Stonehenge to remain a 'national disgrace': English Heritage chief admits tourist facilities will not be in place until end of decade after scrapping of pounds 15m scheme. Stephen Ward reports

JOCELYN STEVENS, chairman of English Heritage - the government advisory body - conceded yesterday that facilities at Stonehenge would remain what MPs have dubbed a 'national disgrace' until almost the end of the century, after shelving plans for a new visitor centre.

He was speaking at the site in Wiltshire as he unveiled a public consultation on eight proposed sites for a centre to replace the small, ramshackle, concrete 1960s buildings and car park within yards of the stones.

The Government has insisted it will not pay any of the pounds 15m it is likely to cost, leaving English Heritage to launch a public appeal once it has a definite site and broad approval.

The start of public consultation means that seven years of planning and preparation on a site known as Larkhill have been set aside after concerted opposition from local councils, archaeologists and environmentalists.

Larkhill, half a mile north of the stones, was chosen by an English Heritage working party in the mid-1980s without public consultation. Asked whether he regretted the time wasted by the way the matter was handled before he took over as chairman last year, Mr Stevens said: 'I was not around then so I am not the person to ask.' But he added that he would have done it differently and consulted the public first time round. 'I didn't want to be a pin-stripe coming down from London saying, 'Here you are'.'

Stonehenge, visited by 700,000 paying customers a year, is the most popular monument administered by English Heritage. But its car park was described by the Commons Public Accounts Committee as 'inadequate' and its visitor facilities as 'squalid.'

Mr Stevens said he had no plans to do more than patch up the existing site in the coming years before a new visitor centre can be opened. Asked how long that might be, he said the consultation would be evaluated by July. Then English Heritage and the National Trust, which owns 1,500 acres around the site, would make a choice. A planning application might be heard by the end of this year and if necessary a public inquiry might reach a decision by autumn 1994.

At that stage English Heritage could start to raise the money. He thought Japan would be the most promising source for donations. There would then be six months needed to tender for contracts and 18 months more to build the centre. He acknowledged that the timetable he had outlined, which would mean no centre before 1997 at least, was optimistic. English Heritage has appointed Edward Cullinan, the architect who designed a visitor centre at Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, to consider the merits of eight sites, including Larkhill, which is still in the running.

They all propose to close and grass over the A344 road which passes within yards of the stones. All are a compromise; some damage archaeological remains; some are so far away that most visitors would have to use park and ride vehicles; some would need new access roads; some would provide a better panoramic approach from the centre to the stones.

English Heritage did not consider having no visitor centre, or improving the existing one. The issue is further complicated because the Department of Transport is committed to widening the A303 to dual carriageway between London and Exeter, including the stretch past Stonehenge. It has proposed two routes, one close to the stones but in a tunnel, the other further away, but through virgin countryside. Neither English Heritage nor the National Trust has yet formed a response.

THE BLUFFER'S GUIDE

What's a henge? From the Old English, hengen, to hang, a reference to the lintel stones.

Who Geoffrey of Monmouth said was buried there: King Constantine of Britain and Uther Pendragon.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's other theory: Merlin advised Ambrosius Aurelianus to send for the stones called 'Giants' Dance' from Gillarus in Ireland. They were transplanted as Stonehenge.

Accepted history: Building begun around 1800BC, completed 1400BC.

Probable use: Calendar calculation and religious ceremony.

When it passed its pray-by date: Around 1400BC.

Where they did their praying before Stonehenge: Avebury.

Where the Druids came in: First mentioned by William Stukeley in 1740; no evidence of early Druid involvement.

Man who had 56 holes named after him: John Aubrey (1626-1697) - the Aubrey Holes in the outer ring.

Useful stone words: Megalith (large stone), menhir (large upright stone), trilithon (two uprights and a lintel).

Does it work? Yes, if you want to know the lunar months, the summer and winter solstices and midsummer's day (when the sun rises over the Hele Stone).

Is that the right spelling? Some call it the Heel Stone, but the old spelling is more impressive.

The heaviest stones: 50 tons.

(Photograph omitted)

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