Valuing Historic Landscapes

Bignor Hill, South Downs, on a cold early May morning, 2012

How do we value historic landscapes? This thought struck me on a recent Spring break in Sussex, standing shivering on the downlands above the Roman villa at Bignor, the mist creeping over the top of the escarpment and the air cold enough to turn each sigh into dragon’s breadth. There are of course many formal ways of doing this – from scheduling ancient monuments and establishing conservation areas, to declaring tracts of landscape to be of outstanding natural beauty or scientific interest. These formal measures, though, jostle with more popular appreciations of pieces of landscape, in film, photography, poetry, song, – and even blogs.

But for the early morning mist these rolling hills would have been a good vantage point from which to see one example of cherishing a landscape – the South Downs National Park. Established in 2010 the newest national park in England covers over 1600km2, is home to more than 110,000 people, and is the location of thousands of archaeological monuments. Stretching from the cathedral city of Winchester in the west to Beachy Head just outside Eastbourne in the east – a distance of 140km – it encompasses the chalk downlands of Hampshire and Sussex and the western Weald, a sandstone and clay landscape dominated by heavily wooded valleys and hills.1

First proposed as a National Park in 1929, its use as arable land in the Second World War meant that it could only achieve status as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. When proposed again in 1999 two public enquiries followed, with fierce debate on where the boundaries should run. The issues raised included the fear that the national park would fossilise the local landscape to the detriment of the local inhabitants, and who would really own this landscape – the users or the lookers? The resultant park boundaries were a compromise, but one of the reasons the debate had been so lively was that this is an area valued by large numbers of people for many and diverse reasons. At the heart of the discussion is a time-depth landscape with Prehistoric, Roman and Medieval remains that has been an inspiration for writers such as Jane Austin, Hilaire Belloc, G K Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf, as well as naturalist Gilbert White and painter J M W Turner.

Returning northwards took me past another landscape where heritage and conservation professionals, politicians and the local community, have struggled for years to agree on the value and management of a world-famous piece of ground; Stonehenge. This site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a World Heritage Site visited by more than a million people annually.2 It sits within a vast Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual landscape covering dozens of square kilometres; not that you would realise this attempting to cross the road from the car park to the stones as rush-hour traffic thunders along the A344 and the adjacent A303.

Since public access was first restricted in 1978, to limit erosion to the site, management schemes have come and gone – including a multitude of possible locations for the visitor centre, a variety of proposals for re-routing the A303, even in a tunnel, and the closure of some or all of the A344. In 1992 the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons described the monument’s presentation as ‘a national disgrace’3 a matter that not even the alliance of English Heritage, the National Trust and government ministers could solve in the 1990s. Even the designation of the henge and 26.6km2 of its surrounding landscape as a World Heritage Site in 1999 did not improve matters: the problems of balancing the historic value of the wider Stonehenge landscape and the economic needs of the local community have remained.

One of my undergraduate seminars in 1984 was on the newly formed Stonehenge Study Group. Amongst the options presented by the group were new visitor facilities and the closure of the roads around the henge monument, thereby linking Stonehenge back with its ancient landscape. We were set the task of deciding where that visitor centre should be in relation to the rest of the historic landscape and then had to argue our point. Shocked by the state of the monument I rashly vowed not to visit the stones until their setting and access had been resolved in a manner fitting for such a landscape of world importance. 28 years later groundworks have finally started on the English Heritage-sponsored plan to return the stones to ‘a more tranquil and dignified setting and provide visitor facilities worthy of Stonehenge’s significance’.4 Work at Airman’s Corner, the site of the proposed visitor centre, began this spring. In October 2013 the new galleries will open and the A344 running past the monument will be closed. Works to restore the ancient landscape around the stone circle will be completed in the following summer. Yet controversy remains about the damage that the visitor centre and changes to the road alignment will do to the archaeology of the immediate henge area, which is why these new proposals are not supported by all of the historic environment community.5

The saga of the management of Stonehenge has yet to reach the 81 years it took for the South Downs National Park to finally come into being. Yet 28 years after I vowed not to visit Stonehenge I’m still waiting for my first visit on foot to the monument. Might 2014 be that year?

1) www.southdowns.gov.uk

2) ‘Stonehenge World Heritage Site Facts and Figures’; www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/stonehenge/world-heritage-site/why-is-stonehenge-a-world-heritage-site/facts-and-figures/

3) ‘The Stonehenge Saga: the Early Years’; www.britarch.ac.uk/conservation/stonehenge/earlyears

4) www.english-heritage.org/uk/daysout/properties/stonehenge/our-plans/

5) ‘Stonehenge Update Spring 2012’ Rescue News 115, April 2012.

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