Rock Fall Out

The plan to improve the road layout surrounding Stonehenge is in jeopardy. A group of archaeologists and environmentalists is increasing pressure on the National Trust, the land’s owner, to reject the proposal reached in 1998.

If Stonehenge were in the United States, it would have long ago been turned into a theme park, complete with fast food outlets selling “woolly mammoth” burgers, staff dressed up in Fred Flintstone outfits, and white-knuckle rides with ridiculous names like the Rolling Stones.

We might scoff at such heinous treatment of a historic monument in a more conservative Britain, but it would be no worse than Stonehenge’s current plight.

The country’s most famous ancient structure – a window into our forefathers’ world – is marred by a tangle of roads crisscrossing the site, a scarcity of parking, and a concrete bunker-like visitor centre that wouldn’t look out of place on a WW2 battlefield.

More than a decade after MPs famously condemned the site as a “national disgrace” and then-English Heritage chairman Sir Jocelyn Stevens vowed to “sort [it] out,” Stonehenge remains unimproved.

A plan to hide the A303 (one of two roads close to the site) in a 4km tunnel, proposed at a Highway Agency planning conference in 1995, was scuttled when the Government deemed the £400 million cost prohibitively expensive.

Other proposals, such as road closures and bypasses, were also rejected, either because they were too expensive, impractical, or harmful to the site.

Hundreds of meetings and thousands of hours of consultation were held between 1989 and 1996 in an attempt to find a solution to the Stonehenge problem. During this time, the subject was raised 128 times in the UK Parliament. To no avail, it appears.

Just when it appeared that Stonehenge would never have surroundings worthy of its World Heritage status, a breakthrough occurred.

The three main players in the monument’s fate – English Heritage (which manages the henge), the National Trust (owner of most of the land), and the Government (the financier of any scheme – finally reached an agreement on the road problem in July 1998.

To alleviate traffic congestion caused by the monument’s popularity, a 2km stretch of the A303 running alongside the stones would be buried in a tunnel, the A344 (the other road near the stones) would be closed, and a bypass would be built at nearby Winterbourne Stoke.

The new plan would be significantly less expensive at £130 million, and the shorter tunnel – unlike its longer predecessor – would have entrance and exit points within the Stonehenge site (a fact that would come back to haunt the project).

Simultaneously, significant progress was made in replacing the visitor centre. After years of deliberation, during which no fewer than four schemes were proposed and rejected, it was finally decided to build a centre at Countess East, 4 kilometres east of Stonehenge.

The location was chosen because it is outside the World Heritage Site’s boundaries.

Although English Heritage rejected Sidell Gibson’s initial design for the Countess Centre in July 2000, a new architect – Australian firm Denton Corker Marshall – was quickly appointed, and the project was soon back on track.

The new road and visitor centre proposals were the centrepiece of what became known as the Stonehenge Master Plan – a massive document outlining exactly what needed to be done to solve the monument’s problems.

Following the publication of the document, the Highways Agency began developing detailed plans for the road improvement scheme, and last year it shortlisted four consortia to design and build the A303 tunnel.

The detailed plans were supposed to be completed later this year by the agency. Stonehenge’s wait appeared to be coming to an end. However, an unexpected complication arose late last year.

Although the National Trust’s council backed the Stonehenge Master Plan, many of its members did not, and in October 2000, a group of disgruntled affiliates filed a motion to review the trust’s support for the plan.

The motion proposed that the National Trust council “reconsider its position in dealings with the government over proposed road ‘improvements’ at Stonehenge, consult with major campaigning groups on road transport and environmental issues, and declare that it does not accept the need for any developments that increase road capacity at Stonehenge.”

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It was an all-out assault on the Stonehenge Master Plan, and National Trust members were to be given the opportunity to vote on it.

The Stonehenge Alliance, a ragtag band of archaeologists, environmentalists, and conservationists, backed the rebels, who had two main objections to the plan.

The first is that having the A303 tunnel’s entrance and exit within the World Heritage Site’s boundaries would jeopardise the site’s sanctity; and the second is that the proposed cut and cover tunnelling method would destroy important archaeology.

Kate Fielden, an archaeologist and alliance leader, was one of the most outspoken critics.

“[The plan] has a fundamental flaw.” “The road scheme being touted as a solution would severely harm the heritage site itself,” she claims.

“Perhaps it would result in a more appealing setting for the stones, but at a significant cost to the archaeological sites lost to tunnel construction.” We must either demand the best solution, regardless of cost, or wait until we can afford it.”

Although the objectors were a minority within the trust, their influence was growing (their campaign had been covered in the national press), and they had a chance of winning the ballot.

If this occurs, the National Trust will be forced to withdraw – at least temporarily – its support for the road proposal, potentially dooming the Stonehenge Master Plan.

Recognizing the gravity of the threat, the National Trust mounted a strong defence of the plan in the lead-up to the vote. In a debate with Fielden, the trust’s Stonehenge spokesman, Mark Harold, promised that the scheme would not harm the site.

“The National Trust takes its responsibilities to the environment very seriously.” The Highways Agency has been charged by the Government with delivering a ‘exceptional environmental road scheme,’ and the National Trust will be scrutinising the details to ensure this is delivered.”

He also urged members to postpone making a decision on the plan until the Highways Agency released detailed designs.

The debate raged on until the votes were counted. When the ballots for the ballet were counted, the National Trust had won a clear victory, with 65,601 members voting against the motion and only 24,290 in favour. But the battle may not be over yet.

Some members may have decided to postpone their decision on the Stonehenge Master Plan until detailed designs are released later in the year. The plan may face its most difficult test at this point. Meanwhile, Stonehenge remains silent.

Last Updated on December 28, 2021

Indra-Gupta

Author: Indra Gupta

Indra is an in-house writer with a love of Newcastle United and all things sustainable.

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