Page last updated at 16:36 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 17:36 UK

Fight for England's battlefields

Newbury battlefield
Part of the battlefield at Newbury lies beneath the A34

Winston Churchill once described battlefields as "the punctuation marks of history". But sadly many of England's fields of conflict from the past are in danger of being over-developed and lost forever.

In an effort to preserve this part of history English Heritage has, for the first time, included battlefields in an 'at risk' list.

Over the years farming, house building and unauthorised metal detecting has caused damage to these areas.

Across England, the organisation has identified 43 sites of being 'at risk':

• Eight battlefields are under threat from development

• 16 sites are under threat from arable cultivation

• Ten sites have been subjected to unregulated metal detecting.

Whilst needing to protect such sites we also need to bear in mind the desperate need for housing in this country

James Stevens, Home Builders Federation

A list known as the 'Register of Historic Battles', was created in 1995 to identify sites so authorities could make informed decisions regarding road and building projects.

The list has now been expanded to identify how and why those sites are at risk.

The earliest battle on the list is one fought in Maldon, Essex, in 991.

Other sites on the list have been the subject of controversial decision in the past.

The sites of the battles at Newbury, Berkshire, in 1643 and 1644 are being threatened by development.

The local council is looking for somewhere to build 4,000 houses. One corner of the battlefield has already disappeared beneath the A34 Newbury by-pass.

To be included in the registered of battlefields, sites had to have an engagement involving military units with an outcome that was of national political, military or historical significance.

The register also encourages the conservation of 'battlefield archaeology' such as musket balls and other items dropped or lost in battle or grave sites.

People armed with metal detectors can be a menace.

Towton, North Yorkshire, saw one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on British soil. On Palm Sunday in 1461 over 25,000 men lost their lives in a ferocious 10 hour battle during the Wars of the Roses.

Many artefacts and arrowheads have been pilfered from the site and at least one incident of deep ploughing in the area may have disturbed a mass grave.

English Heritage are asking local authorities to protect these sites by making them Conservation Areas and by encouraging owners to develop footpaths and good vantage points along key site lines.

The Bayeux Tapestry
The battle at Hastings in 1066 is a hit with the tourists

Housing needs

Building on battlefield sites may not be on the wish-list for English Heritage but the issue of suitable land for house building is a huge problem.

James Stevens, of the Home Builders Federation (HBF) sympathises with the dilemma but says the problem of a housing shortage must be addressed:

"In general the HBF supports the battlefields register since the sites included are clearly of national significance and they have been selected on the basis of rigorous and transparent criteria.

"However, whilst needing to protect such sites we also need to bear in mind the desperate need for housing in this country and future selection choices or boundary adjustments must be responsive to this important public debate. "

Tourist trap

Jonathan Smith of the Battlefields Trust, a charity dedicated to the preservation of battle sites, says the list is essential to preserve this slice of history:

He said: "The Trust welcomes the 'Battlefields at Risk' register as a means of establishing a systematic monitoring of threats to such sites and reducing risk of insensitive and inappropriate development."

Tourism could be part of the solution to keep these sites in the public eye.

Hastings, England's most famous battlefield, where William Duke of Normandy, beat Harold Godwinson and his Saxon Army in 1066, is a tourism success story. But few battles are as famous - and even fewer are conveniently marked with an abbey built by the victor.

But Jonathan Smith believes more can be done to help boost tourism in other sites:

"We also help and support English Heritage's aim of improving access and interpretation of battlefields and their promotion as heritage assets, via information boards, leaflets and the development of our branch and custodian network."


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