Bronze Age vision of a 20th century man: Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, wants to transform Stonehenge into a purer, prehistoric experience. Oliver Gillie reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DAWN at Stonehenge, and as the first rays of sun began to show on the horizon Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, paced about restlessly. Stonehenge is his responsibility and he has a vision of how the site could be transformed to provide a purer experience devoid of the 20th century clutter that spoils it.

Mr Stevens was re-enacting an ancient ritual, the observation of sunrise. And, as it was in ancient times, he was also present as a supplicant - seeking approval for a vision. The early Bronze Age men who farmed the Wiltshire fields almost certainly used Stonehenge for such purposes, seeking to determine the right time of year for the planting of crops and blessings for the harvest.

It was 4am and the stones appeared as silhouettes against the eastern sky. A light mist lay in the folds of land so that trees on the horizon appeared to hang in the air. But there was no enduring peace to contemplate this ancient landscape. A convoy of three large petrol tankers with bright headlights blasted their way down the A303, disturbing the unique magic of the place.

'I want people to be able to walk again among the stones and feel the excitement of it all,' Mr Stevens said. 'With the present arrangements they have to walk on a dreadful tarmac path and are held back by a rope. We want to change all that, but the first step is to get rid of the roads.'

The Department of Transport has been oblivious to the importance of Stonehenge as a national and international monument. It developed a plan to expand the A303, which runs within a few hundred yards of the site, into a four-lane highway. But the Department reckoned without Mr Stevens, who admits that he shouts at people, including ministers of the Crown, when they seem not to be listening.

'I don't shout very often but Stonehenge is just too valuable to be destroyed by a road plan. I told the Department of Transport that there was no way they would get their plans through,' Mr Stevens said. 'The Department of Transport has never encountered opposition like this before. We are their statutory advisers so they cannot just ignore us.

'The department is prepared to build a small tunnel but it would do nothing to protect Stonehenge from traffic. They have also suggested an alternative route but it would pass through other ancient sites which are scattered all over the land arround Stonehenge and we don't want that.'

As Mr Stevens spoke the sky became lighter and ancient barrows, the burial places of prehistoric noblemen, could be seen among the trees on the horizon. Then a brighter pink light fell through the cloud illuminating some more barrows scattered in fields nearby, and suddenly it was as if the surrounding plain was peopled with ghosts.

'I want the public to be able to see it like this,' Mr Stevens said, as he lent against one of the trilathons, huge stones in the centre of the monument that were dragged from quarries 25 miles away. 'The problems could be overcome by a long tunnel which would go under the whole site.

'We could then get rid of the roads and create a vast prehistoric park. People would be able to walk to Stonehenge across fields, if they wanted, or along the original avenue which was probably used for processions by Bronze Age people.'

A tunnel some six miles long through the chalk under Stonehenge would not be technically difficult to build but the cost of doing it, about pounds 250m, has forced the Department of Transport to think of alternatives.

'The department originally told us that a route further north was impossible for security reasons. It would pass too close to Larkhill garrison. Now the department has conceded that such a route would be possible and only two problems remain.

'At the east end the proposed route passes close to the Army's married quarters and particularly close to the brigadier's house. At the other end it would pass close to an ammunition dump. Neither of these problems are insuperable.'

Few people visit the barrows or explore the ancient landscape arround the stones because fences and traffic make it extremely difficult. Mr Stevens dreams of expanding the present 1,500 acres owned by the National Trust and English Heritage into a prehistoric park of some 3,000 acres which would incorporate all the surrounding antiquities, making the area into a valley of the kings.

The sun burst out from behind the cloud and as it did so the heel stone, which marks the rising sun, cast a long shadow on the altar stone behind us. It seemed possible that ancient gods had given their blessing to Mr Stevens's imaginative plan.

(Photographs omitted)