The villages of Kent have more to lament than the Channel rail link

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KIT'S COTY House is a tomb. Several gigantic stone slabs, some upright and some laid across them as a roof, are all that remains of a Neolithic burial chamber. A few hundred yards down the slope of the North Downs is Little Kit's Coty, a jumble of fallen 10-ton blocks and slabs which once formed another chieftain's grave.

This is where the Channel rail link will run. The monuments stand on a foothill of the North Downs, just where their chalk ridge is broken by the Medway river valley. From Kit's Coty House, you can see for miles towards Sevenoaks and the Weald. Victorian antiquaries and romantic trippers loved to sit here and enjoy a family picnic, day-dreaming about the 'Druids' they imagined to have erected the great stones. Many carved their names on them, in thick-serifed capitals.

The Union Railway tracks will pass within half a mile of Kit's Coty. It is a test of how the Channel tunnel rail link will damage what politicians call 'the heritage', but - unexpectedly - the rail planners come out of it remarkably well. Their first design would have run the high-speed trains within a few feet of Little Kit's Coty, and Kit's Coty House, just uphill, would have been badly affected by the din and vibration. This was classified a 'low moderate environmental effect', but the plans were then revised. Now the track will enter a tunnel whose portal is well away from the monuments, dive under the shoulder of the Downs and re-emerge near the Medway crossing. The ancient Pilgrim's Way will be re-laid across the grass-covered roof of the tunnel portal, and the tunnel is itself being slightly relocated to reduce damage to the 'setting' of the White Horse Stone, a monolith much revered by neo-pagans.

Climbing up past the stones to Blue Bell Hill and looking out over the whole lap of the Downs, a simple truth is revealed. The great vandal of this landscape is not the railway but the roads. On the northern outskirts of Maidstone, a huge new interchange for the M20 motorway is disembowelling the fields. The Pilgrim's Way has already been breached by a link road scarring the hill between Maidstone and Chatham. The old lane passing close to Little Kit's Coty has been upgraded into a busy minor highway, whose blind curves and lack of verges mean that anyone trying to reach the monument without being run over has to leap across the road like a rabbit.

And the further you go along the proposed rail route towards Folkestone, the more obvious this truth becomes. The Union Railway's impact will be slight compared to the devastation done in the last 10 or 15 years by road- building, by the M20 but above all by the upgrading of trunk roads such as the A20. Village after village has been surrendered to traffic, so that the main roads either slice communities into two - the companionable street of Charing becoming a mortally dangerous torrent - or (as at Harrietsham) sealing the houses off from their hinterland of little fields and orchards on the other side of the road. The new M20, running parallel to the Downs, has turned this part of Kent from an open farming territory into a traffic corridor between the hills and the motorway.

From Kit's Coty House, you can begin to recognise other illusions. The stones, which have been standing there for some 4,000 years, are an 'Ancient Monument', a scheduled lump of archaeological 'heritage'. The conventional view is that the free market economy, with its bulldozers and its insatiable appetite for eating ancient landscape, is the enemy of archaeological remains. But this is not quite true. It is not the relics but archaeology itself, as a science and a profession, which is being eaten away by post-Thatcherism.

'Contract archaeology' is now the system. Everyone knows that hospitals within the National Health Service now operate like competing businesses, 'marketing' their services for profit up and down the land. But few realise that this pattern is being enforced upon archaeology. Once individual archaeological units served their own area, funded mostly by the local authority and the Department of the Environment. Now, in contrast, the public funds have been reduced to a trickle and archaeological units have turned into profit-seeking enterprises, selling their services to 'customers' anywhere in Britain and competing against one another. The Government, in the guidelines known cryptically as PPG19 (1990), laid down that the developer has to pay for the surveying and excavation of a construction site. This meant that the developers put archaeology out to tender, just as they would advertise a contract to supply a workers' canteen or a security fence. And the archaeological enterprise which puts in the lowest bid gets the contract.

This is what Union Railways, the rail consortium, did with the Channel tunnel link. The contract for specialists to assess the impact of the proposed route on 'cultural heritage' was put out for tender. It was won by the Oxford Archaeological Unit. It is not clear who else put in a bid, although rumour says that the Wessex Unit also competed. The Department of Greater London Archaeology decided not to tender, allegedly on 'moral grounds'.

Nobody has anything unkind to say about the Oxford unit, whose standards are said to be extremely high. But the profession itself is desperately worried about where the free market in 'heritage assessment' will lead. Richard Morris, director of the Council for British Archaeology, wrote recently about 'free-fall market archaeology'. He observed that market forces could hardly work well when the customer - the developer - cared nothing for the quality of the product; the developer consulted archaeologists only because the law forced him to, not because he wanted to. Moreover, commercial archaeology units would have to cut staff during recessions as development stagnated, leading to the loss of specialists and completely disrupting the profession's career opportunities.

The Museum of London Archaeological Service (Molas), the largest unit in Britain, had to lay off 240 staff out of some 400 because of the recession in construction in London. Molas is especially worried about the future; its high proportion of senior specialists makes its costs high and its tenders relatively expensive. At Molas, they warn that 'cowboy' archaeology is emerging. Moonlighters from university departments, using cheap student labour, undercut professional units by playing down the historic importance of sites so that they can offer a rock-bottom tender.

Quietly, before the public has really noticed, British archaeology has been privatised. The time of grand, leisurely excavations paid for by public money and designed to enrich the historical understanding of a nation, is passing away. Instead, archaeologists, like double-glazing merchants, must hustle for rich 'customers' and hide trade secrets from one another. The late Sir Mortimer Wheeler said that archaeology was a vendetta, but he never said that archaeologists were hucksters.

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