HS2 and archaeology: an unexpected opportunity

Posted on: November 23, 2018 by

Large infrastructure projects are always very divisive, and this is certainly true when it comes to the HS2, the high-speed rail link that’s being built between London and Birmingham. Many have objected to its cost, questioned the extent it will benefit the communities and economies of the areas it connects and its environmental impact.

Much frustration was felt when the first National Planning Policy Framework came out in 2012 because projects such as HS2 would not be governed by it as they were deemed to be of national importance. Instead, the planning application process of HS2 was debated through Parliament and was approved when the High Speed Rail Act 2013, a hybrid bill, received royal assent on 23 February 2017. Now, construction on HS2 has started, in a manner of speaking – the largest series of archaeological excavations along its corridor have opened up their first trenches. Over the next year the 150 mile path of HS2 will be subject to more than 60 separate excavations whose role will be to excavate, record and conserve 10,000 years of history prior to the laying of the tracks.

So far at St James’ Gardens adjacent to Euston Station an important 18thand 19thcemetery containing over 61,000 graves will be excavated and reburied elsewhere. Along the route Iron Age settlements, Romano-British farmsteads, Anglo-Saxon churches and battlefields will be studied, to name a few. Alongside these fascinating excavations will be pop-up museums, community events and activities engaging all that live nearby to learn about their local archaeology and history. HS2 will always be controversial, however the scale of excavation taking place is an extraordinary opportunity to study our past in greater depth.

This sort of infrastructure requires careful balancing of starkly contrasting needs and opinions; governments must plan to provide adequate facilities, both for the present and the future but at the same time this must be carefully planned and designed to protect our heritage and environment. Thankfully planning laws and frameworks exist to help mitigate damage and balance all these factors, though as always the reality is never perfect. Watch this space as the next chapter in infrastructure decisions unfolds when the plans for the A303 tunnel past Stonehenge goes in front of the Infrastructure Planning Inspectorate in early 2019.