Archaeologists working to prepare the UK for HS2, the new backbone of our national transport network, have begun unlocking almost 900 years of history at St Mary’s Church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire.

The Old St Mary’s Church in Stoke Mandeville was built in 1080AD, shortly after the Norman conquest that transformed Saxon England. Renovated in the 13th, 14th and 17th centuries, it played a central role in the community, furnished with a variety of extensions and the construction of a brick bell tower. The site sits on the line of the new HS2 route and is being carefully removed by a team from LP-Archaeology, working with HS2’s enabling works contractor, Fusion-JV.

The construction of a new church closer to the centre of the village in the 1880s saw the building abandoned and falling into disrepair. According to local accounts, a child was killed by falling masonry in the 1930s, and by 1966 the building was considered so dangerous that the Royal Engineers were drafted in to demolish it. Over the next 50 years the rubble pile left became overgrown with vegetation, blending into the surrounding greenery, meaning newcomers to the area may have been unaware of the existence of the church building there previously.

The St Mary’s site is unique and the HS2 scheme is providing a rare opportunity to excavate and understand the history of this building, how its use and meaning changed over time and what it meant to the community of Stoke Mandeville. The burial ground at St Mary’s was in use for 900years, with the last recorded interment in 1908. The team of 40 archaeologists working on the site will be able to construct a picture of the role of St Mary’s in the local community from its construction in the 11th century through to its decline in the late 19th century.

Helen Wass, Head of Heritage for HS2 Ltd said:
“HS2’s unparalleled archaeological programme is well underway and the start of works at St Mary’s offers an exceptional opportunity for archaeologists to uncover and shine a light on what life was like for the community of Stoke Mandeville over such a timespan.

“All artefacts and human remains uncovered will be treated with dignity, care and respect and our discoveries will be shared with the community through open days and expert lectures. HS2’s archaeology programme seeks to engage with all communities both local and nationally to share the information and knowledge gained as well as leaving a lasting archival and skills legacy.”

In 2018 LP-Archaeology began initial work to carefully pick apart the rubble mound. A comprehensive series of archaeological excavations, surveys, and building recording has followed, revealing well preserved walls and structural features of the Church. In October last year, HS2 revealed that unusual stone carvings, medieval graffiti and other markings have been found, with questions raised as to whether they were sun dials or witching marks.

In early 2021 works begun on the final phase of excavations at the site. A large “tent” structure was constructed over the whole church and churchyard to protect it from the elements and provide a stable environment for the excavations to take place. This covering also helps the archaeologists give those people buried there the dignity, care and respect they deserve. Over the next six months, a dedicated team of archaeologists, assisted by engineers, will remove the remaining structure of the church and excavate all of the individuals buried in the churchyard. Around 3,000 burials are expected. Before work on the burial ground began a virtual blessing was given by the Bishop of Buckingham. All remains will be reburied in a local spot to be determined by HS2, with a specially created monument to mark the location.

Dr. Rachel Wood, Project Archaeologist for Fusion JV, said:
“The excavation of the medieval church at St Mary’s will offer real insight into what life was like in Stoke Mandeville for over nine centuries. Those buried there will be remembered once again and the lives they lived over 900 years understood. The best way to honour the dead is to understand their stories and how they lived their lives. Ultimately, this is what the works at the site of Old St Mary’s church will do, providing a lasting legacy to the present community of Stoke Mandeville”.

HS2 is planning to share the discoveries and stories of what life was like in Stoke Mandeville over a 900-year period a series of events and expert lectures in the coming months. More information will be made available on the HS2 in Buckinghamshire website.

Due to COVID-19 we are unable to hold an event near to you so we have provided an update in this virtual room. This includes the new timetable of works happening in your area between July and Autumn 2020.

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Fusion, via its subcontractors, is generating support for the local communities where works are taking place.

One of the latest examples of this is another act of kindness towards the people of Chipping Warden  – a donation of gravel to a local school by Buckingham Group Contracting Ltd (BGCL).

BGCL delivered several large bags of gravel to Chipping Warden School for it to use on an area Fusion colleagues had cleared for them.

Carley Richards and Nicky Haigh from Fusion’s Community Engagement Team were involved in making this happen.

Carley said: “It was great to do this, helping the community, which we always seek to do by making a positive contribution to this school, which has shown great appreciation to Fusion and our work. We will endeavour to go back to school in the springtime to assist with further outdoor activities.”

Fusion is building up an admirable list of actions taken to support the local community: on two occasions last year, we re-opened the nearby Welsh Road West in Chipping Warden which meant several thousand people were spared the frustration of moving horseboxes and trailers through narrow local roads to reach The Aston Le Walls Equestrian Centre to take part in popular tournaments.

More recently, Nicky was among a quintet of Fusion colleagues that took part in a volunteer day at the School. The tasks carried out included pressure washing the front of the building and painting its external skirting, clearing the staff car park of moss, seeding an allotment area and painting flower beds, the hall toilet and entrance hall – all while observing COVID-19 restrictions.

Rachel Wood from Fusion’s HERDS (Historical Environment Research Delivery Strategy)Team has given a talk on archaeology to sixth form students at Akeley Wood School in Buckinghamshire in response to an approach made to HS2 by the school’s history teacher.

The teacher was keen to receive more information about the relics found at the St Mary’s Church site in Stoke Mandeville. After the request was passed to Fusion, Rachel did the honours and her talk was gratefully received by the students.

Sarah Jones, Akeley Wood’s Head of History and Politics, said in response: “Thank you so very much for your archaeology talk this morning. We really appreciated it. It was absolutely fascinating to see what’s been found so far but also the incredible dedication and commitment that is going into the archaeological project. All the students loved it – we had extra students come and staff too because of genuine interest. It really has been the highlight of their term! You’ve truly inspired them to keep thinking and questioning historical evidence.”

Becky Tranter, Fusion’s Skills and Employment Manager, added: “It was great to hear Rachel talk not only about the role of archaeologists, but also the work that is going on in an area that is relevant to them.

“We plan on following this us with a careers talk to some of the younger students in the New Year.”

An innovative new design is helping a Fusion subcontractor deliver additional environmental benefits on the HS2 project.

Ecosulis is translocating seven hectares of quality grassland at Doddershall Meadows, in Buckinghamshire (with the AWE2b team). Much of it has been categorised as Grade 1 or 2 – being the most botanically diverse – and so is best able to help target species grow.

Ecosulis began the package of works in November 2018 with a desktop study and a National Vegetation Classification botanical assessment, which allowed it to identify the best areas to move the grassland habitat from and to.

In its search for new, cost-effective ways to achieve better outcomes, in collaboration with Fusion and others in the supply chain, Ecosulis has designed a bespoke bucket which preserves a greater amount of the turf when lifted. When laying it on the receptor site, the technology allows the plant drivers to locate the edges of the already re-installed turf more easily – preventing waste and ensuring a more seamless finish.

Ecosulis Director Simon Butler explained: “Given the volume of grass to be translocated on this project, we really honed in on the making the process of slicing, lifting and laying the turves as efficient as possible, even if to make small gains of a minute or two on each turve, which would result in bigger gains over the entire project.

“We started by modifying our existing mole plough; by removing the landside, the plough only sliced the turf vertically but did not disturb the soil underneath. This enabled us to cut the turf with clean and solid edges, giving us uniform, square turves that were less likely to break upon lifting, and are easier to lay at the receptor site without major gaps. More importantly, the turves were less likely to dry out so the grassland established better and quicker. We also modified flatbed trailers by running a steel beam down the centre line of the trailer to act as a barrier, to prevent the turves already on the trailer being displaced.”

Paul Grainger, Fusion’s Lead Supervisor in Sector C2b Calvert, commented: “Being able to support Ecosulis’ innovations has helped to improve grasslands translocation efficiency. This shows what the project can achieve with an integrated team, common goals and targets, and a shared vision of success.”

Ecosulis’ work is to continue in this package post-translocation: it has also been commissioned to undertake the initial maintenance onsite: providing ongoing management of the receptor sites and surrounding low-grade grassland, maintaining soil moisture this summer, undertaking targeted seed collection and planting, also improving target grassland communities.

PIC CAPTIONS: Clockwise from the top left: Modified bucket at donor sites one and two; the bucket at the receptor site and the adapted trailer

For three years, HS2 archaeologists have been giving TV documentary makers, Lion TV, exclusive access to archaeological sites being excavated as part of the HS2 project.

Anthropologist and anatomist Professor Alice Roberts and historian Dr Yasmin Khan will present the three-part series, HS2 – The Biggest Dig, airing on BBC Two from next Tuesday, 15 September.

It will explore the discoveries found in Britain’s largest ever archaeological programme.

Within Fusion, there have been a number of exciting discoveries made which will be featured in this new series.

The series will air weekly and will be available on BBC iPlayer.

The full story is available here.

HS2’s first Technical Papers Competition has proved a great success, attracting 120 entries.

Launched last April, the Competition is part of HS2’s Learning Legacy and is intended to capture technical excellence and learning from the HS2 programme.

Each entry was reviewed by a technical panel and the authors of the successful submissions are now working on the full papers for final submission by 3 August. These include Fusion’s Gemma Bailey-Smith, Assistant Sustainability Advisor, who is completing her paper entitled ‘Advancing SMEs Using Innovative Sustainable Plastic-free Methods,’ referencing Fusion’s innovative work using plastic-free tree guards – as pictured above.

Gemma said: “It’s been an exciting process so far. I entered the competition to highlight our team’s great work over the past few years to get these guards implemented on site. Coming from an environmental background into the civils sector, it is really exciting to see these alternative sustainable solutions being used.

“We are also exploring using internal tubes on badger setts that are made of a recycled fibre board. There should be an onsite trial of the new badger setts soon which is really exciting. The competition is a great way to share best practice and highlight the great work which is going on. It is also a brilliant opportunity to be involved in and I would encourage others to get involved.

“I hope the paper reiterates that simple sustainable material swaps can early be implemented on site to benefit not only the environment but small-medium enterprises. Also, I hope it makes people re-think their material uses and question how they can practice sustainability at work and at home. I am grateful for the opportunity to be published as part of the Learning Legacy and would like to thank everyone involved in the tree-guards and badger setts for all they have done and their continued support with the Paper.”

The Learning Legacy is run by HS2’s Chief Engineer & Phase One Engineering Director and is supported by a Technical Review Panel in partnership with professional engineering associations and trade bodies.?

Selected final papers will be published in a hardback book in partnership with the Institute of Civil Engineers, on the Learning Legacy website in November and winners will present their papers at an awards event.

Fourteen students from Coventry, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire schools have spent a week on virtual work experience with Fusion recently

During it, the youngsters – including seven female and the same number from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds – heard from experts and developed a small project in small groups that they presented to Fusion colleagues, their peers and teachers at the end of the week.

The week gave them opportunity understand how the different functions within Fusion fit and work together, supported by sessions with colleagues from various departments including Health and Safety, Planning, Procurement and Engineering.

One unnamed student said: “I learned more about overcoming challenges and that so many of the speakers have also been unsure of their future careers which is reassuring and a confidence boost. I also learned to appreciate the people behind what we take for granted every day, like roads and buildings.

“I really enjoyed the talks that everyone gave and working with my team on the project. It has really helped me become more confident when working and presenting with others, as well as helping broaden the areas of work that I am looking to do in the future.

“Thank you for giving me this extraordinary experience. Although leaning towards aeronautical engineering at the beginning, I found it immensely interesting to gain further insight into varied career routes which I had not considered, and most importantly I have many more interests which have unravelled throughout this placement which I deem to learn more about in the future.”

Members of the schools’ staff also showed their appreciation for the week.

Annalies McIver, Head of Sixth Form, Waddesdon School, said: “I just wanted to say a huge thank you for having (one of our students) on your virtual work experience programme. It is great to hear how she benefited from taking part.

“It looks like they have all been working hard all week and certainly as someone joining at this stage it looks like they’ve gained a number of skills and confidence,” added John Griffin, West Coventry School – Post-16 Learning Manager. “Well done and thanks for offering them such a positive experience during a difficult time in their academic lives. ”

Becky Tranter, our Skills and Employment Manager, commented: “I want to say a big thank you to everyone that took part – from those that led sessions in their area of expertise, to helping with employability skills like mock interviews, and just coming along to watch the presentations at the end of the week.

“It’s been a strange few months with not being able to go into schools, or have the students come to the office, but we’re adapting the way we do things so we can still offer these opportunities and make an impact.”

Stakeholders assured. Locals satisfied. Programme proceeds without delay.

These statements are all outcomes from Fusion’s collaboration with HS2, the Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust and Buckinghamshire Council, which has resulted in a free bus service being provided to enable the works to proceed on the Amersham Vent Shaft road junction.

The bus service was in place in time for last Monday’s closure of a section of Whielden Lane (from Amersham Hospital up to the A404).

Observing social distancing, the new service will run for seven weeks from 7am – 6:30pm,, until the scheduled works completion date on Saturday 4 July, taking passengers from the operational Gore Hill bus stops in the town to the hospital. It will be operated by Carousel Buses, a local company that runs other services in the area. Access for pedestrians and cyclists will also be maintained throughout our works.

The impact of COVID-19-related restrictions on the previous voluntary patient transport service and due to the increased number of visiting outpatients diverted from other hospitals, it was clear there would be additional need for a local bus service.

“The team pulled off a blinder,” remarked Neil Stevenson, C1 Construction Manager. “They got all the necessary approvals and contracts in place in less than a week, providing continuity of access for the community, avoiding impact on them and any delay to our works commencing.”

The construction works includes traffic island modifications, upgrading street signage, introducing new junction traffic lights, vegetation clearance and modifications to the existing cycleway and footpath. The works will provide safety and capacity improvements for motorists, pedestrians and HS2-related traffic during the construction of the vent shaft which will be carried out by Align.

“I am delighted to get this one over the line in a short space of time,” added Richard Calvert, Head of Community Engagement. “There was great potential for community reputational damage for the HS2 programme.

“I would like to thank  everyone involved, including Joel Sykes and Luke Nipen (HS2’s Interface Manager for C1 and Area Central Senior Engagement Manager respectively) for their extensive involvement and effort with the Hospital Trust and the Council.

Glenn Tobin, our Undertakings & Assurances Coordinator, Toney McCunnie Highways Project Manager, Nicholas Considine from the Fusion Consents Team and  Adetayo Adeleye, Junctions Engineer also deserve high levels of praise.

“I must also thank the team at Forkers who adopted a ‘we can do it’ approach from the outset. The Council and bus company also deserve our recognition.

“A significant amount of collaborative effort has been expended to get to this solution. This is the demonstration of neighbourliness in action on the HS2 project.”

“A great team effort added Bob Dobinson, C1 Highways Junctions Lead. “The dedication and efforts of the whole team both HS2, Fusion, the NHS Trust and Buckinghamshire Council working together ensured that we provided pedestrians, hospital staff and the bus travelling public with a reliable and safe means to access Amersham Hospital ”