HS2 - Tunnelling Machine
Modern, News, Victorian

HS2 – The UK’s Largest Archaeology Project

You would be forgiven if you asked me what has HS2 got to do with a Yorkshire Historical Society. Especially as we are no longer getting an HS2 link to our major city Leeds.

HS2 - Tunnelling Machine
One of the HS2 Tunnelling Machines

The controversy and interest here has died down but that is not the case in Buckinghamshire, my original home county. Here the leafy Chiltern Hills are being bored through by two massive tunnelling machines called Florence and Cecelia and a straight line of earth moving machines are striding across the clay Vale.

Aylesbury Vale Steeplechase at Berry Field Farm

This is the scene depicted in the painting of 1836 by Charles Hunt in the British Museum showing the Aylesbury Vale Steeplechase at Berry Field Farm not far from the line of the new railway.

The Vale of Aylesbury - Rex Whistler
The Vale of Aylesbury – Rex Whistler – National Trust

HS2 passes through this very rural scene by Rex Whistler painted in the early 30’s for the ‘Everywhere You Go You Can Be Sure of Shell’ poster series held by the National Trust. It is hardly surprising that controversy has not died down there. But it is not the disruption that this major project is causing in the Midlands and Home Counties that really interests me, it is the unforeseen archaeology that is being unearthed.

Archaeology for HS2 Euston at St James’ Gardens Burial Ground

Right in the heart of London next to Euston Station they have removed tens of thousands of bodies buried on the site of St James’ Gardens Burial Ground requiring the largest exhumation in British history. Here they have found the grave of the explorer Captain Matthew Flinders, the man who put Australia on the map and the grandfather of Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, commonly known as the ‘Father of Archaeology’.

Captain Matthew Flinders

This article by Tom Bolton for the Welcome Foundation explores some of the stories behind the now lost graveyard and the bodies it held.

The Oldest Turntable – New Civil Engineer

At the other end of the line, Birmingham’s 19th century station at Curzon Street is among the very earliest examples of mainline railway termini and what is thought to be the world’s oldest railway roundhouse designed by Robert Stephenson that went into operational use on 12 November 1837 Post by New Civil Engineer

At Coleshill just to the south of Birmingham they have uneathed one of the best preserved late 16th century gardens ever discovered in this country. Coleshill Manor was owned by Sir Robert Digby, and experts now believe that after marrying an Irish heiress, he built his home in the modern style, along with huge formal gardens measuring 300 metres from end to end, to show off his new wealth and status. Entirely unknown before, the preservation of the gardens is exceptional, with well-preserved gravel paths, planting beds, garden pavilion foundations and ornaments organised in a geometric pattern. The site has parallels to the impressive ornamental gardens at Kenilworth Castle and Hampton Court Palace.

HS2 – An aerial view of the archaeological excavations on the Coleshill Manor site.

At Blackgrounds Farm, in the small village of Chipping Warden, Northamptonshire they have been excavating an Iron Age village which developed into a wealthy Roman trading town.

Pottery found at Blackgrounds Farm – HS2

However, it is the three major digs very near where I used to live that particularly interest me. The farm that was the site of St Mary’s Norman church in Stoke Mandeville belonged to the managing director of the company where I worked for over 20 years. Many of my Saturday mornings were spent arranging the maintenance of the farm, walking the fields and footpaths. The church was derelict at that time, the village having moved, and a new church built a mile or so away. The HS2 findings when they demolished the remains of the old St Mary’s Norman church have proved extremely significant including the foundations of an Anglo-Saxon tower and three stone busts which are thought to be Roman. The burial ground at St Mary’s was in use for 900 years, with the last recorded interment in 1908.

HS2 – Roman Bust found at St Mary’s Church, Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire

A few miles away, within easy walking distance is Wellwick Farm, nestling under the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills. Here they have discovered a site showing human activity spanning 4,000 years including a skeleton of an adult male buried face down in a ditch with hands bound together under his pelvis. Was this a murder or an execution? The land to the west of Wendover seems to have been persistently used for ceremonial activity as archaeologists also uncovered a large circular monument of wooden posts 65 metres in diameter with features aligned with the Winter Solstice, similar to Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

HS2 – large circular monument of wooden posts at Wellwick Farm, Wendover

North of Aylesbury at Fleet Marston, archaeologists have been excavating the remains of a Roman town that lay on Akeman Street the major Roman road from Verulamium (St Albans) and Corinium Dobunnorum (Cirencester), going via Roman Alchester (near Bicester). Here among the finds were over 1200 coins, several lead weights, spoons, pins, and brooches, while gaming dice and bells suggest that gambling and religious activity occupied people’s time.

HS2 – Roman burial at Fleet Marston – Note the head buried between the legs.

Knaresborough’s very own Grade II listed station

On 5th November I had the pleasure of visiting an interesting display by the Harrogate Civic society commemorating the 160th Anniversary of Harrogate Station. Wikipedia tells me that our first station in Knaresborough was opened on 30 October 1848 by the East and West Yorkshire Junction Railway. It was situated at the bridge over Park Lane in Knaresborough. The first train to depart the temporary terminus was on 13 July 1848, although the line and station opened on 30 October 1848. The station lasted three years until the Leeds Northern Railway opened the branch from Starbeck to York on 21 July 1851 when the new viaduct and station was opened.

I wonder if the new line through Knaresborough caused as much controversy as HS2. Maybe the land owners kicked up a fuss or did people embrace the new technology?

Having just looked at the original proposed route for phase 2 of the project to Leeds I can only speculate at the devastation and yet what wonderful finds would have been made as the line made its way across the valleys of the rivers Don and Aire and into the city centre of Leeds.