Free access for druids (et al) in plan to drop Stonehenge entrance charges

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The Independent Online
Stonehenge, sacred stones of the Druids and the most important Megalithic site in Europe, could soon become a truly public place once again.

Entry to the 5,000-year-old stone circle today costs pounds 3.70 for an adult and under the Millennium Park scheme being pushed until yesterday by English Heritage and the Tussauds Group the ticket price would have nearly doubled.

Last year 725,000 paid to visit the stones and another 250,000 are reckoned to have peered at them through the chain link fence by the A344.

But in a politically astute move, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of the heritage quango, has switched to the idea of free public access, a notion likely to appeal to the lottery-funded Millennium Commission, which is being asked for pounds 20m, and to the Labour government. Greater public access to the nation's treasures is a basic tenet of Sir Jocelyn's new political master, Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

English Heritage committed itself to improvements at Stonehenge after the site and visitor facilities were condemned as a "national disgrace" in 1992 by a House of Commons committee.

Sir Jocelyn made it a personal ambition of his chairmanship that people should be able to "touch the stones" again.

But the ambitious plan for a 6,000-acre Millennium Park on the Wiltshire downs, with Stonehenge at its heart, ran into problems owing to the pounds 83m cost and criticism of the "Disneyland" trackless-train touring the stones.

The Millennium Commission, which is being asked to pay half, had doubts about where the rest of the money was coming from and about the benefit to the public from the scheme.

Under the revised plan, a main road running within 300 yards of the stones will still be grassed over and 2,000 acres of Wiltshire downland will be restored to a natural setting.

The Tussauds visitor centre will be moved from a site 3km from the stones to within 1km at Larkhill. There will be no need for a train, parking will be free and visitors can walk to the stones.

Tussauds, who will manage the site, will charge for entry to an interpretation centre, using virtual reality techniques, and there will also be retail and catering facilities.

The Millennium Commission will consider the revised plan next week, but a decision on funding will not be made before autumn. If pounds 20m is forthcoming from the lottery, Tussauds will put in pounds 10m, with the remaining pounds 10m coming from English Heritage and the National Trust, the major landowner.

"It will be a free site for the public's benefit," said Sir Jocelyn, who told Mr Smith about the change at a meeting last week.

Charging has been a feature at Stonehenge ever since the site was given to the nation early this century, and probably before that.

But even if it is approved by the Millennium Commission, the project still faces hurdles. Conservationists are certain to object to the resiting of the visitor centre at Larkhill, within the World Heritage Site and close to a mysterious 2.5km-long Neolithic feature known as the Cursus.

Kate Fielden, secretary of the Avebury Society, whose interest extends to Stonehenge, said the emphasis had to be on removing all the 20th-century clutter - a commitment once made by Sir Jocelyn.

"It would be a tragedy for us to treat such an important site in such a shameful way. The object must be restore the landscape around this monument to make it place that people can come to and go away uplifted."

According to Sir Jocelyn, the visitor centre would be in low-lying "dead ground" and all that would be visible from the stones would be the heads of visitors viewing the site from a roof gallery.

"The choice was to build the centre off the World Heritage Site and have transport, or to build on, out of sight, and let people walk." Doing the latter removed the "fairground" element of the train and allowed the stones their natural dignity, he said.

Visitor numbers could well double after May 2001, the earliest likely opening date for the people's Stonehenge.