The construction of HS2 – the new high speed railway linking London, the Midlands, the North and Scotland – has to date affected three important burial grounds: St James’s Gardens; St Mary’s Old Church, in Stoke Mandeville; and Park Street Gardens, in Birmingham. The progress of the remains of Captain Matthew Flinders, discovered during the archaeological investigation at London Euston Station, has been reviewed in a number of posts, here, here, and here. This post reviews the subsequent finds at St Mary’s Old Church.
St Mary’s Old Church
At the end of October 2021 it was reported that two Roman statues, and part of a third, had been found at the excavation site of St Mary’s Old Church. The discoveries from beneath the remains of the demolished church suggest that there were burials on the same land earlier than the Norman period. The HS2 web site indicates that the church was built shortly after the Norman Conquest, and initially may have been the private chapel belonging to the lord of the manor at that time.
The church has undergone many renovations including: the extension of the chancel in the 13th century; the addition of the south aisle in the 14th century; and the construction of the brick bell tower in the 17th century. These new additions accompanied the transition from a chapel used for private prayer to a church that was used by the local villagers.
Destruction and deconsecration
In 1866 the church ceased to be used when the new St Mary’s Church was built closer to the centre of the village, following which, it fell into disrepair as maintenance of the building declined. By 1966 the building was considered dangerous, and the Royal Engineers were brought in to demolish it. Nevertheless, the walls have survived to a height of about 5ft, and the floors is almost intact. This excellent preservation has allowed the team to reconstruct the evolution of the building.
The church burial ground was in use for 900 years with the last recorded interment in 1908; the site was de-consecrated in 1993. The BBC reports that around 3,000 bodies are being moved to a new burial site with a specially created monument; a final decision on where artefacts or the remains of the church itself will go has not yet been made.
During the excavations, the archaeologists on site discovered “some unusual stone carvings, medieval graffiti and other markings”, in particular, two stones with a central drilled hole from which a series of lines radiate in a circle. Speculation on the nature of these “scratch marks”/”witches’ marks”/”Mass dials” is beyond the scope of this post.
Legislation relating to this part of the HS2 route is underpinned by the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Act 2017, c.7, (“the Act”) specifically the cross-heading on deregulation, with sections on: Listed buildings, (s25); Ancient monuments, (s26); Burial grounds, (s27); and Consecrated land, (s28). Also Schedule 18, Listed buildings; Schedule 19, Ancient monuments; and Schedule 20, Burial grounds. These follow a similar outline to the Bill, described here, and the detailed requirements of the Act are reproduced in our earlier post.
The Act follows the pattern in other recent legislation for large infrastructure projects e.g. Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996; Crossrail Act 2008 (although this was not the case for the London Underground (Jubilee) Act 1993) in the disapplication of the provision of ecclesiastical law, including that relating to the treatment of human remains, As at St James’s Gardens, HS2 is acting as the “nominated undertaker” as defined in the 2017 Act and nominated in The High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) (Nomination) Order 2017. A summary of the legislative provisions under Schedule 20 is given in HS2 Information Paper E 25: Burial Grounds