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Bureaucratic error risked discovery of ancient remains at Bridgwater site

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 19, 2013

  • Historian Hannah West with part of the old Friary wall in the back garden of her Bridgwater home. She is concerned archeological finds were put at risk

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When history student Hannah West saw a skull and leg bone on the pavement of an historic site she feared a bureaucratic blunder had led to valuable archeological evidence being destroyed.

Building workers had just discovered the ancient remains in a sewer trench on land associated with Bridgwater’s medieval Franciscan Friary.

However a planning inspector had failed to insist on archaeological work being carried out before the development began.

Miss West, 28, who is studying for a PhD in Bridgwater’s mediaeval history, believes the failure to impose the condition could have led to archaeological evidence being lost when houses were built on the land at Friarn Meadow.

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She has made an official complaint to the Planning Inspectorate about the inspector’s decision and an investigation is under way.

Sedgemoor District Council had insisted that archaeological work be carried out when it granted Staplegrove Contractors Ltd the original planning approval for 11 homes, but Staplegrove wanted to build 12 homes and appealed the decision. The planning inspector allowed the appeal but did not re-impose the condition. Miss West believes it may have been a simple oversight.

“The friary was founded in 1245 and dissolved in 1538. This is an important issue about protecting national heritage,” she said.

She said: “I tried to keep an eye on the site and I was coming back from a Bridgwater and District Civic Society meeting, when I actually saw workmen, under the supervision of a site manager, digging out what appeared to be human remains. I guess I was fortunate to have studied the history of the site for many years which mediated the shock to a certain extent.”

Andy Harris, a director of Woodland builders which built the homes said: “The county archaeologist was aware that we had started work. We spoke to him before we started as a courtesy. He asked us to keep a watching brief and if we found anything to give him a call. He was due to come out to visit the site in any event the day after the bones were found, whether we had found them or not. It wasn’t a very deep trench and I was surprised that we found anything.”

During monitoring of the trench the next day more remains were found as well as some stone work which Miss West believes was part of the mediaeval wall of the friary or its church. “I was so upset that it had been taken out of the trench but the firm kindly gifted it to me and it is now in my garden,” she said.

A Somerset County Council spokesman said: “The council received a licence from the Ministry of Justice for the removal of human remains which was done in accordance with the law. We are conducting research on the remains of up to three skeletons disturbed at the site.”

A Planning Inspectorate spokesman said: “We can confirm that we are investigating a complaint as to whether or not an archaeological condition should have been attached to the decision.”

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