The sites of the great battles of British history are some of the saddest, most evocative and numinous places in the land. It seemed, in 1995 when the Battlefields Register was published, that this fact had been grasped by officialdom in Britain. It seemed that battlefields were, at long last, to enjoy a modicum of protection against new development. It is now far from clear, alas, that this is to be.
Tewkesbury Battlefield, where one of the decisive engagements of the Wars of the Roses took place in 1471, was, until recently, an attractive rural landscape that still retained much of the terrible pathos of its history. Many fragile features of the landscape that influenced the battle can still be seen - holloways, a moated manor, a medieval deer-park with a high earth bank, and the bottleneck of the Bloody Meadow where the retreating Lancastrian army met its dreadful slaughter.
Yet in 1994 permission was granted for a large housing development and a bypass on one part of the battlefield (see BAN, December 1994). Now, last month, permission was granted for a second housing development on another part of the field - at a place known as the Gastons, at the centre of the battle. With sublime bathos, the developer, Bryant Homes Mercia, is reported to have `undertaken to provide a car park and other amenities for the rest of the battlefield'.
In a few years time, we will walk across the remaining patches of grass at Tewkesbury Field, and all about will be the shiny new walls and roofs of new houses, clipped lawns, garden fences, satellite dishes, streetlighting, and a thousand and one other banal features of modern suburban living. We will also no doubt have a jammed car park complete with `amenities' such as rubbish-bins, trinket-shops, fizzy-drink stalls and public loos. Picture the scene! Picture the majesty!
The Environment Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is considering whether to `call in' Tewkesbury Borough Council's latest decision to grant planning permission - in order to decide the matter himself following a public inquiry - but, given all that has gone before, it seems doubtful the Gastons will survive.
Throughout this sorry tale, which began in the late 1980s, the behaviour of a number of organisations might well be called into question. The borough council appeared to care little for preserving its famous battlefield. Gloucestershire County Council - which, coincidentally, owned some of the land that was sold for development - also downplayed the importance of the battlefield and argued, against the evidence, that its location was `in doubt'.
English Heritage - the custodian of the Battlefields Register - has conspicuously acted without honour. It kept its public, written interventions to the minimum, and chose not to take part in inquiries - including one called specifically because of the `conservation and archaeological issues' raised. Needless to say, English Heritage has argued that it privately kept the Government informed of all it knew, and therefore did all it could to protect the site before the 1994 permission was granted.
In the event, the chief advocate for the battlefield has been a dogged Swindon planning consultant, Rob Gillespie of Chapman Warren. Mr Gillespie was advising a rival developer applying to build houses elsewhere in Tewkesbury, but his opposition to destruction of the battlefield went beyond his commercial duties. His cause was supported by the CBA, by independent experts such as David Miles of the Oxford Archaeological Unit, and by many others. Nonetheless, his connection with a commercial rival prejudiced his case, with the consequences we now see. The idea of a Battlefields Register was first mooted by the Government in 1990. During the 1990s, however - during, that is, the Tewkesbury saga - its commitment to battlefields waned. In 1992, its planning guidance on roads (PPG13) stated that battlefields should be avoided. In 1994 its guidance on the historic environment (PPG15) simply said they should be taken into account. After Tewkesbury, one can only fear battlefields will not even get that much consideration.
We urge two things. First, Mr Prescott should call in the Gastons proposal, and allow the first public inquiry on a battlefield since the publication of the Register. This is, politically, a time for new beginnings. It is also time to make amends for the contempt in which Tewkesbury has been held for so long.
Second, the Register itself, an advisory document, needs to be bolstered by law. Battlefields will only enjoy statutory protection if local authorities designate them conservation areas under the 1990 Planning Act (and given enough public pressure, some might). Authorities would then be required to preserve and enhance their character, and we might have an end to the tawdry flood of `amenities', roads and new housing in these awesome places.
Simon Denison is Editor of British Archaeology
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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997