Archaeology: En route to a monumental clash: David Keys on conflicting plans to turn Stonehenge into a car-free landscape

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The Independent Culture
TWO government bodies may soon be locked in combat over Britain's premier ancient monument. The theatre of war is likely to be the landscape surrounding Stonehenge, and the cassus belli is the Department of Transport's proposal to double the width of the A303 trunk road, which slices through the countryside 200 yards south of the 4,500-year-old monument.

The problem with the road-widening proposal stems from the particular nature of Stonehenge itself. The monument is not isolated, but lies at the heart of a vast complex of some 450 prehistoric sites, the remains of most of which can still be seen today.

Indeed, the extraordinary archaeological richness of the area has just been recorded by a full air photographic survey carried out by the Air Photo Unit of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England.

Incredibly, all 450 sites - prehistoric processional ways, temples and tombs - are crammed into an area covering less than 10 square miles. And the largest concentration of monuments within that area - almost 250 - is located within a two-and-a-half square mile stretch of countryside, mostly owned by the National Trust.

The Trust, together with English Heritage, wants to turn this inner Stonehenge area into a virtual archaeological park, free of roads, cars, coaches, car parks, and modern buildings.

Then, instead of only visiting Stonehenge, the public would also be able to fully appreciate and explore the central part of the prehistoric Stonehenge landscape, without having to cross major roads or hear, see or smell the 18,000 cars a day that currently hurtle along the A303.

Instead of widening the present road, the National Trust and English Heritage have boldly suggested building a replacement stretch of A303 inside a purpose-built two- and-a-half mile long deep-bored tunnel. It would cost, however, between pounds 100m and pounds 200m.

It is believed that the DoT is nervous about the cost of such a scheme. It has offered to build a much shorter tunnel to cover up just 400 yards of the existing A303 after it has been widened. This scheme would cost pounds 43m.

Alternatively, the DoT has suggested that a totally different route, costing pounds 22m, could be found for the A303, cutting across virgin countryside (yet still within the 10- square-mile World Heritage area), a mile south of Stonehenge. Not surprisingly, this second DoT suggestion has been received badly by local people - especially the farmers who work the land in this area.

The deep-bored tunnel being proposed by the National Trust and English Heritage would come to at least double and possibly as much as four times the cost of the Department of Transport's short- tunnel proposal.

Yet the cost of the National Trust/English Heritage proposal should be viewed against the economic, cultural and archaeological importance of the Stonehenge area.

First of all, Stonehenge is one of the world's top tourist attractions, visited by almost 700,000 people a year, half of whom are from overseas and who annually pump an estimated pounds 175m of foreign currency into the British economy.

Secondly, it would be difficult to develop this priceless resource as an archaeological park if it is bisected by a four-lane highway. Also to be considered is the archaeological damage that a substantial road- widening scheme would cause. It would, in fact, destroy almost 40 acres of Stonehenge's archaeological environment.

The National Trust and English Heritage have wide backing for their tunnel proposal from the Council for British Archaeology, the Society of Antiquaries and other heritage organisations.

In contrast, the Department of Transport has comparatively few interested parties behind its 'widen the existing road' proposal, and fewer still for its 'find a new route' alternative.

The National Trust and English Heritage want to safeguard Stonehenge's unique prehistoric landscape, but sadly they have not yet come up with the all-important details of what any newly promoted landscape should feature.

If cleansing the Stonehenge area of roads, coaches and car parks is to cost a great deal of money, then the National Trust and English Heritage have got to develop a vision of what the new product is going to look like. Even more importantly, it has to work out what it is going to offer the public.

For instance, if large numbers of people are going to be encouraged to explore the area's other prehistoric monuments, and to appreciate the Stonehenge landscape as a whole, then it is vital that proper hard surface (perhaps visually less intrusive epoxy resin) footpaths are made available.

Even if only 10 per cent of visitors decided to venture beyond the stones themselves and explore the proposed archaeological park, then 70,000 pairs of feet with very little hard-surface footpath provision would inevitably cause much erosion and a great deal of mud. Sadly, neither English Heritage nor the National Trust currently wishes to see the provision of a proper hard- surface footpath system.

Secondly, most of the park's prehistoric monuments, such as burial mounds and linear earthworks, are just bumps in the ground. They only really become fascinating to people when full information is provided as to what they are, what the archaeologists found there and why they are significant. That means a large selection of monuments, much more than at present, need to be provided with detailed, and preferably illustrated, information panels. Neither English Heritage nor the National Trust is at all keen to do this on any scale.

Thirdly, all the earthwork monuments are best seen from the air, so in some parts of the 'park' the visitors would get the best view only if viewing towers were made available. Such towers, already tried in other areas, could easily be hidden almost out of sight in existing patches of woodland. However, English Heritage does not like the idea, the objection to all these presentation and access measures being that they might clutter up the landscape.

Fourthly, the size of the archaeological park needs to be increased by around 3 per cent - about 50 acres - in order to include two key groups of impressive monuments that currently lie between 20 and 200 yards outside the park boundary. These two tiny areas contain examples of no fewer ethan five different types of prehistoric tombs - some 30 burial mounds in total. Efforts should be made to bring them into the park - by either purchase, full access agreements, or land swaps.

Lastly, if millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is to be spent on a two-and-a-half mile long tunnel, then the proposed Stonehenge visitors' centre museum should be of international calibre, especially as half the 700,000 visitors are foreign tourists.

Sadly, all the indications are that the museum will be disappointingly narrow in scope and decidedly downmarket in content. Preliminary plans for the display envisage its covering everything from ley lines to magic and druids, none of which has anything to do with the real prehistoric Stonehenge. There will be sections dealing with the prehistory of the monument and its immediate environs, but probably very little on the British Neolithic and Bronze Age as a whole - the period in which Stonehenge developed.

The National Trust has even indicated that it is not keen on building up the Stonehenge visitor centre museum, in case it starts drawing visitors away from other museums in the region. Considering that no other museum in the vicinity attracts even 10 per cent of the Stonehenge visitor total, the National Trust's reticence could well be seen as ill-conceived.

English Heritage and the National Trust's Stonehenge archaeological park scheme is a big project in need of a big idea.

If vast sums of money are to be spent on the proposed deep-bored tunnel, then English Heritage and the National Trust need to harden up their proposals into a product that the public at large would both like and use.

(Photograph omitted)