Joining forces to tackle 'heritage crime'

Archaeologist Andy Richardson explores the problem at Western Heights in Kent

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On the Western Heights above Dover, 10 acres of military history sprawl across the hillside.

In the deep moat surrounding the largest structure, the Napoleonic Drop Redoubt, a group of visitors is inspecting a 20ft scrawl of purple and orange graffiti on the grey stonework.

Canterbury archaeologist Andy Richardson explains that, despite efforts to clean it off, the unwelcome message will probably remain forever.

In his audience there are police uniforms, the waterproofs and boots of conservation volunteers, and jackets bearing the crest of Dover District Council - all their owners working together to protect their local history.

This is Arch in action - and from today, the Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage will be spreading its message across the English counties.

Looted by nighthawks

The increase in so-called "heritage crime" has been acknowledged for several years, but until recently there's never been a co-ordinated plan to deal with it.

Now, under the leadership of English Heritage, chief constables, the Crown Prosecution Service, local authorities and community groups will be encouraged to not only help identify and prosecute offenders, but also to be more aware of the risks to sites in specific areas.

Jon Radcliffe knows the problems all too well. He's a rural police officer in Hampshire and his beat takes in a number of sites which typify the problem.

At one, 200-year-old flagstones have been torn up to make someone's rockery. At another, a Victorian dairy farm has been partially destroyed by arsonists.

Damaged paving slabs 200-year-old flagstones at one site in Hampshire have been stolen for use in private rockeries

A third - a Civil War battlefield - is regularly looted by nighthawks, metal-detecting treasure hunters who flout the law.

"The key here is to help people understand the historic value of what's around them," Pc Radcliffe says.

"If you can do that, it's surprising how many people want to get involved, and to play their part in preventing criminal behaviour."

That criminal behaviour has already stripped churches of their lead and historic houses of their fountains and fireplaces.

Back in Dover, the new partnership is struggling to find ways of deterring self-styled "urban explorers", who make a hobby out of defying padlocks and bars to gain access to places not open to the public.

Some of them merely do it to observe and take photos but an uncaring minority want to cause damage or remove a souvenir.

'Passion for the past'

Kent Chief Inspector Mark Harrison has been seconded to English Heritage to advise the organisation on the best way forward - and he is unstinting in his mission to recruit others to the cause.

"What we have established in Dover is exactly what we want to roll out across England," he says.

"I believe people have a deep passion about the past. After all, 28 million of us visited a historic site last year - that's what we need to tap into."

Round the corner on the cliff top, a workman is scrubbing furiously at another section of graffiti.

Identifying and deterring those who steal or damage our past will require a great deal more effort, but perhaps the group making their way back to their cars in Dover are indeed an example others will follow.

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