ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 52, April 2000


One step to the left, two steps back

Moving ancient woods or monuments out of harm's way is no way to preserve them, writes Simon Denison

Last month the Highways Agency moved a tract of ancient woodland a few hundred yards to make room for a new wider M2 motorway near Gillingham in Kent. Yes, moved. Around a hundred mature hazel trees, 10,000 tonnes of `ancient topsoil', bulbs, seeds, beetles, what have you - they moved the lot.

Now the juggernauts and caravans are thundering up again from the south coast on their extra lanes. And what of the beautiful ancient Frith Wood, said to be 400 years old? Well, it survives - in a way. It has just moved a bit.

The project was described as a `pioneering environmental scheme'. Maybe so. Few other tracts of ancient woodland have been shunted about like this. But in truth the scheme is just the latest of a spate of removals operations that seem to be becoming the new with-it high-tech approach to conserving our threatened historic environment.

On the move

Last year, of course, Seahenge timber circle on the Norfolk coast was uprooted and moved to Flag Fen to save it from burrowing beetles and shifting sands. Earlier, Oxford's Grade II* listed Victorian LMS railway station was taken apart and relocated in a railway museum in another county - it, too, stood in the way of a new road. Elsewhere, timber-framed farmhouses, medieval churches, even prehistoric barrows have been dismantled and rebuilt in new `safer' locations a few yards, or a few miles, from their original sites.

Am I the only one to feel profoundly uneasy about this new trend? Evidently not. Public disquiet about Seahenge was widespread last year, and at this magazine we continue to receive letters on the subject. Last month one came from Barry Eames of Great Bourton, Oxfordshire. `Having polled a number of friends in and out of the archaeological community,' he wrote, `I find that all share the opinion that the excavation of Seahenge was destruction, nothing short of vandalism . . .'

Several million people watched the excavation on Channel 4's Time Team in December. One viewer I know, a professional woman in her mid-30s, told me she'd watched with tears rolling down her cheeks.

These people are not pagans, druids, eco-warriors or any other form of crank. They are intelligent people who understand English Heritage's rationale for the excavation: leave the circle in place, and it will be destroyed by the sea. They recognise that moving it to Flag Fen ensures its `preservation' and continued study. Even so, its forcible removal by human hand seemed, to many, inexpressibly sad and misguided.

Why was this so? Part of the reason must be that a monument's original location matters. During the Oxford LMS station affair of 1998, the CBA argued that the archaeological integrity of a building or monument depends on its survival on its original site. `Any reconstruction,' the CBA pronounced, `would produce nothing but a sterile facsimile.'

Part of this argument, which applies equally to other relocated monuments, is intellectual - divorce a site from its context and you disrupt the evidence of its history.

But the main thrust of the argument, I believe, comes from the heart. The value of an ancient monument resides in the simple fact of its survival, eroded by time but still there, unmoved, on the very spot where it was built by people hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Let them be

How is it that we can be so enthralled by a timber circle, a hillfort, a medieval watermill, an ancient wood? It is certainly not for the `information' that such sites provide about the past - far from it. Knowledge, for its own sake, is among the most trivial of substances. Dates, dimensions, construction techniques - in the final reckoning, who cares? It is the feeling that counts; the way in which these numinous ancient places confront us with an understanding of our own brief lifespan, our place in the great unending human chain.

Move a monument, even a few yards, and this magic is gone. It becomes a `sterile facsimile', a mere 21st century reconstruction, another piece of the expanding heritage theme-park that sits, like an unwelcome neighbour, alongside Britain's authentic historic environment.

The removal of Frith Wood was said to provide a `blueprint for even more ambitious restoration schemes' in the future. I sincerely hope it will not. The only way to truly cherish an ancient monument or other historic feature is to leave it alone, avoid it, plan around it. And if it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to plough a road through it, or abandon it to the waves, then my judgment is we should photograph it, film it, write about it - and let it go.

Simon Denison is the Editor of British Archaeology

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