|18 May 2004
A hill or not a hill?
Following close on the announcement (Archaeo News, 15 May 2004) by Heritage Action Group of a conference to lobby for the proper conservation of Silbury Hill (England) a public enquiry into the Countryside Agency’s decision to designate Silbury as ‘open land’ opened on 17 May. This move by the Countryside Agency will, if ratified, allow uncontrolled access to Europe’s biggest ancient monument under the right-to-roam laws contained within the new Countryside and Rights of Way Act [CRoWA]. The enquiry is the result of a planning appeal by the Hill’s owner, Lord Avebury. The peer is backed by site managers English Heritage, the National Trust, the Council for British Archaeology, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, the Avebury Society and local councillors. Even the Ramblers Association, which was one of the main groups to lobby for the introduction of right-to-roam, supports the appeal. Opponents to open access say that under the Countryside Agency’s own criteria Silbury Hill is a man made structure that should be classed as a building.
Local people have questioned the sanity of Agency officials for marking 4,500-year-old Silbury Hill as “unimproved chalk grassland” because it was built entirely by prehistoric man. The massive mound, constructed from an estimated 35 million baskets of chalk rubble, was closed to the public in 1974 because of damage to its surface structure. Three years ago the monument came close to collapse when torrential winter rain penetrated shafts left by an archaeological excavation. Although English Heritage carried out repairs the whole structure is still vulnerable and is considered dangerous to climb.
Structural damage and public hazard aside, local councillors are also concerned about the cost of the planning appeal. Jenny Baldrey, Chairman of Avebury Parish Council says: “It’s a great example of one government agency not talking to another [Countryside Agency and English Heritage]. When you think how much it’s all costing, it’s totally mad.” Although the Countryside Agency claims that the new designation is only provisional and will be decided by a planning inspector, the Agency has yet to concede that Silbury Hill is a special case and is contesting the appeal. This is likely to lead to further criticism of CRoWA. The Agency is already contesting some 400 cases brought by landowners in Wiltshire, Avon, Dorset and parts of Somerset. Pop star Madonna recently fought against 17 parcels of land on her Wiltshire estate being defined as “open downland”. Her legal team exposed the fast-track methods used by the Agency to map land, and this inadequacy will be highlighted at the Silbury Hill enquiry.
Silbury Hill was purchased by Lord Avebury’s grandfather, Sir John Lubbock, in 1883 and donated to the nation. It was one of the first British monuments to be given protection under the Ancient Monuments Act introduced by Sir John in 1882. Lord Avebury says that Silbury Hill’s closure in 1974 was carried out legally under the Ancient Monuments Act, which takes precedence over the CRoWA. “Silbury will remain closed for the foreseeable future irrespective of its new classification,” he said.
Sources: Guardian, Western Daily Press (17 May 2004)
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