Excavating the CA archive: The National Trust, 2006 to present

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 1 August. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI354, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of
Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

This latest column continues the thread that I began two issues ago, exploring Current Archaeology’s coverage of sites in the care of the National Trust down the years. Last month, I explored stories from issues 101-200 (the years 1986 to 2005), and in this column I come right up to date, exploring issue 201 onwards, from 2006 to the present day.


One of the most beloved aspects of Britain’s industrial archaeology in the care of the National Trust featured in CA 216 (March 2008): the tin-mining landscapes of Cornwall. This came as part of a wider exploration and interview with Sir Neil Cossons, at that time recently retired as the Chairman of English Heritage. While for many the appeal of the National Trust lies in the ‘archetypal’ country house/ garden/tearoom, this issue was a timely reminder of the wider-ranging cultural and natural heritage commitments of the Trust, especially around the coastlines of our nation, where the organisation is a significant landowner and manager. With the rise in awareness in more recent times of climate change on the coastline, the responsibilities to protect such iconic sites as the Cornish Mining Landscape (a World Heritage Site since 2007, large parts of which are owned by the Trust) have grown and grown in the last 20 years, and the management of such sites is as dynamic as the environment they sit in. This is not and never can be heritage ‘in aspic’, but is, rather, part of the living communities of Cornwall.

A very different and equally beloved World Heritage Site featured repeatedly in the mid-2000s: that of Avebury in Wiltshire. Telling the tale of this particular series of sites in the pages of CA allows me to make a modest confession: although the WHS listing comprises Stonehenge and Avebury, it is the latter of these two that holds my heart – and I suspect I am not alone in that opinion. Meaning no offence to the more famous of the WHS pairing, for me it is the more intimate beauty of Avebury, the view from West Kennet Long Barrow on a summer’s day, and glimpsing Silbury Hill on a frosty winter’s morning… I know which site I keep returning to: sorry Stonehenge!

The splendid sight of Silbury Hill – part of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site – starred on the cover of CA 215 and CA 293, marking the end of work to stabilise the monument after a partial collapse and the publication of the book that came out of the related research programme.

CA visited Avebury itself in issue 330 (September 2017), and Silbury Hill in issues 215 and 293 (February 2008 and August 2014). In each of the latter cases, the Hill featured on the front cover. In 2008, this was related to the conclusion of long-term stabilisation and monitoring works following a partial collapse in May 2000; those works had offered an opportunity to explore deep into the heart of the monument. The final outcome of the 2000-2007 research programme was eventually published another six years later in 2014, in the definitive book of this most wonderful of sites: Silbury Hill: the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. It was this publication that justified CA’s return.


I mentioned the name ‘Alderley Edge’ to a friend just recently, and their response – as someone who grew up not far from there in Cheshire – was intriguing: ‘What, you mean where all the football players live?’. It got me thinking: what makes places ‘special’ in archaeological terms, in the present and future as much as in the past? While Alderley Edge these days is most often associated with football superstars and their similarly stratospheric wages, in the past ‘the Edge’ had, well, a different social edge to it indeed. It was the search for a better understanding of issues such as these that set an interdisciplinary team drawn from the National Trust (who own much of the area) and the Manchester Museum (who hold many artefacts recovered over the years) to examine Alderley Edge in a consistent and coherent manner in the mid-2000s.

The work of the Alderley Edge Landscape Project, investigating the remarkable multi-period landscape in Cheshire, featured in CA 238 and CA 315.

CA 238 (January 2010) explored the fieldwork just concluding there at that time, and the magazine returned again in issue 315 (June 2016), coinciding with the publication of the definitive history of the area, The Story of Alderley: living with the Edge. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, it truly is one of the most extraordinary and enigmatic multi-period landscapes in the country, all the more so for lying so close to the major urban centres of Manchester and Liverpool, and yet remaining (relatively) unknown. The National Trust has a wonderful series of self-guided walks in the area, drawing extensively on the evidence produced by the research project, and I cannot recommend these highly enough to you all.


A different type of edgeland landscape in the care of the National Trust featured in issues 324 and again in 340 (March 2017 and July 2018): the remarkable (re)discoveries of 20th-century military heritage in the area near Folkestone known as Fan Bay. It is part of the wider White Cliffs of Dover landscape, owned and cared for by the National Trust. In comparison to Alderley, this is an extremely well-visited part of the country, with tens of thousands of tourists coming to the famous White Cliffs each year as part of a wider trail encompassing Dover Castle (in the care of English Heritage) and the Trust’s landholdings of Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters.

The work of the Alderley Edge Landscape Project, investigating the remarkable multi-period landscape in Cheshire, featured in CA 238 and CA 315.

As CA explained, archaeological work in the area revealed the remains of a lost complex of ‘sound mirrors’, used to guard the English Channel against enemy aircraft during the First World War. Fan Hole, between Dover and St Margaret’s Bay, hosted some of the first experiments with this technology in 1917-1918, before aircraft speeds, and early forms of radar, superseded the technology in the run-up to the Second World War. Left derelict for decades, the complex fell into disuse, and by the 1970s it was deliberately buried as part of Kent County Council’s ‘eyesore clearance programme’, removing numerous wartime structures along the region’s cliffs. By 2014, the precise location, and state of preservation, of the structures was unknown – until they were re-excavated by the National Trust, working in conjunction with Dover Archaeological Group and Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

It speaks volumes for just how much tastes in heritage change that sites considered an ‘eyesore’ as recently as the 1970s would become a significant visitor attraction by the early 2000s (they can be visited as part of a tour of the area), and in due course be awarded the highest category of national heritage protection – scheduling – only a few years later. I returned myself to this site in issue 340, in a review of sites recently scheduled by Historic England during my tenure there. Which brings me back full circle to my current job at the National Trust, where I care for such sites. In this light, I’ll be returning in the next few issues to some more sites in the care of the National Trust, with an in-depth examination of, among others, the long-running archaeological fieldwork led by the Trust at Chedworth in Gloucestershire and Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.


For more details on the National Trust sites mentioned in this column, visit these websites:

Cornish Mining Landscape: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/days-out/tin-coast
Avebury WHS: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/avebury/lists/avebury-world-heritage-site
Alderley Edge: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/alderley-edge-and-cheshire-countryside
White Cliffs of Dover: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/the-white-cliffs-of-dover
Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/birling-gap-and-the-seven-sisters


Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 1 August. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI354’

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