HS2 to move 3,000 bodies from medieval churchyard

Photos: HS2

Archaeologists working on HS2 at St Mary’s Church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire have discovered a burial site dating back to 1080.

The Old St Mary’s Church in Stoke Mandeville was built in 1080AD, shortly after the Norman conquest that transformed Saxon England.

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Renovated in the 13th, 14th and 17th centuries, it played a central role in the community, furnished with a variety of extensions and the construction of a brick bell tower.

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The site sits on the line of the new HS2 route and is being carefully removed by a team from LP-Archaeology, working with HS2’s enabling works contractor, Fusion-JV.

The construction of a new church closer to the centre of the village in the 1880s saw the building abandoned and falling into disrepair. According to local accounts, a child was killed by falling masonry in the 1930s, and by 1966 the building was considered so dangerous that the Royal Engineers were drafted in to demolish it.

Over the next 50 years the rubble pile left became overgrown with vegetation, blending into the surrounding greenery, meaning newcomers to the area may have been unaware of the existence of the church building there previously.

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The St Mary’s site is unique and the HS2 scheme is providing a rare opportunity to excavate and understand the history of this building, how its use and meaning changed over time and what it meant to the community of Stoke Mandeville. The burial ground at St Mary’s was in use for 900 years, with the last recorded interment in 1908. The team of 40 archaeologists working on the site will be able to construct a picture of the role of St Mary’s in the local community from its construction in the 11th century through to its decline in the late 19th century.

Helen Wass, Head of Heritage for HS2 Ltd said: “HS2’s unparalleled archaeological programme is well underway and the start of works at St Mary’s offers an exceptional opportunity for archaeologists to uncover and shine a light on what life was like for the community of Stoke Mandeville over such a timespan.

“All artefacts and human remains uncovered will be treated with dignity, care and respect and our discoveries will be shared with the community through open days and expert lectures. HS2’s archaeology programme seeks to engage with all communities both local and nationally to share the information and knowledge gained as well as leaving a lasting archival and skills legacy.”

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HS2 is planning to share the discoveries and stories of what life was like in Stoke Mandeville over a 900-year period a series of events and expert lectures in the coming months. More information will be made available on the HS2 in Buckinghamshire website. 

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Sam Hewitt

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