Behind the Brick Curtain with Jane Sidell

My job is Inspector of Ancient Monuments for London, which is amongst the most fantastic in the world of archaeology. I get to help protect the most important archaeology in London, and try my hardest to make sure everyone is communicating information about these sites so the public can understand appreciate the heritage that is all around them. It might be through tweeting, blogging, traditional publication and putting up interpretation panels. But another key part of my job is to look out for new discoveries which might make the grade for designation as a scheduled monument. This means it has to be nationally important, a good and rare example of the type and well preserved. At this point, my Historic England http://www.historicengland.org.uk colleagues will start to research the site to decide whether to recommend to the British Government whether the site should be added to the Schedule of Monuments and so be legally protected in future. There are approximately 20,000 Ancient Monuments in England at present and I’m visiting an excavation today where we have a new site that might well meet all the criteria. Read on…

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Ancient Monument Inspectors on Tour

Today I’m on what I loosely refer to as my “Summer Progress”. It’s the time of year when I try to visit some of London’s Ancient Monuments that haven’t been checked for a while. London has 157 Ancient Monuments, which are sites that have been identified as of outstanding importance, and are a mixed bunch, from the Tower of London, through to Prehistoric earthworks, like Boudicaas Mound on Hampstead Heath. I have the utterly fabulous job of helping to protect them, on behalf of Historic England and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. One of the aspects of the job is working with owners to make sure they are in a good state of preservation. The Monuments that is, not the owners!

Inside the Sutton Dovecote

Inside the Sutton Dovecote

A great many of London’s monuments are right in the urban zone, under busy streets, inside basements of office blocks or in pub cellars. But a lot of the monuments are actually out in the rural areas of Greater London and don’t tend to face the same pressures of development, tourism or damage. But they can get overgrown, too desiccated (not today though!), or if they are structural, can suffer from crumbling mortar or other problems, including graffitti. And if there is no active fieldwork or conservation, these sites can get overlooked for regular visits as I spend most of my time on in meeting rooms or on sites which have live projects where I battle to protect the archaeology and get good schemes of interpretation. This is where the summer progress comes in – summer isn’t really a less busy time of year, but the weather normally makes these sites easier to visit and monitor than in winter. So every Friday morning for a couple of months, my colleague Iain Bright, the Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments for London, and I, are going out to visit a range of our monuments (I’m very protective and not a little possessive!).

This morning we went out to Elmers End in Croydon, to visit a medieval moated site located in the South Norwood Country Park. It is a thirteenth century manor house with a double moat surrounding a house platform. It survived like this for a few centuries, once owned by Sir Robert de Retford, but has had a chequered history since then, the greatest indignity being its submersion below a Victorian sewage farm. Nothing survives above ground now, but it’s clearly visible as a crop mark and a few little humps and bumps. As we found, the vegetation clearly distinguishes the inner and outer moats, with much lusher vegetation on the lines of the moats, and small hints of the earthworks. The house platform can also be read in the landscape as it is a little elevated above the area. We met agents for the local authority who own the site and discussed management of the site, the vegetation and providing interpretation, all of which needs to be combined with management of the park which is a nature reserve. But it was a positive visit (apart from the rain) and the site is in good heart.

Elmers End Moated Site

Elmers End Moated Site

 

Lush vegetation on the Moat

Lush vegetation on the Moat

Last Friday we went to visit a post-medieval ice well in North London – a great big subterranean brick lined chamber for storing ice on the estate of a country house, and also a Saxon linear earthwork known as the Grims Dyke. The Friday before, the rather mysterious prehistoric earthworks on Riddlesdown Common in South London, which I think are much more extensive and probably form part of an Iron Age enclosure – we’re now looking into antiquarian records to try and get a better idea of this site. We also checked up on the immense 17th century Sutton Dovecote which has had a little graffiti but otherwise is well preserved. Next Friday, another moated site is the subject of our Progress. The survival of numerous medieval moated sites in London came as a surprise to me when I became Inspector, but of course Greater London is about so much more than the Roman city of Londinium and the seat of Royal and political power in Westminster. So many areas have still never been built over, so whilst urbanism in the core is a real issue for conserving archaeology, and takes up most of my time, away from central London, we still have exceptional survival and great potential for future archaeological discoveries that we can add to the Schedule of Monuments.

Me at the Pinner Ice Well

Me at the Pinner Ice Well


Day in the life of an Inspector of Ancient Monuments

I have the greatest job title in the world, and deal with some of the greatest archaeology in the world (there are four World Heritage sites in London, and I have involvement in three) – something I never forget and never cease to be amazed about. I’ve been very fortunate – getting on in archaeology is about hard work, learning and reading everything, being passionate about the subject but also about luck and being in the right place at the right time. I’ve had more than my fair share of luck, and try very hard not to forget this. I deal with 157 ancient monuments in London, ranging from 18th century milestones to Hampton Court Palace, all of which need protection and interpretation. I always approve of an Occam’s Razor approach to life – simplifying down to key issues/messages, so I see my job as to Preserve and Present London’s Ancient Monuments. I try to interfere a bit in other things, and of course nominate new sites for scheduling where I feel there is real threat to outstanding archaeology. Sadly, the threat in London can be quite high, not just from development, but also neglect.

Fortunately I don’t have an average day, so what has this day held for me so far? It started at 8am, and actually conditions were quite average. It was raining, and I was holed up in a proper caff (Al’s on Bermondsey Street) having tea and toast. This is my touchstone across London – finding good caffs with quality tea and toast for less than two quid. Pleased to say that Al’s is still doing well on my grading, particularly astonishing given how Bermondsey Street is getting more and more chi-chi.

I co-incidentally bumped into my colleague Iain Bright (Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments) in the caff – we were meeting on site, but have similar tastes in caffs. Great start there. So suitably fuelled, we proceeded to site where our contact was 25 minutes late – it was a straightforward meeting to discuss the glass box over the medieval tower base of Bermondsey Abbey – it’s currently in a bar, and the glass occasionally gets broken (not fights, but generally someone dropping wine bottles!) – we chatted about how to improve the presentation, and to incorporate some interpretation into the display to try and help people understand this really interesting 11th century Cluniac Abbey which is otherwise completely buried and can’t be recognised in the streetscape.

Frantic zip back to the English Heritage office for a meeting with colleagues in London about Archaeological Priority Areas (one of many names) – these are zones used by planners and archaeologists to get a handle on whether proposed development will harm archaeology. London has a great range of these, many of which are out of date, not big enough, too big, in the wrong place, and generally in need of revision. We discussed a range of issues from what in fact to call them, grading them, whether all cemeteries are automatically of archaeological interest, brownfield/greenfield, industrial archaeology and so on. It’s a long term project, not least of which because they must be completely tied in with Local Authority policies. But it’s all making sure we recognise the significance of London’s archaeology and protect it as thoroughly as possible. We can’t learn about or interpret our archaeology unless we ensure it’s protected through the planning system.

After that I opened my countersigned performance development review for last year- fortunately I’m not being sacked, and a number of lovely things were said about my hard work (I suspect my managers don’t realise quite how fabulous this job is and how many people would like to do it). Got a bit of a wigging for being a little outspoken on some issues, but see above for the need for passion and enthusiasm in archaeology!

Another item this afternoon comes with some fieldwork on Hampton Court – this is one of the most amazing scheduled monuments I deal with, but of course it’s remarkably sensitive. Some fieldwork is taking place currently, and is taking a little longer than planned, which is course is not unexpected in archaeology. A certain amount of discussion was needed to ensure that enough fieldwork is undertaken to fulfil the brief, whilst not holding up the programme. In many ways, the predominance of email correspondence is a shame as sometimes getting the tone right for these sorts of discussions is difficult.

Iain and I have just discussed a new major planning case in Barking town centre- it has raised the knotty issue of setting. Most developments steer clear of scheduled monuments, but they do affect the context and setting. Barking Abbey is a super site – a nunnery founded in AD 666 (not a very good year, you’d think) and the remains, whilst heavily restored, are very good, and allow clear understanding of scale and form. Barking town centre is on the up and up, and unfortunately, this is literally the case, with quite tall buildings being proposed which may overshadow the Abbey. So we’re recommending a formal impact assessment here.

This is quite a good range of the elements of the job, from fine detail of fieldwork at Hampton Court, presentation of remains at Bermondsey, planning related issues with the Priority Area discussion and then setting at Barking. All important issues, and really interesting sites. A little more prehistory would be lovely, but I suspect that’s asking for the caster sugar on the cherry on the icing on the cake.