In 2012 the County Council were looking for buyers for the Quantock land that they then owned including Over Stowey Customs Common and the Forestry Commision were said to be potential puchasers and responsible guardians of the land. This was my contribution to the debate.
Dead Woman's Ditch
A quick look at the state of the Scheduled Monument across three Quantock land holdings
The County Council have said that they will only sell their land holdings on the Quantock Hills to a responsible buyer and they have identified the Forestry Commission as a good prospective buyer for Over Stowey Customs Common. One of the big conservation issues on the Quantocks is the protection of Archaeological sites. Some of the land there has not been ploughed or enclosed for over a thousand years if ever, and the hills are covered in mounds, barrows, ditches, ancient tracks, standing stones and ridge and furrow field systems.
Dead Woman's Ditch is a prehistoric linear earthwork running for about a kilometre through the Quantock woods and heath. It is one of the major features of the historic landscape of the Quantocks, and it runs through three different land holdings, so last weekend we walked the length of it to take a careful look at the County Council's claim that their land would be safe in new hands if they go ahead with their plans to sell. What we found was very disturbing.
The Fairfield Estate
The northernmost end of Dead Woman’s Ditch is at the bottom of one of the northern combes of oak woodland close to the spring known as Lady's Fountain. This land is thought to be part of the Fairfield Estate, privately owned but not at all exploited. The ditch and bank are clear to see. Beneath the oaks there is plenty of undergrowth, whortleberries, moss and grasses so the bank is covered with a thickness of turf which seems to have protected it from erosion. It looks like water sometimes runs down the gravelly bottom of the ditch and mountain bikes certainly use it, but the earthwork doesn't show any particular signs of recent damage or erosion. The bank is steep and tall and the ditch clear. Higher up towards the Stowey – Crowcombe road a later track cuts across the earthwork and at the road itself there is a short section missing.
Somerset County Council
Across the Road by the Dead Woman's Ditch Car Park we are in Over Stowey Customs Common and the Land is owned by the County Council, at least for the time being. There is less tree cover here but the high bank is covered with grass and seems steep and secure. This is one of the busiest spots on the hills and there is heavy usage by dog walkers, cyclists, picnickers and riders but any damage done by visitors would appear to be slight.
The Forestry Commission
The earthwork is cut again by the old hedge and track which is the boundary of Over Stowey Customs Common and then disappears beyond a wire fence and beneath the dense conifer plantation of the Forestry Commission. That the FC should have planted a dense conifer crop willy-nilly over a historic monument at all is very suprising. It is contrary to every manual of best practice ever published and contrary to plain common sense. The tree roots themselves disturb the subsoil, but the harvesting of these trees can cause even more damage, and the lack of any kind of demarcation on the ground makes it very likely that contractors and their machinery will accidentally damage the monument. Pushing with some difficulty under the trees we saw a number of old stumps which would suggest that several cycles of forest growth have already taken place here and one or two places where whole trees have fallen or been uprooted lifting great quantities of earth up with them. The great difficulty in pushing through the trees means that it is quite certain that the Forestry Commission have no idea what condition the eathwork is in. In fact they would have some trouble finding it and they clearly don't inspect it or monitor the effect of their intensive planting.
There is no undergrowth in a plantation of this sort. The ground is covered in pine needles and small brash and it looks very much as though heavy rain has caused a lot of erosion to the unprotected earthwork. The bank shows in places as a strip of large exposed stones where the soil which held them has been completely washed away. Both the height of the bank and the depth of the ditch are far less than what we saw on the Northern end of the earthwork. Towards the bottom of the slope it is reduced to a barely discernible undulation on the hillside.
A short distance down the slope a wide track for Forestry vehicles has been bulldozed through the earthwork. The Somerset Historic Environment Record listing for Dead woman’s Ditch suggests that this damage has been done since it became a Scheduled Monument in 1976 and local memories are that while there may have been a narrow track there earlier it was widened to ten or fifteen metres more recently. Down close to the bottom of Ramscombe the slight remains of the ditch and bank disappear completely under another two tracks. It is presumed that the bank once ran all the way to meet the stream but there isn’t anything left of it.
From the look of the North end of Dead Womans Ditch it would seem that all the Forestry Commission had to do to secure the conservation of this ancient monument was to note its existence and leave it alone. As it is that part of it lying in FC land has been all but destroyed by carelessness and lack of attention. There is nothing visible on the ground to indicate that the FC has ever even noticed it is there. Damage to the monument has been noted several times in archaeological surveys but the FC have continued over many years to neglect their duty of stewardship to the extend that it is difficult to think how they could have done any worse. None of the agencies which might have taken an interest in the preservation of the historic landscape of the Quantocks have highlighted the FC's failures, allowing them to continue for decades. Destruction of the monument is an ongoing, continual, gradual process, unmonitored, unnoticed and unrecorded beneath the cover of the conifers. Damaging a scheduled monument is a criminal offence.
- Details of Dead Woman's Ditch listing as a scheduled monument, inc map: http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1008254
- The forestry commission's own guidelines for Forests and the Historic Environment: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/PDF/FCGL003.pdf/$FILE/FCGL003.pdf
- Details of the site on the Somerset Historic Environment Record: http://webapp1.somerset.gov.uk/her/details.asp?prn=11127
Even accidental or negligent damage to a scheduled monument is a criminal offence but the police aren't interested in acting unless advice comes from English Heritage. English Heritage said that in general the FC were 'good stewards' of the Historic Environment but that they may have to go so far as to ask to discuss the Management Plan for Dead Woman's Ditch.
If you or I were to carelessly destroy part of a Scheduled Monument I think we might expect to be taken away in hand-cuffs.