Thomas Hardy was so moved by Stonehenge's bleak beauty he called it "a very Temple of the Winds". Modern admirers are more likely to describe it as "a mess" and be moved only by a tide of tourists.
The neolithic stones on Salisbury Plain were criticised yesterday as "over-loved" and "lacking magic" in a survey of conditions at 94 leading World Heritage Sites. The study by 400 conservation and tourism experts for National Geographic ranked Stonehenge 75th in the list of destinations and declared it to be "in moderate trouble".
Researchers said that the 5,000-year-old monument was being degraded by large numbers of people on the site and the proximity of two busy roads.
One judge wrote: "Massive numbers of tourists cycle through the site on a daily basis, making for a crowded, noisy environment. Condition of the site is protected by fencing... but the visual sightlines are disrupted. It does not appear that local populations benefit from the tourist development of the site."
Another wrote: "What a mess. Compelling, over-loved. Certainly, the current experience lacks magic."
The heritage "scorecard", compiled by George Washington University in Washington DC, gave Stonehenge 56 points out of a possible 100. The Taj Mahal also scored 56 points, the Great Wall of China 55 points and the Acropolis 53 points.
Kathmandhu Valley in Nepal, described as "polluted" and scarred by "modern concrete buildings", came bottom with 39 points. The West Fjords in Norway came top with 87 points.
The two other British sites in the survey, published in National Geographic Traveller magazine, fared much better than Stonehenge. Bath was ranked joint sixth with 78 points and Dorset's Jurassic Coast scored 70.
But while the criticism of Stonehenge, which last year received 800,000 visitors , may dismay tourism chiefs, it was welcomed by its owners. English Heritage, which has seen its plans for a £67m revamp repeatedly delayed, agreed that the site had "lost some of its magic".
The conservation organisationwants to persuade the Government to approve a new underground visitor centre and remove all traffic from the area.
How other attractions fared
City of Bath Score: 78
"A beautifully presented World Heritage town. High-quality maintenance."
"What is remarkable is the human scale of everything, from its many museums and walks to cultural events, shops and restaurants."
Jurassic Coast Score: 70
"Well managed, although the popularity of the coastal walks leads to... "people pollution". At busy times there are convoys of walkers."
"Some of the tourism development seems inappropriate, for example, cliff-top caravan parks."Reuse content