Steven Norris, Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Transport, said that two routes which have been proposed by his officials are non-starters and that he was prepared to consider a tunnel if no other solution could be found. He gave the undertaking in answer to a question from Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, at a conference on the future of Stonehenge held at the Queen Elizabeth Centre, London.
A route which bypasses Stonehenge to the south would not survive the parliamentary process, Mr Norris said, and enlargement of the existing A303 with a small tunnel adjacent to Stonehenge satisfied no one. Mr Norris recognised the formidable political opposition ranged against the two solutions favoured by his officials.
Sir Angus Stirling, director general of the National Trust, warned that if any route infringed inalienable National Trust land then it would take the issue to Parliament and the plan would most likely be thrown out. Lord Chorley, chairman of the National Trust, said: 'We have very seldom used this procedure but if you don't use it with an issue of this magnitude then when do you use it?'
While Mr Norris said that finance will have to be found for a pounds 250m tunnel if there is no other acceptable option, he was confident that would not happen. Department of Transport officials have sketched out a new northern route which will cost between pounds 30m and pounds 50m. However, a number of possible problems with this route have yet to be fully investigated. It passes near a sensitive archaeological site, Fargo Wood, and near Army married quarters.
As the new northern route gains favour, some disadvantages of an expensive two- and-a-half-mile tunnel passing under Stonehenge and the most sensitive archaeological sites have begun to emerge. The tunnel will require large portals, link roads and ventilation shafts.
A number of objections were also made to the tunnel on the grounds that it might change people's perception of Stonehenge if they were aware of a massive technological structure beneath the monument, even if they could not see it.
This knowledge would lessen the mystery of Stonehenge, Richard Coleman, deputy secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission, maintained. 'If I was a dowser, I would be very unhappy about the tunnel,' he said.