Monday, January 5, 2009

Building houses within the Avebury WHS

Bonds Garage and the proposed five houses to be built there within the Avebury World Heritage Site;

Planning applications go forward in this modern world because local needs and bureaucratic machinery have a way of forcing their way through the labyrinth of strictures imposed by national concerns. This is evident of course when it comes to the protection of archaeological sites.

Avebury and its great Henge also suffers from this problem, to the outside eye a pleasant village lies within the protective curve of an old prehistoric monument, what you see are great stone monoliths forever fixed into a green sward. What is less understood is the wealth of prehistoric archaeological evidence that lies not only under the soil, but in a great swathe around the Henge. The ancient Ridgeway track, the old Saxon Herepath, and the many barrows still to be seen dotted around the landscape.

When the Bonds Garage was demolished rather than letting this area of land lie fallow on the approach to the northern entrance of the Henge, a planning application was put forward for five houses to be built on the site. Now this may not seem terrible, given the fact there is a mobile home site next to the garage, but as these houses are to be permanent, and I underline that word, what does it say to future developers, who with an eye on the 'potential' of building near to a famous World Heritage Site would spy a very profitable investment - will our planning laws be any stronger in the future?

There were many strong objections from organisations such as English Heritage, the National Trust, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, the CPRE and ICOMOS-UK. but all to no avail.

The site lies on the northern entrance to the Henge alongside the Swindon Road, the Henge's four entrances are aligned broadly on the cardinal points, with the northern entrance fairly close to the site, S.S.W. The following is taken from the archaeological survey done in 2007 by Berkshire Archaeological Services;

The importance of the landscape outside the Avebury Henge in the vicinity of the proposed development land is emphasised by the local distribution of round barrows, four of which are Scheduled Ancient Monuments.
A bowl barrow, which could have been constructed at any time between late Neolithic and early Bronze Age(3400-1000 bc) is approximately 600 metres from the site. (HER SU17SW677).
Similar burial mounds on slope of Windmill Hill some 800/900 metres NW of site (HER SU17SW643)
Bell barrow on the chalk escarpment about 1 kilometre to NE (HER SU17643) stands on the western fringes of a small barrow cemetery on Monkton Down; the dating is probably around 2600-1450 bc.
A ploughed out ring ditch (HER SW17SU759), may be another bell barrow, 750 metres ENE of the site. Note; a contemporary burial recorded from one of the stone holes with the Avebury Henge, 350 metres SWS (HER SU17SW182).....

One of the things the archaeological report highlights, is the relative closeness of the new excavations taking place at Durrington Walls, with its associated living areas close to the sacred ritual landscape of Stonehenge. This may also be true of the Avebury Henge, little archaeological investigation has been undertaken around this area, and though we can deduce that little evidence remains under the Bonds Garage site due to the petrol tanks that were sunk into the ground, in the event of future interpretation of the land, conservation of the landscape has to be considered.

How do we measure past history against development today? in a town context there is an inevitable pressure for new buildings to go up, but the countryside faces less pressure. Decisions can be easily made within a 'green belt' area, yet the decision to protect a world famous site has been put aside, the relevant bodies such as English Heritage have walked away from using their powers of protection. Maybe the building of five houses within a prehistoric sacred landscape are small in comparision to the saving of above ground castles, etc, but our past prehistory is very vulnerable because in the end it relies on the visuality of the landscape for our understanding in the interpretation of it.

Note; A rather appropiate letter was written by Alexander Keiller in August 1923, this was do with the proposed erection of a wireless mast, to be erected on Windmill Hill, he further goes on to say...

"Perhaps an even more horrible side of the proposal is that a large number of houses are to be built in connection with the scheme just outside the village of Avebury itself. Even Tom Robinson, the leader of the vandals who, in the eighteenth century destroyed so many of the mighty monoliths for the purpose of utilising the stone in the erection of trumpery cottages, could not have treated this greatest monument in Britain, or, for that matter of its kind in the world, with greater disdain and indifference"

Taken from A Zest For Life, The Story of Alexander Keiller by Lynda J.Murray


  1. I confess that I'm astounded that any more housebuilding would be allowed in the immediate landscape of Avebury. Unfortunately money talks a great deal more loudly than history and sacred landscapes. It's very sad, one can only hope that the current economic climate might put paid to the planning application.

  2. Like Rowan, I cannot believe that it is anything other than money (plain brown envelope . . .) guiding the hand of the planning office over this planning proposal, especially when you think of the weight of argument against it from many august bodies. Reeks of corruption.

  3. Well I don't think an impartial judgment was made by the parochial council, and it just seemed to go through the County Council without much fuss. Its the precedent that is worrying as well....