Rock fall out

The plan to improve the road layout around Stonehenge is under threat. A group of archaeologists and environ-mentalists are putting growing pressure on the National Trust, owner of the land, to reject the proposal it agreed to in 1998.

One can’t help thinking that if Stonehenge was in the US, it would long ago have 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 daft names like the Rolling Stones.

In rather more conser-vative Britain, we might turn our nose up at such vulgar treatment of a historic monument, but it would be no worse a fate than Stonehenge’s current predicament.

The country’s most famous ancient structure – a window into the world of our ancestors – is blighted by a mess of roads criss-crossing the site, a paucity of parking and a concrete bunker-like visitor centre that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a WW2 battlefield.

More than a decade since MPs famously condemned the site as a “national disgrace”, and then English Heritage chairman Sir Jocelyn Stevens vowed to “sort [it] out”, and Stonehenge is still waiting for the improvements.

A plan to hide the A303 (one of two roads running close to the site) in a 4km tunnel – an idea put forward at a Highway Agency planning conference in 1995 – was dashed when the Government deemed the £400 million cost to be prohibitively expensive.

Other proposals – including road closures and bypasses – were also rejected either for being too expensive, impractical or damaging to the site.

From 1989 to 1996, hundreds of meetings and thousands of hours of consultation were taken up trying to find a solution to the Stonehenge issue. The subject was raised no less than 128 times in the UK Parliament during this period. Seemingly, to no avail.

Just when it appeared that Stonehenge was condemned never to have surroundings befitting of its status as a World Heritage Site, a breakthrough was achieved.

In July 1998, 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 came to an agreement on the road problem.

In a streamlined version of the 1995 tunnel plan, a 2km stretch of the A303 running beside the stones would be buried in a tunnel, the A344 (the other road near to the stones) would be closed and a bypass would be built at nearby Winterbourne Stoke to ease congestion generated by the monument’s popularity.

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

At around the same time, significant progress was made in replacing the visitor centre. After years of wrangling, during which no less than four schemes were proposed and rejected, it was finally decided to build a centre at Countess East, 4km to the east of Stonehenge.

The location was favoured because it is outside the boundaries of the World Heritage Site.

Although English Heritage threw out an initial design for the Countess centre by Sidell Gibson in July 2000 amid bitter acrimony, a new architect – Australian practice Denton Corker Marshall – was soon appointed, and the project was back on course.

The new road and visitor centre proposals formed the centrepiece of what came to be known as the Stonehenge Master Plan – a voluminous document setting out precisely what had to be done to solve the monument’s problems.

Following the document’s publication, the Highways Agency started to draw up detailed plans for the road improvement scheme and last year shortlisted four consortia to design and build the A303 tunnel.

The agency was due to complete the detailed plans later this year. Stonehenge’s wait, it seemed, was almost over. But late last year an unexpected complication arose.

Although the National Trust’s council supported the Stonehenge Master Plan, many of its members didn’t and in October 2000 a group of discontented affiliates submitted a motion to review the trust’s support of the plan.

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

It was in effect an all-out attack on the Stonehenge Master Plan, and National Trust members were to be given a chance to vote on it.

Backed by a ragtag band of archaeologists, environmentalists and conservationists under the auspices of the Stonehenge Alliance, the rebels had two main objections to the plan.

Firstly, that by having the entrance and exit of the A303 tunnel within the boundaries of the World Heritage Site, the sanctity of the site would be damaged; and secondly, that the cut and cover tunnelling method proposed would destroy important archaeology.

One of the most vociferous critics was Kate Fielden, an archaeologist and leading light within the alliance.

“[The plan] is fundamentally flawed. The road scheme that is heralded as a solution would severely damage the heritage site itself,” she claims.

“Perhaps it would result in a more attractive setting for the stones but at huge cost to the archaeological sites lost to tunnel building. We must demand the best solution, whatever the cost, or leave things alone until we can afford it.”

Although the objectors were a minority within the trust, they were growing in influence (their campaign having been reported in the national press), and there was an outside chance that they could win the ballot.

If that happened, the National Trust would have little choice but to rescind – at least temporarily – its support for the road proposal, possibly dooming the Stonehenge Master Plan.

Recognizing the magnitude of the threat, the National Trust mounted a robust defence of the plan in the run-up to the vote. In a debate with Fielden, the trust’s spokesman on Stonehenge Mark Harold promised that the scheme would not be damaging to the site.

“The National Trust takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously. The Government has charged the Highways Agency to deliver an ‘exceptional environmental road scheme’, and the National Trust will be scrutinising the detail to ensure this is delivered.”

He also urged members to wait until the Highways Agency had unveiled its detailed designs before coming to a decision about the plan.

The debate raged on up until the moment the votes were cast. And when the ballet papers were counted, the National Trust had won a clear victory, 65,601 members voting against the motion and just 24,290 for it. But the fight might not yet be over.

It is possible that some members decided to defer their decision on the Stonehenge Master Plan until after detailed designs are released later in the year. It is then that the plan might face its greatest challenge. Meantime, Stone-henge continues to wait.

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