Page last updated at 05:07 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 06:07 UK

Battlefields, wrecks and abbeys 'at risk'

By Nick Higham
BBC News

Lowther Castle. Photo by Boris Baggs, copyright English Heritage.
Lowther Castle in Cumbria is one of the sites listed


Decaying ruins may be atmospheric, but often decay is a sign of neglect... or worse.

England has almost 20,000 scheduled ancient monuments - everything from archaeological sites to old mines and ruined abbeys - but according to English Heritage more than one-fifth, 21%, are at risk in some way.

The threats include natural processes like erosion and the growth of trees and shrubs, as well as human activities like agriculture, vandalism or the pressures of development.

Arson attack

Bowes Railway Museum, near Gateshead, is Britain's only remaining rope-hauled railway.

The line was built in the 1820s to take coal from local pits to the River Tyne, but in those days locomotives were not powerful enough to haul coal wagons up steep hills.

So the pioneering railway engineer George Stephenson installed stationary engines which pulled wagons up on ropes.

Bowes Railway Incline. Photos by Boris Baggs, copyright English Heritage
Bowes Railway Incline was one of the world's first railways

And on one section of the line, the Springwell Incline, he dispensed with engines altogether - gravity alone did the work, with full wagons travelling down the hill pulling empty ones back up.

Today Bowes is a scheduled ancient monument, but it is fighting a losing battle with vandals. Six wooden coal wagons were destroyed in a recent arson attack; one of two surviving engine houses has been completely wrecked by scrap metal hunters.

John Young, the operations manager, and sole employee, says it is impossible to protect such a large site with so few staff.

Battlefields

Further south, in Newbury, one of the town's two Civil War battlefields is 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.

Off Salcombe, in Devon, an historic wreck has been damaged by an unauthorised fishing vessel. Carefully placed marker buoys have been removed, and anchored survey lines have been torn up and cut.

And hundreds of archaeological sites around the country are at risk from burrowing badgers and rabbits.

Keeling House. Photos by Boris Baggs, copyright English Heritage
London's Keeling House was under threat, but has now been restored

For the past 10 years English Heritage has published an annual register of buildings at risk, highlighting listed buildings badly in need of cash and a little loving care. In that time, it says, almost half have been saved from terminal decay.

Now it has added battlefields, wrecks, historic parks and scheduled ancient monuments to the survey and retitled it Heritage at Risk.

The register is meant to concentrate minds: the minds of English Heritage's own experts, when they draw up priorities; the minds of the public, who may be alerted to threatened monuments in their neighbourhood; and the minds of local authorities, one potential source of funds.

Money is a problem. Listed buildings usually have a roof and a commercial value. They can be adapted to new uses and the costs of restoration recovered from future revenue.

Money-makers

Scheduled ancient monuments for the most part are not money-makers and never will be - cash has to be spent with no prospect of return.

Bowes Railway Museum has had lottery grants and support from private industry in the past, but Mr Young says neither of the two local authorities whose border the site straddles are keen to spend large sums.

He needs money to refurbish his one remaining undamaged engine house; he needs 1 million to repair an asbestos-roofed wagon shed which dates from 1826; he used to have a second member of staff but there is no longer the money.

Meanwhile the legal protection which a site's status as a scheduled ancient monument is supposed to provide seems largely illusory.

It is a criminal offence to damage one, but when Mr Young caught three vandals red-handed, he says the prosecution collapsed on a technicality after three days in court.

And another vandal, he claims, successfully sued the museum for breaking his leg while on the site.


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