3,000 bodies to be moved from abandoned Buckinghamshire burial ground

Bishop of Buckingham gave a virtual blessing before HS2 archaeologists began excavation at Stoke Mandeville site

Thursday, 6th May 2021, 2:22 pm
Updated Thursday, 6th May 2021, 2:24 pm
HS2 archaeologists at work

An excavation of the disused St Mary's Church Stoke Mandeville, on behalf of HS2 will include the removal of around 3,000 bodies to a different location.

HS2 archaeologists have begun unlocking almost 900 years of history at St Mary’s.

The site sits on the line of the new HS2 route and is being carefully removed by a team from LP-Archaeology, working with enabling works contractor, Fusion-JV.

HS2 archaeologists at work

The old St Mary’s Church 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, with a variety of extensions and the construction of a brick bell tower.

The construction of a new church closer to the centre of the village in the 1880s saw the building abandoned and it fell 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, so many people may be unaware the church building ever existed.

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, we 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.

The burial ground at St Mary’s was in use for 900 years, 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.

Early this year, works began 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 and respectful environment for the excavations to take place.

Over the next six months, a 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, with a specially created monument to mark the location.

An HS2 spokesman said: "All artefacts and human remains uncovered will be treated with dignity, care and respect and our discoveries and stories of what life was like in Stoke Mandeville over a 900-year period will be shared with the community through open days and expert lectures.

"Our 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."

More information is available on HS2's St Mary's Church webpage here