England's heritage: Plans unveiled to transform tourism at ancient monument as modern urban sculpture wins design award

New road is key to revamped Stonehenge experience

NICHOLAS SCHOON

Environment Correspondent

A new light electric railway at Stonehenge will ferry visitors from a huge new visitor centre to an observation point half a mile from the stones.

People who want to see Stonehenge close-up will have to walk the rest of the distance, although there will be special vehicles to ferry infirm and disabled people from the terminus.

Once there they will be able to walk to the centre of the 5,000-year- old stone rings - something that has not been allowed for the past 10 years.

The stones will be set among more than six square miles of rolling chalk grassland with neither roads nor fences. The public will be able to roam this archaeological parkland, a United Nations-designated World Heritage Site boasting more than 400 ancient monuments.

This was the vision unveiled yesterday by the National Trust, which owns 1,500 acres immediately around the site, and English Heritage, which looks after Stonehenge. Next week they will apply for pounds 25m of National Lottery money from the Millennium Commission to help realise it. But, more importantly, they need to persuade the Department of Transport to close the existing busy A roads which run next to Stonehenge and to build a bypass.

Next week a new set of negotiations starts between the two conservation bodies and the Highways Agency in an attempt to end their long-running quarrel over the future of the roads around Stonehenge.

The transport department wants to widen the A303 trunk road linking the M3 and the West Country along the stretch next to Stonehenge because it has become a bottle-neck.

This provides an opportunity to grass over and close the road and bypass the World Heritage Site. But English Heritage and the National Trust say they are bitterly disappointed by the latest proposals from the Highways Agency for a bypass north of Stonehenge.

"We've had a wasted year of discussions with them," Jocelyn Stevens, the English Heritage chairman, said. "Their proposals represent an absolutely appalling threat which would see the butchery of a World Heritage Site."

Yesterday the two conservation organisations published their own detailed proposals for bypasses, both to the north of Stonehenge and more expensive than any of the agency's plans.

One has a 2.5-mile tunnel and would cost about pounds 250m. The other has only half a mile of tunnel and would cost pounds 54m. The Highways Agency says tunnelling would make the road unaffordable.

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