British Archaeology, no 15, June 1996: News


Listed building to be removed for rail link

A group of great monuments of Victorian cast-iron engineering, which form a spectacular landmark on the London skyline, are to be dismantled in preparation for the channel tunnel rail link terminal at St Pancras.

The St Pancras gas holders, classically designed with three tiers of Doric columns connected by lattice girders, were built as the centrepiece of the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Co's gasworks in the 1860s - just when the use of gas became widespread with the invention of the water geyser in 1865 and the gas cooking ring in 1867. The group includes an interconnecting trio of gas holders which has no known parallel anywhere in the world.

According to Brian Sturt, a gas industry historian, their value for industrial archaeology is immense. The design of a gas holder allows the gas cylinder within the holder to move up and down the columns on rails as it inflates and deflates; and these holders were unusually tall for their period (over 100ft high compared to a more typical 20-40ft) requiring the cylinders to rise high into the air, and sink deep into the ground. The columns had to be exactly vertical to avoid derailment of the cylinders. The need for height - and for bolting three holders together - came from the cramped space of the site, which was wedged between the Grand Union Canal and the Midland Railway line. `These sorts of restrictions brought out the best in engineers,' he said.

The holders, he added, form an integral part of a surviving 19th century industrial landscape of canal, gasworks, and railway. As a result of their visual impact, they have been used as the backdrop to numerous films, including the classic, The Ladykillers. Although some of the gas holders are listed, they are to be demolished under the terms of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill, currently on its way through Parliament. The Bill sets aside all other legislation - such as listed buildings laws - which might otherwise prevent the rail link being built.

According to William Filmer-Sankey, Director of the Victorian Society, the rail link developers, LCR, should be obliged to re-erect the gas holders elsewhere, or incorporate them in the design of a new building. Instead, he said, LCR have simply undertaken to hold the material in store. `They are failing in their responsibilities to find an alternative use for these buildings,' he said.

Other Victorian buildings to be demolished in the St Pancras area include the `German Gymnasium', one of the first purpose-built gyms in Britain, rows of philanthropic housing, and other conservation areas. `The worst thing is that LCR has not yet produced a final building design, so even though the demolitions will take place, we don't know if they are going to be necessary,' Dr Filmer-Sankey said.


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Pictish cross tests policy on museums

Where should our most important artefacts be displayed? In national museums, or locally? These questions, increasingly being asked in museum circles, were given a public airing recently in an inquiry into the future of one of Scotland's most important medieval carved crosses.

The future of the cross, a scheduled ancient monument, still remains unresolved; but it has left advocates of `local care' confident that the tide of conservation policy has turned their way.

The Dupplin Cross, a 9th century cross on a hillside at Forteviot in Perthshire, and thought to be still in its original location, was set up by Kenneth MacAlpin, first king of a united Scotland, overlooking his capital in the valley. The cross, which depicts for the first time the unification of Pictish and Scottish tribes under one ruler, has suffered worsening erosion over recent years. The inquiry was held in December to determine a suitable place for its conservation and display.

At the inquiry, some of Scotland's leading heritage organisations were ranged against one another. The National Museums of Scotland and the landowner, the Dupplin Estate, made the original application to take the cross to the Museums to form the centre-piece of a new Dark Age gallery. Historic Scotland, the Council for Scottish Archaeology (CSA), and a local group, the Friends of the Dupplin Cross, made a counter-application to remove the cross to the local church in Forteviot for protection.

The Museums argued that if they took the cross, its long-term conservation would be guaranteed; and that with their high visitor numbers the cross would be seen by the widest possible audience. Historic Scotland and the CSA, on the other hand, argued that carved stones should be kept in their original locations wherever possible, following Historic Scotland's policy, especially where the stone has particular local significance, as in this case. They pointed out that several medieval crosses are currently preserved in local churches.

Last month, the Government's decision on the inquiry left the matter unresolved - with both applications rejected. Forteviot Church was considered too cramped a location; but removal to the National Museums was rejected on principle. Patrick Begg, Director of the CSA, said: `It seems to me the Secretary of State is saying the cross is not going to the Museums, no matter what.'

The decision made it clear that further applications to remove the cross to a sheltered location would be welcomed; and Historic Scotland is currently considering another local church - St Serf's in Dunning, which is in Historic Scotland's guardianship - as a location for the cross.

Mike Spearman, of the National Museums, said he agreed in principle with Historic Scotland's policy on stones, but that in this case there was no suitable local home for the cross. `All we wanted was action to save the cross. But we're back to square one, and now this thing will just run on and on. It's tragic,' he said.


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MPs back needs of historic landscape

A committee of MPs has criticised the Government's recent Rural White Paper, a policy document for the countryside published late last year, for making only scant reference to the conservation of the historic landscape. The MPs' criticisms echo objections made in submissions to the committee by the CBA and the National Trust.

The Environment Select Committee's report, published in April, found that there was `some justification' in the CBA's view that the White Paper was `conceptually flawed' as a document professing an integrated approach to rural problems.

The White Paper, the report said, had grasped the idea that wildlife can be eradicated easily by thoughtless human action in the countryside. `But it fails to discuss specifically (for example) the preservation of such . . . landscape features as prehistoric burial mounds, or the potential for tourism at such sites, where the benefit to the local economy must be balanced against the impact on the site itself.'

The MPs noted also that English Heritage had received inadequate attention in the White Paper - a fact blamed by the CBA (see Comment, BA December 1995) and by some at English Heritage itself on the poor relationship between government departments. `The White Paper is basically a DoE document, and we belong to DNH not to them,' said Graham Fairclough, the agency's landscape expert.

The MPs concluded: `We believe there is still considerable progress to be made and we look to the [Government's] first year report [on the White Paper] for evidence that this is taking place.'

Last month, after we went to press, the National Heritage Select Committee conducted a short inquiry into the structure and remit of the Department of National Heritage. It planned to concentrate on where the DNH's responsibility overlaps with other departments, and on the weight the department gives to different aspects of its work.


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In brief

Pictish trap

A wooden deer trap held in Marischal Museum in Aberdeen, and long thought to be about 500 years old, has been radiocarbon dated to between AD534-671. It is the only Pictish deer trap - and one of the few pieces of Pictish woodworking - found in Scotland. Similar traps, however, are known from Ireland, where there is also a carving of a deer caught in a trap on the Bannagher Cross. The trap was found in 1921 in the Moss of Auquharney near Peterhead, north of Aberdeen, standing upright in the peat. When in use, the trap would have been buried with its top at ground level, with a trap door operated by a strong spring, which would have prevented lighter animals being caught.

PPG Wales, the Government's simplified policy guidance note for Welsh local authorities on all aspects of planning - heavily criticised in draft form by the CBA and other archaeological bodies (see BA, November 1995) - was published last month as we went to press. Parts of PPG16 temporarily remain in force in Wales until a supplementary Technical Advice Note on archaeology is published, probably later this summer.

Flag Fen appeal

FLAG FEN, one of Britain's best-known prehistoric sites, will close next month unless it can raise UKP92,000. The Bronze Age site near Peterborough, where a huge number of bronze objects have been found since the early 1980s, is still being excavated; but the advent of `developer funding' for archaeology has drastically reduced Flag Fen's income from public sources. Launching the appeal last month, Francis Pryor, Director of the Flag Fen excavations, said that visitor income had failed to cover all of the site's running costs. Since 1987, 172,000 people have visited the site, including 10,000 local schoolchildren.

South Yorkshire's archaeological field unit was disbanded last month by the area's local authorities. Public funding for the unit had dwindled over recent years, and a period this year as an independent commercial field unit failed to bring in enough new work. The area's SMR, however, is still in operation.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison


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© Council for British Archaeology, 1996