ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 40, December 1998


The great prize of starlit Stonehenge

The new plans for Stonehenge deserve support, writes Francis Pryor

Sun temple, waymarker, computer, observatory, Tess's rendezvous, New Age icon, witness of 5,000 years, World Heritage Site, traffic jam - Stonehenge is a universe of identities. It is also, according to the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, a national disgrace. One of the oldest, most mysterious buildings in the world is today bracketed by noisy roads, approached via a dismal concrete subway, and displayed like a beast in a third-rate zoo. When bemused visitors depart few realise that they have been standing in the midst of an astonishing ceremonial landscape.

After years of dithering by successive Governments, Culture Secretary Chris Smith has unveiled proposals which aim to redeem the disgrace. The Stonehenge `Masterplan' provides for closure of the A344 alongside the stones, burial of the A303 in a tunnel, removal of the nearby carpark and visitor facilities, and the creation of a new visitor centre outside the World Heritage Site. Frequent shuttle buses would carry visitors free of charge along existing roads to a point about half a mile from the stones, whence all but the less able would walk. Anyone disinclined to use the visitor centre would be free to enter the landscape on foot. Since distance will be a deterrent to rapid visits, pressure on the stones will be relieved.

Among local residents these proposals are popular, and the intention to clear away modern clutter near the stones has been widely welcomed. Archaeological reaction overall, however, has been muted, and in some quarters critical. The main reason is the proposed method of tunnelling for the A303. Having spent the last ten years convincing everyone that archaeological evidence should be `left in situ' for the benefit of future generations, and most of the last three arguing for a bored tunnel, English Heritage has now assured the Government that a shorter cut-and-cover tunnel will suffice. This means a colossal, if temporary, trench through a World Heritage Site.

Almost everyone agrees that a bored tunnel would be ideal, because it would destroy little of archaeological interest. However, at the last estimate, the cost of a 4km bored tunnel was £300 million. This, according to the Government, is unaffordable, and there are some who think it unreasonable. If £300 million were suddenly made available for Britain's historic environment, a bored tunnel at Stonehenge would not necessarily be the best way to spend it. Even the cut-and-cover tunnel will be a hefty item.

What of the tunnel's result? One of the Government's preoccupations is `access for the many'. That is a good aim, but access, like Stonehenge itself, is no single or simple thing. Your desire to approach the stones on foot competes with the tens of thousands of coach-borne tourists who wish merely to pause for a few minutes on their way to Bath. A tunnel would deprive local commuters from glimpsing the monument in different lights and weathers. Whose access should prevail?

A few years ago this question would have seemed strange. Stonehenge is in the guardianship of the nation, and until recently guardianship was operated through conventions which went largely unquestioned. It meant close-mown grass, iron plaques which warned against climbing, and an austere guidebook which dictated an account to readers who were assumed to be sufficiently educated to receive it.

The present facilities date from as recently as the 1960s, when guardianship monuments were regarded as objects rather than experiences. I, along with CBA Vice-Presidents Christopher Taylor and Mike Farley, believe that experience is important, and that either by intuition or judgement Mr Smith's plan recognises this. We also believe that his plan deserves a more constructive reaction than it has hitherto received. Outright approval must await the detail, but that is no reason not to encourage the vision which must precede detail.

The essence of the vision is a modern landscape, emptied of distractions, wherein mind and imagination can engage with surroundings which contribute to Stonehenge's meaning. Approached on foot over a distance this prehistoric building is an awesome thing. True, such an approach will require more time and effort than now, but these proposals will exclude noone who really wants to go.

The issues go deeper. Thomas Hardy's poem Channel Firing imagined conversations between churchyard dead, momentarily awakened by gunnery practice out at sea. At its end:

Again the guns disturbed the hour, Roaring their readiness to avenge, As far inland as Stourton Tower, And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

In debating points of view which are genuinely held, let us not deter the Government from pursuing the project upon which it has now embarked. Starlit Stonehenge is a great prize.

Dr Francis Pryor is the President of the CBA

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1998