A NEW dig that could find the bones of King Alfred the Great is moving closer.

But researchers are on a collision course with the charity that created the memorial garden that stands above the monarch’s grave in Winchester, the Chronicle can reveal.

The Friends of Hyde Abbey Garden say they will oppose any excavation at the garden, which opened in 2003.

Its chairman Sue Nelmes said: “It would mean total destruction of the garden. If it were to be destroyed it would be irreplaceable.

“We wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to re-establish it. We will oppose this, absolutely, 100 per cent,”she said.

The latest development was revealed by city council chief executive Simon Eden who said he had met university officials and members of Hyde 900, the local history group that pressed for research into bones found in the grave at St Bartholomew’s church.

That sparked renewed interest last year in a dig at the site of Hyde Abbey Garden between 1997-99.

Further analysis revealed a bone discovered in the dig dated from Anglo-Saxon times and so may be Alfred or a near relative.

Mr Eden told the overview and scrutiny committee on Monday: “I met the chairman of Hyde 900 (Steve Marter), Prof Martin Biddle and the university. They are interested in the possibility of further investigations.

Mr Eden acknowledged any further digging would disrupt the garden which includes the much-loved glass artwork by Tracey Sheppard.

Prof Martin Biddle, professor of medieval archaeology at Oxford University, said: “I have proposed with Hyde 900 a further excavation of the east end of Hyde Abbey.

"Everybody thinks we have to look for King Alfred but we could learn a great deal more about the abbey itself.”

Prof Biddle added: “It has not been properly excavated on an appropriate scale. We might also learn more about the graves but they may have been totally destroyed.

“I entirely understand the concerns of the Friends of Hyde Abbey Garden. I’m afraid we have caused some concern. But we would not do this without their agreement.”

Prof Biddle said that agreement would ensure the garden would be restored and even enhanced. The likely high-profile of the excavation would mean funding for restoration would not be an issue, he said.

Edward Fennell, founder of Hyde 900 but speaking in a personal capacity, said: “I’m convinced the bones are down there still. I don’t think anybody would have walked off with them. It’s not a Richard III situation where a whole skeleton was found; I think there will be a lot of fragments.

“This is a site of national significance. There is enormous interest in the story of Alfred the Great.”

Another idea, said Mr Eden, was to put in interpretive panels that could be accessed by smartphones giving, for example, holograms of King Alfred.

Hyde 900 has prepared an application for funding of up to £100,000 to the Heritage Lottery Fund to improve public interpretation of the abbey which has now largely disappeared after the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s by Henry VIII.

Mr Eden said more work needed to be done on the results of the 1997-99 excavation: “We need to complete the analysis of the dig that the council led at the turn of the Millennium and have a full write-up of that.”

But Prof Biddle said he did not think that was necessary as comprehensive notes were kept at the time.