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Thornborough Henges

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Thornborough: a sacred landscape in peril

By Andy Worthington

Whenever ancient sacred sites are threatened, it has become a commonplace to draw parallels with Stonehenge. For example, when the Maltese government recently proposed to build a landfill site painfully close to the celebrated temple complex of Mnajdra, back-bencher Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando was moved to declare, ‘All I ask is to imagine the outrage if someone in the UK made a similar proposal to create a landfill site near Stonehenge. They would call them barbarians!’

In the case of the Thornborough henges, however, the threat is so severe that the comparison works rather well: imagine the outrage if the government allowed the sacred landscape around Stonehenge not only to be used as a landfill site but also to be quarried to such an extent that the temple ended up on a small island surrounded by artificial lakes.

This is the future that awaits the extraordinary triple henge complex near the village of Thornborough in North Yorkshire, in the ‘Sacred Vale’ between the Rivers Ure and Swale, unless concerted and persistent opposition is mounted by those who believe that the preservation of internationally important ancient sacred landscapes should outweigh the demands of commerce – in this case the depredations of the giant road-building company Tarmac, a subsidiary of Anglo-American plc and the UK’s fourth largest company.

The three vast Thornborough henges – each around 240 m in diameter and laid out in a line that runs from the south-east to the north-west – stand at the heart of an ancient sacred landscape that once stretched for over twenty-five miles from Catterick in the north to Boroughbridge in the south. Little of this now remains. Four other large henges – at Cana, Catterick, Hutton Moor and Nunwick – and several cursus monuments have been almost entirely destroyed by farming, and the only notable surviving monuments, in addition to the Thornborough henges, are the three standing stones of the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge, ten miles to the south. These are among the tallest standing stones in England, although they only survive on a thin strip of land between the A1 and a housing estate.

The problem at Thornborough is that, although the henges themselves are safe from destruction – as a result of being listed as scheduled monuments – there is no readily enforceable protection for the surrounding land. Large-scale quarrying for the valuable deposits of aggregates on which the henges were raised began in the Second World War and continued, from 1955 to 1996, on land immediately to the west of the monuments, where the scooped-out bowl of Nosterfield Nature Reserve now bears witness to the destruction. Limited rescue archaeology identified the western part of an extremely important cursus over which the central henge had later been raised, but everything else from this area, which ran right up to the western edge of both the northern and central henges and which almost certainly contained a wealth of archaeologically relevant material, was lost forever.

By the time the most recent phase of gravel extraction began, in 1995, legislation was supposed to be in place to protect important archaeological remains from wanton destruction. The government’s Planning Policy Guide 16, issued in 1990 and currently under review, set out a list of criteria for local authorities to follow, which included, as just one example, the following paragraph:

‘Care must be taken to ensure that archaeological remains are not needlessly or thoughtlessly destroyed. They can contain irreplaceable information about our past and the potential for an increase in future knowledge. They are part of our sense of national identity and are valuable both for their own sake and for their role in education, leisure and tourism’.

This is a spirited defence of the importance of endangered archaeology, although sadly the advice is non-mandatory and can easily be ignored by councils like North Yorkshire County Council, who currently collect around £100,000 a year in rates from the quarry operators in the vicinity of Thornborough.

When the council approved the latest quarry application, for land to the immediate north of the henges, they took the advice of the previous Country Archaeologist, Mike Griffiths, who had carried out a superficial evaluation on behalf of the mining company in which he had concluded that ‘the archaeology of the site displays little potential for contributing to archaeological studies’.

As it turned out, however, Griffiths’ evaluation was, at best, woefully misguided and at worst completely wrong. Although Tarmac were only legally required to sample 2% of the site before destroying it, which they did by digging a single narrow trench across the middle of the site instead of a chequerboard of smaller squares that would have been more representative of the whole area, the discoveries were astonishing. These included a number of Neolithic pit alignments, a dozen cremations, three round barrows, ancient hearths and a significant amount of Neolithic pottery, which would easily have been sufficient to justify more extensive investigations. Significantly, however, the results of the excavations were not published until 2003, long after the quarrying had already begun.

Recent excavations ahead of further quarrying have also unearthed one unique find – a pair of Mesolithic pit alignments – as well as a series of extremely rare Iron Age square barrows and a four-horse burial. Although these discoveries demonstrate that the area had a ritual significance long before and after the great henges were raised, as well as demolishing Mike Griffiths’ claim that the site had little archaeological potential, they have been used by Tarmac – and their chief archaeological spokesman, the selfsame Mike Griffiths – to spin a story in which the company is a defender of archaeology rather than its destroyer. ‘Quarrying in the UK has provided us with a massive amount of archaeological finds’, Griffiths recently told The Ripon Gazette. ‘I have been doing this since the 1960s and I am happy to say that more archaeological information has come through quarrying than any other source’.

What Mike Griffiths has chosen to ignore, of course, is that his precious finds – often dug up as the bulldozers approach – may well have revealed a wealth of hitherto unknown information, but that the price has been the complete destruction of the environment in which they were found.

If you think this is a fair deal, then you’ll probably be hoping that Tarmac succeeds in its latest bid to open up another 111 acres to the east of the existing Nosterfield quarry, although you won’t be supported by campaigners from two grass-roots organizations that are working to preserve Thornborough – Friends of Thornborough and Heritage Action – as well as a host of critics from the archaeological establishment and heritage bodies. English Heritage, which recently declared that Thornborough is ‘the most important ancient site between Stonehenge and the Orkneys’, has stated that the Ladybridge application should be refused because it does not constitute a ‘small-scale extension’, as Tarmac has suggested, because it ‘does not demonstrate that the proposed after-use of the site will safeguard the setting of the historic landscape’ and in particular because the results of the excavations since 1995 have not been published and scrutinized by peer review, something that is ‘essential before an evaluation strategy can be undertaken’. Current Archaeology recently lamented that ‘The quarry has already eaten 40 per cent of the ritual landscape of the henges. We cannot afford to lose more’, and has suggested that the proposals for Ladybridge Farm should be resisted because they represent ‘111 acres of archaeology that is of critical importance’, and George Lambrick, the director of the Council for British Archaeology, has pointed out that ‘The proposals are contrary to national and local policy. The application is incomplete, non-compliant with regulatory requirements, and granting consent would set unacceptable precedents’.

The most damning criticism of all has come from Dr Jan Harding of Newcastle University, who has been researching the area for over a decade. Harding agrees with the CBA that Tarmac has submitted factually misleading statements and also maintains that the company has failed to recognize the importance of the Ladybridge site. One of the other recent finds in the existing quarry was the edge of a Neolithic settlement area just next to Ladybridge, which seems to have been occupied by those who built and used the henges. Harding has pointed out that the proposed extension would obliterate the remainder of this settlement, preventing it from being studied in future, and maintains that ‘The archaeological value of Ladybridge cannot be over-estimated’, adding that ‘It would be misguided for the shabby treatment of an archaeological landscape of regional, national and international importance to be followed with the rapid and complete destruction of what remains of the settlement area to the north of the henge complex’.

For now, the campaigners have gained a brief reprieve. Despite Tarmac’s insistence that there is little significant archaeology at the Ladybridge site, North Yorkshire County Council refused to give the go-ahead for the new quarry in September 2004 because the company had failed to produce an essential archaeological report. This report is now expected to be delivered early in 2005, and campaigners are preparing for further resistance.

I urge readers of World Heritage Alert to get involved. At the very least, sign the online petition (details below). If you’re part of a pagan group, you could invite George Chaplin of Heritage Action to come and deliver his passionate multi-media presentation on the importance of Thornborough’s sacred landscape. George toured the country throughout 2004 to publicize the plight of the henges and his talk was one of the highlights of the Pagan Federation Convention in Croydon in November. Best of all would be to get a group together to visit Thornborough in person. Last year, around eighty pagan protestors attended a Beltane ceremony that gained valuable media coverage for the campaign as well as providing a lively experience for those who were there. One attendee described ‘an entertaining ritual complete with Beltane fires, a jester-hatted MC and a knight in shining armour’.

Update - March 2006

Thanks to some serious campaigning by TimeWatch and other campaign groups, and a strong defence by English Heritage the planning application submitted by Tarmac Northern Lts to extend quarrying within the monument complex was rejected by planners in February 2006.

Tarmac however have said that they intend to appeal and appear determined to continue the destruction of this extremely important collection of monuments.

TimeWatch have said that they are equally determined to stop the quarrying of the Thornborough Complex, and will continue raising awareness of the threat until the Tarmac either give up, or the British Government step in to put an end to quarrying in the complex for once and for all.

Sources and resources

TimeWatch are the group leading the fight for the protection of the Thornborough landscape: www.timewatch.org

To sign their online petition, visit: http://www.petitiononline.com/TimeW1/petition.html

Heritage Action is another campaigning group, made up of ordinary people dedicated to protecting ancient sites in Britain and Ireland. Their website: www.heritageaction.org also contains information about their campaigns to protect Silbury Hill and the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire.

Heritage Action’s Thornborough campaigner, George Chaplin, can be contacted by email at: webmaster@ancienteurope.info

Somewhat ironically, detailed analysis of all that has been lost at Nosterfield can be found on Mike Griffiths’ Tarmac-sponsored website: www.archaeologicalplanningconsultancy.co.uk/mga/projects/noster/index.html

Further archive information is available on The Modern Antiquarian website: www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/3939

and The Megalithic Portal: www.megalithic.co.uk

Originally published in Pentangle Magazine.

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