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HS2 dig probes 11th-century church ruins in Buckinghamshire

21 May 2021


Archaeologists working on the HS2 project excavate the remains of Old St Mary’s, Stoke Mandeville

Archaeologists working on the HS2 project excavate the remains of Old St Mary’s, Stoke Mandeville

ALMOST 900 years of history are being revealed as archaeologists explore the ruins of an 11th-century church which are due to disappear beneath the tracks of the HS2 rail route.

Old St Mary’s, Stoke Mandeville, in Buckinghamshire, lies on the new high-speed line between London and Birmingham. Founded in 1080, it was abandoned in the 1880s when a new church was built nearer the town centre. A slow decline followed, which ended in 1966, when the fabric was considered so dangerous that it was demolished.

Although the site was a pile of overgrown rubble, the builders of HS2 saw it as a rare opportunity to understand how it evolved over the centuries.

In 2018, archaeologists began work on excavations, surveys, and building-recording. Their efforts revealed well-preserved walls and other features. Last October, they found unusual medieval graffiti, and other markings that could be sundials or witching marks.

In February, after a virtual blessing by the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, work began on the graveyard, where the last interment was recorded in 1908. It will take six months to examine about 3000 graves, and then the remains will be reburied in a nearby location, marked with an explanatory monument.

The project archaeologist, Dr Rachel Wood, said that the work would provide a lasting legacy for the community of Stoke Mandeville. “Those buried there will be remembered once again, and the lives they lived over 900 years understood,” she said. “The best way to honour the dead is to understand their stories and how they lived their lives.”

The head of heritage for HS2 Ltd, Helen Wass, said that artefacts and human remains uncovered were being treated with dignity, care, and respect, and that the community would see the discoveries on open days and in expert lectures.

Elsewhere on the HS2 route, about 60,000 graves in the former burial grounds of St James’s, Piccadilly, have been moved to make way for the London terminal at Euston Station. They include the remains of Captain Matthew Flinders, who led the first circumnavigation of Australia in 1803, and is credited with creating its name. Plans to rebury him in his home village of Donington, in Lincolnshire, have been delayed by Covid-19 until later this year.

In 2019, another 6500 burials were removed from the cemetery in Park Street, Birmingham, to make way for a new station.

The first phase of the £110-billion line is due to open some time between 2029 and 2033. The project has been dogged by controversy: opponents say that it is destroying countryside and creating a huge financial burden. The Woodland Trust says that HS2 is “a grave threat” to ancient woods in the UK, and that 108 are at risk of loss or damage. Climate activists have disrupted work at sites along the route.

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