to 1550; the archaeologists also plan to examine a portion of the human remains to learn more about the health of the community throughout the centuries.

But the location of the church can also indicate other potential stories. Interestingly, the old church is located some distance from the town of Stoke Mandeville itself, surrounded by two streams. Wood’s team plans to search for evidence of any Anglo-Saxon structures beneath the Norman masonry, while a previously unknown Roman settlement has also been identified nearby.

“Obviously, we are looking closely at the medieval part of the story. But what I find interesting is to re-stitch it into its longest history, ”she says.

Streams, particularly where they are found, have been frequently revered throughout history, “so it is possible that this was a special place much longer than the medieval or Saxon periods. But we won’t know unless the evidence has survived. “

Peter Marsden, who is president of the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society (BAS) and has wrote a brochure On the history of St Mary’s, he has said that the church is of national importance because of the role it played in the period immediately preceding the Norman Conquest. “But the thing is, in this part of Buckinghamshire, you can’t really put a pallet on the ground without finding something.”

That’s not an exaggeration: St Mary’s is a mile from where the archaeologists last year He discovered a large wooden henge monument from the Neolithic Age. aligned with the winter solstice; A potential Iron Age murder victim and a lead-lined Roman tomb were also found nearby. The irony is that while they have all been found as part of the development of HS2, eventually they will all be erased by it.

Archaeological dig near Stoke Mandeville
The archaeologists plan to search for evidence of any Anglo-Saxon structures beneath the Norman masonry. Photograph: Middleton Mann / HS2

The BAS has highlighted the concern about the impact of the line on at least 10 historical sites in the county, but the local opposition is not simply focused on archeology. The Stop HS2 campaign group lists 34 local action groups only in Buckinghamshire, and near Wendover has has been the scene from protesters camped out trying to block the destruction of ancient forests; after a long battle, part of this was shot down only in the last week.

Noise pollution, Environmental damage and the impact on house prices are also concerns, say local activists. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is delighted with the prospect of HS2,” says one.

Helen Wass, HS2’s director of wealth, said that decisions about infrastructure projects of this type were made by others, “but if a construction project is underway, then [archaeologists] We will ensure that the historical setting is excavated to the best of our ability, that information is shared and that we can tell the stories of those people so that the people of St Mary’s can learn about their ancestors and the public can learn. a little more about how we used to live and how we shape our landscape. “

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