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In pre-Roman times, the sand and gravel terraces that parallel the A1 in North Yorkshire hosted the largest ritual landscape in Britain, stretching at least 25 miles from beyond Catterick in the north to at least Boroughbridge in the south. At the latter location, a housing estate encroaches on to the setting of the Devil’s Arrows, the largest standing stones in Britain. The large earth henges at Cana, Hutton Moor, Nunwick and Catterick can now be identified only as crop marks on aerial photographs, and 90% of the cursus monuments have been destroyed by aggregates quarrying. The most impressive archaeological survival in this "Sacred Vale" is the triple henge complex at Thornborough, much of whose setting has already been quarried away.

The large-scale excavation of glacial sands and gravels in the vicinity of the scheduled Thornborough Henges started during World War II and continued unabated across private farmland to the north-east of West Tanfield through the late 1940s/early 1950s. The former agricultural land that is now occupied by the large bowl of Nosterfield Nature Reserve, immediately to the west of the Northern Henge, was excavated by quarrying over the 41 years, 1955-96. This activity was coloured by a history of planning condition infringements, several being related to excavations below the water table or to inadequate restoration. (see "Abuses of Planning System by Mining Companies") Limited rescue archaeology identified the western part of the long cursus over which the central henge had been constructed but, otherwise, any possibility of discovering relics that might have assisted interpretation of early man’s activities has been lost forever.

However, protective legislation was in operation when, in Jan.1995, North Yorkshire County Council granted permission for quarrying to be extended immediately to the north of Nosterfield village and the B6267. The County Archaeologist raised no objections, subject to the imposition of a condition to safeguard archaeological interests. His predecessor, Mike Griffiths, who had set up in private practice, carried out the required archaeological evaluation on behalf of the mining company. His conclusion that, apart from a small peat deposit, "the archaeology of the site displays little potential for contributing to archaeological studies" was quoted in the County Planning Officer’s report to the elected members. However, that report omitted Mr Griffiths’ assertion that "…the area of the proposed extraction lies within, though probably at the extreme margin of, the main prehistoric ritual landscape". It appears that, contrary to S18 of Planning Policy Guidance PPG 16 (see "Relevant Legislation"), the county council did not regard the preservation of the setting of the henges, which is surely of national significance, to be a material consideration in determining the application. The rates income generated by that quarry is now approaching £100,000pa.

The watching brief for the current Nosterfield Quarry required only 2% archaeological sampling before quarrying, whereas 8-10% is now required for Neolithic and Bronze Age areas. That "sampling" was implemented as a single narrow trench across the centre of the site, rather than as a checkerboard series of pits statistically representative of the entire area. As it is, the cursory sample excavations, often by spade ahead of the bulldozers, found extensive archaeological evidence (ancient hearths, Neolithic pottery, three round barrows, 12 cremations and pit alignments) to justify more intensive investigations. Local people became aware of these finds only in the late Spring of 2003, the County Archaeologist having earlier denied that any information was available. According to his own Chief Executive, however, he had been given a "brief interim summary of the findings" on 7/11/02 ~ long after those finds had been destroyed.

Recent excavations in advance of quarrying have uncovered nationally significant Iron Age square barrows, together with human and horse burials reminiscent of the Arras culture, proving that the ritual importance of the area continued after the Bronze Age. The only reason we can enumerate these finds is that Tarmac responded to our criticism by paying Mr Griffiths to feature them on an impressive website, The County Archaeologist had warned us not to expect publication of findings until 8–10 years after completion of fieldwork, which is apparently par for the course with developer-funded archaeology.

How could evidence of all these relics have been missed by the original evaluation that informed the planning consent? How much of this reportedly unimportant landscape was quarried without prior investigation? Why are the nationally significant discoveries not being preserved? Are PPG 16 parameters being adhered to? Is it, as the county council insists, really too late to stop the recorded destruction of future significant relics in the permitted area? Or is it simply that the price is too high ~ compensation to Tarmac for loss of future profits?

People are saying that Tarmac is treating North Yorkshire like a third world country by imposing upon local communities an unwanted alien landscape. Tarmac’s PR projects the company as a supporter of archaeology but this is, evidently, only as long as it suits its own purpose of making a handsome profit. The importance of the archaeology being discovered within the vicinity of the henges has been apparent to Tarmac for 9 years ~ so why has it built up its land-holdings there instead of redirecting its attentions to the less sensitive areas identified in the Minerals Local Plan? The simple answer is that our ancestors were foolish enough to construct their monuments on the highest quality and deepest deposits of aggregates, which thin out the further away one moves from the henges.

In June, 2004, Tarmac submitted another planning application to extend its current quarrying operations eastwards on to Ladybridge Farm, proposing restoration to a combination of dry land and water to provide another nature reserve. And who can blame it? Any form of after-use which does not require restitution to the original surface level means more profits! Its archaeological team has been sampling the subsoil in an effort to prove that there are no important relics there. But it said that in 1994 (see para 3), and the land it was permitted to quarry turned out to be rich in archaeology. Are the same mistakes about to be made again on the adjacent fields?

Tarmac is also applying to have Thornborough Moor, where the three henges are located and which it has bought, to be added to the revised Minerals Local Plan as a Preferred Area for aggregates extraction. Controlling land management on this site, Tarmac is in a position to argue that developer-funded recording of any subsoil archaeology prior to quarrying is preferable to unrecorded piecemeal destruction due to ploughing by its tenant farmers. Past history indicates that, by conforming to PPG16, undertaking comprehensive archaeological excavations and opening a visitor centre to house any finds, Tarmac will be permitted to destroy the residual setting of the henges, leaving the latter isolated on islands in a water-filled pit.

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