Stonehenge restoration plan meets brick wall

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The Independent Online
Plans to liberate Stonehenge from its chain-link fences, ugly car park and miserable tea bar have been scuppered by the Millennium Commission's refusal to contribute pounds 20m of lottery money.

The project, which would have enabled everyone from Druids to day-trippers to enjoy free access to the 5,000-year-old stone circle, was announced yesterday by a bitterly disappointed Sir Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage.

Stung by a Commons report in 1992 that Stonehenge was "a national disgrace", Sir Jocelyn made it his goal to restore the stones and surrounding Wiltshire downland to their prehistoric grandeur.

But the Millennium Commission was reluctant to put lottery money into a project partly funded by a private company wanting a commercial return on its investment. The Tussauds Group was to put in pounds 10m and then charge visitors pounds 6.75 a head entry to a high-tech interpretation centre.

Stonehenge is the most important Megalithic site in Europe and ranks alongside the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China as a world heritage site. But tourists, who come thousands of miles to visit the stones, go away appalled at their state.

"It is hard to think of another world heritage site anywhere which is more famous and more badly presented," Sir Jocelyn said. "But it is more than just a tourist attraction. The stones are the beginning of civilisation in this country and have a unique and awesome mystery."

A week ago, in a desperate attempt to save the project, Sir Jocelyn disclosed that his original 6,000-acre Millennium Park plan had been scaled down, cutting the cost from pounds 80m to pounds 44m and halving the sum needed from the lottery.

Under the revised plan, the car park and visitor centre were moved to within 1km of the stones, cutting out a much-criticised "Disneyland" trackless train, and free access was introduced. Last year 725,000 visitors each paid pounds 3.70 to visit Stonehenge and another 250,000 peered through the fence by the A344.

Free entry won a favourable response from Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for National Heritage. But although greater public access to the nation's treasures is a Labour ambition, it did not sway Mr Smith in his capacity as chairman of the Millennium Commission.

At a meeting chaired by Mr Smith, the commissioners decided it would "not be worthwhile" for English Heritage to continue its bid. The quango has spent pounds 2m over four frustrating years developing the project. But a spokeswoman for the Commission said: "We've been incredibly oversubscribed and they are in competition with an awful lot of other projects."

Rejection leaves the stones blighted by ugly facilities and fences and at risk of being destabilised by lorries thundering along two main roads. The stones can be felt "vibrating", according to Sir Jocelyn. Some 20,000 vehicles pass the site each day.

Under the ill-fated plan, the A344 adjacent to the stones would have been grassed over, becoming a footpath across 2,000 acres of uncluttered downland. What to do with the busier A303 lies with the Department of Transport which has balked at the idea of a pounds 300m dual tunnel under the site.

Mr Smith will meet Sir Jocelyn soon to discuss the continuing dilemma. Sir Jocelyn believes that a solution for Stonehenge will require action at Cabinet level.

It is possible he would have better luck joining the Druids at the stones for the Solstice and offering his prayers.