Whiteleaf Hill sits in a prominent position high on the Chilterns escarpment above Princes and Monks Risborough. The Hill is a rich tapestry of the ancient and modern; with a Neolithic barrow, a Bronze Age dyke, two putative round barrows, WWI practice trenches, sunken trackways, ancient woodland, flower rich chalk grassland and Whiteleaf Cross – a 130 metre wide chalk cross cut into ancient downland. Its landscape beauty and archaeological interest combine with its close physical and cultural links to local communities make it a well-used and much-loved place.
The Restoration Project was initiated by community representatives and Buckinghamshire County Council (BCC) staff. The condition of the iconic Cross and other historic features, and the absence of interpretation and the contraction of valuable wildlife habitats were concerns shared by all. The Heritage Lottery Fund and Landfill Tax, added to BCC resources to enable a major programme of works, including:
- Conservation of Whiteleaf Cross as a stable and prominent hill figure using innovative modern techniques.
- Survey, re-excavation, re-interpretation and re-instatement of the Neolithic Barrow, which had been largely excavated by Sir Lindsey Scott in the 1930s, using modern techniques and analysis.
- Survey and excavation of a cross-ridge dyke of probable late Bronze Age date, putative bowl barrows and WW1 practice trenches.
- Fostering the sense of local identity at Whiteleaf and its connections to local towns and villages.
- Improvement of public access to, and understanding of the Hill’s key features including open days, a programme of education events and the provision of promotional materials, new site interpretation and published research documents.
- Reinstatement of a large area of previously species rich chalk downland as an ecological resource, opening up historic views from, and of, the Cross and Hill.
The many (and often unexpected) successes of the archaeological project have hinged on the very close working relationship that has developed between BCC Countryside and Heritage staff, their appointed archaeological consultant, Oxford Archaeology (OA), and the local community focused through the Risborough Countryside Group.
All aspects of the archaeological work, from the first evaluation trenches undertaken in 2002, through the major excavation of the Neolithic barrow (a scheduled ancient monument) in 2003, recording and reinterpretation of the 1930s finds to the more small-scale survey work that still continues, have been undertaken as a partnership between local volunteers and OA and BCC professionals, to specifications agreed with the County Archaeological Service and English Heritage. The use and promotion of the highest archaeological standards have been a major aim of this work, and the results obtained have led to significant reinterpretation of the remains on the site.
Work on the barrow has shed important light on the date of this early monument, its landscape background and the long period of time over which it was used. The two supposed “bowl barrows” (both scheduled) have been shown to be a natural tump and a medieval windmill mound respectively. The form of the WWI trenches is better understood and they now seem to have been small-scale “demonstration” trench systems rather than full-size practice trenches. Much Roman pottery was found in the 1930s barrow excavation, spoilheap and surrounding trial pits. In the most recent trench the discovery of a votive leaf suggests the presence of a shrine, which may explain this activity. Academic reports are in preparation and due to be published in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (re-excavation and reconsideration of the Neolithic barrow) and Records of Buckinghamshire (survey and trial excavations).
An education programme for local schools was run in tandem with the re-excavation and restoration of the Neolithic barrow, culminating in an open weekend when the general public were invited to view works in progress, take part in certain activities and encouraged to follow research undertaken. Displays of new finds and those from the 1930s digs have been displayed in association with the Museums and Library Service in the local libraries and at the County Museum. All finds both new and old will be deposited locally and will form part of a permanent archive and themed display.
The worth of such partnerships cannot be understated, and are highly valued by all involved. BCC’s Countryside staff and OA archaeologists have been able to share aspirations and project work with all those involved. Local feelings for the whole site are extremely strong and these have been channelled through public meetings, walks and talks, open days, public events and day to day contacts which have proved to be the one of the true benefits of the Project, the success of which has far exceeded original estimates. Whiteleaf Hill, although belonging in legal terms to BCC, is very much “owned” by the community which bodes well for its sustainable future.
In summary we feel that the Whiteleaf Project brings together a number of key agendas in a single coherent project: community leadership and participation; innovative and ambitious conservation techniques; integration of the historic and natural environment; new archaeological research and the re-examination of museum archives. By illustrating how a site has been used through the ages, and can be re-interpreted in the light of new techniques and research agendas, it shows the purpose of preservation in-situ and the long-term value of heritage to a local community.