More than 20,000 celebrated the summer solstice at Stonehenge ahead of a “historic moment” in the £27 million transformation of the site.
Long-awaited refurbishments at the World Heritage Site will see a section of the road running next to the monument permanently closed from Monday 24 June.
The works come as part of major transformations happening at the site, including the creation of a new visitor centre nearby, along with a new cafe, shop and museum displaying artefacts and exploring Stonehenge theories, as well as three replica Neolithic houses.
The closure and grassing over of the A344 will reconnect Stonehenge with the landscape, allowing visitors to walk between the stone circle and the prehistoric avenue from which people would have once approached the monument.
The refurbishment was initially expected to be completed in time for the London Olympics, but works were delayed as a result of Government cuts that left English Heritage with a £10 million gap in funding. An increased grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, amongst other sources, allowed the refurbishment to continue.
Loraine Knowles, Stonehenge Director at English Heritage, said the closure of the road was “a real milestone in terms of the history of the site”.
English Heritage had wanted to close the road since it was nominated as a World Heritage site and inscribed in 1986, she said. “It really is a historic moment.”
Although Stonehenge has never failed to impress visitors, the setting of the stones had marred people's appreciation of the site, she added.
In the first stages, the road immediately adjacent to the stones will be closed, and work will begin to remove tarmac and grass it over.
After the visitor centre currently under construction opens in December, a longer section of the A344 between Stonehenge and the new facilities will be closed to traffic and opened for visitors walking or travelling by shuttle to the stones.
The existing car parking and visitor facilities, first built in 1968, will be removed and the area returned to grass.
Ms Knowles said: “When you are in Stonehenge in the future, when grass is established, you will be able to make the link between the monument and the rest of the heritage landscape to the north, accessing the avenue, the route by which the monument was approached when it was used as a place of great ceremony.”
Closing the road was also “absolutely fundamental" to all the improvements being made to the setting of the monument and supports "all the improvements we are making to the visitor experience ”.
More than one million people visit the site each year. Barb and Rick Oddy, from Vancouver, Canada, visiting on a coach tour just before the solstice, agreed that closing the road to link up the landscape was a good thing.
Ms Oddy said of the monument: “It's amazing. I can't decide which theory I believe and I think it's amazing how they (the stones) got here from Wales.”
However, fears have emerged that the changes to the site will adversely affect coach tours, which visit Stonehenge as one of a series of destinations. Those worried have suggested operators may choose to bypass the site because of the extra time involved in transferring groups from a more distant visitor centre by shuttle to the monument.
The busy A303, which runs on the other side of Stonehenge, will remain the same as plans to put the road into a tunnel proved too expensive.
Additional reporting by PA
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