rural archaeology

Natural England Day of Archaeology 2016

I am an historic environment lead adviser for Natural England. Natural England is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs . We look after the natural environment including nature conservation (particularly SSSIs) and landscape – including cultural landscapes and the historic environment. We also work closely with the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission. I’m based in Yorkshire where I work with rural archaeological sites, traditional buildings and historic landscapes.

This year has been an interesting one for me as much of my work is involved with agri-environment schemes and this work has been affected by the Brexit vote. Some decisions have been delayed but we are all working hard to make up lost time and help our farmers with this year’s grant applications which are due in for September. Natural England have also moved to a new delivery model where we have categorised our work into ‘business as usual’ and ‘priority focus areas’ – in these focus areas we will allocate added staff time to things like partnership working to achieve common objectives by working together with other organisations in the public and private sector. In Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire we have 9 focus areas and I work within 5 of these; Yorkshire Dales & Nidderdale, Humber, South Pennines, Dearne Valley, and Humberhead Levels while my colleague deals with archaeology in the other areas.

Natural England focus Areas

Today I am working from our head office in York (although I am usually based in Leeds with one day per week of home working and usually another out on various farms or nature reserves). I’ve got paperwork and email to catch up on as this has been a very busy week.

At my desk, with headset ready to dish out some heritage advice

Some of this work relates to the Dearne Valley where there is a Heritage Lottery Funded Landscape Partnership. On Tuesday I went to a meeting at Elsecar Heritage Centre with the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership and their new archaeological consultants. As part of Natural England’s in-kind contribution to the project I helped to write the brief and assess tenders. This first meeting with the successful consultants, ArcHeritage, was to plan a series of events to involve the community within the Dearne Valley more closely with their heritage and inspire them to protect it. As the Dearne river valley has interesting mosaic habitats of wetland, woodland, farmland and restored coal tips it is an important wildlife refuge. It also has an amazing amount of archaeology, not just industrial – as you can see here in the Dearne Valley Heritage Audit.

Due to its habitat interest Natural England staff work a lot with farmers here, showing them how to manage their land sustainably, while my contribution is to help them manage their archaeological sites. Today I’m checking the sites that the consultants thought would be suitable for access and outreach activities to see if there are any clashes with our grant schemes, or if there are sensitive species which might mean that we need to alter our plans. So far I haven’t found any major clashes! I’m confident that we can work together as a team to make the project work for nature, for the historic environment and for the local people but I can see from my maps that there are a few things which might have to be tweaked. I’ve contributed to a real reduction to heritage at risk in Yorkshire along with the farmers who manage the land and it’s something I really do feel proud about.

The other big event this week was the reopening of Plumpton Rocks parkland. This Grade II* parkland was placed on the heritage at risk register in 2012 then in 2013 it applied for an agri-environment scheme. Along with the owner, Historic England and the Country Houses Foundation, Natural England have helped to grant aid a restoration including lake desilting, planting of new wood pasture (the planting plan being taken from historic OS mapping) and tackling of invasive species such as rhododendron and Himalayan balsam. While Natural England restored the landscape our partners have focused on the structural elements including the dam. It has been one of the trickiest restoration projects of my life (I usually have 6 or 7 medium to large restoration projects per year to deal with but this is a big one!) as there are lots of designations both for the historic structures and for the natural environment, all of which needed to be taken into consideration before we made any changes. I have been on the project steering group for the last 3 years so it was a big privilege for me to attend the reopening after so long making things happen behind the scenes. It’s very unusual for us to be greeted by Betty’s fat rascals and a glass of (non-alcoholic!) bubbly – and it’ll all have to be reported on the central gifts register to ensure that I’m not being inappropriately influenced – but the owner really wanted to show his appreciation despite the rainy weather!

Country Houses Foundation cutting the ribbon at Plumpton Rocks parkland while the owner looks on
The work there will help local people see the parkland in its former glory, and I was simply busting with excitement to see how the press and local people would feel at the transformation. It was a little disappointing to have rain on such as special day although we braved the weather to walk around the lake and point out the transformation wrought by desilting, tree planting and felling and structural restoration. There are a few bits of restoration work still to complete but to see a neglected site transformed and teach owners how to care for their land long term is one of the best parts of my job. Today I’m writing up the experiences from this project so that other colleagues can learn from it as a case study and other sites will be able to benefit from my experiences. I’m also sending information about the press articles that are being written on the site to our communications officer and highlighting any tweets that we might want to retweet. Soon I will move on to another project but I do always feel a special connection to the places that I’ve been able to help.

Kat Hopwood-Lewis, BSc (Hons), MA, MCIfA

Day of Archaeology blog – a view from rural Yorkshire

The Day of Archaeology is a chance for me to talk about real life archaeology as an historic environment adviser in England. I’ve read the various Day of Archaeology blogs with interest over the past few years and I’ve seen exciting blogs of jungle excavation, lab work, and contract archaeology on building sites (my life for 10 years before I started my current role) but I haven’t seen much about the life of a rural historic environment adviser in the green hills of Yorkshire so here goes…
I work for Natural England, which is the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England. We look after nature conservation (particularly SSSIs) and landscape – and cultural landscapes include archaeology and historic buildings. I’m based in Yorkshire and I advise on 5 counties worth of rural archaeological sites in farmland but have colleagues across the country. I bet you thought Historic England did all that!

Morning: I have some sites that I want to discuss with colleagues so instead of working from home on my laptop, I am going into our Natural England offices in Leeds. I work in a large mixed office where most of the staff has an ecology background; however they have made me very welcome – although they do tend to assume that I know everything about the entire history of human civilization and can answer at the drop of a hat. The reality is that I have a BSc in Archaeology (focusing on European prehistory and environmental archaeology) and an MA in Archaeology & Heritage Management including project management, buildings archaeology, landscape archaeology and cultural resource management. However in my work I have to be a generalist and do a little bit of everything, mainly advising farmers on how to manage the archaeology that they have on their land, as well as arranging projects to help them improve the condition of degraded monuments. Originally I was a city girl but I’ve learnt more about farming in the last 5 years working in rural areas.

I really enjoy this work. It feels very constructive to improve the condition of neglected sites rather than just dig them up and record them so that they can be built on. Some of my past sites are quite spectacular like the stabilization and conservation of Frith Hall.

My favourites are the little sites though. Places such as Oxygrain’s packhorse bridge –
few people will ever see this tiny scheduled monument in a moorland landscape other than from the nearby road bridge. It was collapsing and on the At Risk Register but since we grant aided its sensitive repair I know that it will stand for another few hundred years. Along with writing guidance and giving general advice I design several projects each year (some of which run for 2 or 3 years), mostly managed by architects or archaeologists on site. Once set up each requires periodic input to keep them running smoothly. It’s like spinning plates, giving each one the right attention at the right time.

I also enjoy getting out and about talking to farmers and landowners – I have to be able to inspire and enthuse them about archaeology and the historic environment if I want them to undertake projects as all our schemes are voluntary. Sometimes a tiny change in land management such as planting a grass strip around a barrow can make a massive difference to whether archaeology deteriorates from ongoing ploughing or is preserved for future generations to enjoy. Some farmers ‘get’ archaeology right from the start, others need persuading, but they usually come around in the end.
In my job I get a LOT of e-mail which is considerably less enjoyable than getting out and about. It takes me 2 hours or so to work through this. I also update my diary with today’s site visit so my boss knows where I will be (for safety). We work a lot on trust but he could call and check up on me at any point and he will also be checking my diary to see what location I am working in. After the e-mail, there’s time for a quick lunch before I head out.

Today I am going on a visit to a farm which is considering entering an agri-environment scheme. These are schemes where farmers agree to farm their land in ways that are sympathetic to wildlife and habitats, don’t cause water pollution, are friendly to school visits – and most relevant to me – good for the historic environment and landscape too! This farm is a former parkland, one of the more complex sites I work on, so this will be a joint visit with ecologist colleague, Fiona.. If I was going out alone I would phone a ‘buddy’ with a finish time when they need to check up on me as working alone in remote locations with no mobile phone signal can be dangerous, but today we’re fine as a pair. I borrow the work camera and handheld GPS to take out with me in case we need to map new features but mainly we want to talk to the farmer about their plans for the land, the historic and natural features that they already know about and how to manage them, and whether they are interested in joining an agri-environment scheme.

After a quick chat (with cup of tea) and a look at some plans in the farmer’s kitchen we head out in his Land Rover. We’ll hike once we are closer to the fields. Fiona is very excited about the wood pasture in the parkland (an area of mixed grassland and trees which is grazed) which could be habitat for rare insects and bats – she checks the trees for signs of droppings that could be a roost. I am looking at boundaries such as iron railings and estate walls, structures, and views and vistas to see what the potential is for restoring some of the original design. I know from old photos and talking to the farmer that this parkland used to have an avenue which has lost a lot of trees through age and disease – replanting this in the old location would be a great ways of enhancing the historic feel of the parkland as well as creating good habitat (although we might have to wait 100 years or so for the trees to get big enough for that!). The farmer is concerned that his cattle might damage the trees when planted so we discuss different types of tree guards to protect them or possibly moving the cattle to another field and grazing this one with sheep instead. It’s not as glamourous as the building work but it’s all important.

Evening: I’ve dropped off Fiona, returned the hire car and got a lift back to my house from the hire company so now I log on quickly to my laptop. I need to download the camera shots and write up some notes from today’s visit. It’s been a long day (it’s about half 5 now but I need to work past 6 to make my full hours) but I check my diary too in case I have anything to prep for Monday. Luckily there are no visits just an office based meeting where I have already made notes on the agenda so there’s no more work to do on that. Eventually it’s time to log off and pack everything away securely.

Night: I draw a really strong line between my work life and my home life – I find it the best way not to burn out. If archaeology was not my job it would be my hobby – but it is my job and so tonight I’m going out with friends. I have a much better social life than when I was a field archaeologist (less away work, more time for hobbies, family and friends) but I wouldn’t swap those times either. I think I needed to learn and experience field archaeology before I could be effective in a role like this.