Hope for Stonehenge

More than 15 years after MPs branded the situation ‘a national disgrace’, has a solution finally been found for Stonehenge? At present, the Stones are hemmed in by roads the busy, arterial A303 south-western route and the A344 Devizes road, which joins it, cutting the site off from its surrounding monuments and landscape. The latter not only comes up so close so as to almost clip the heel stone of the circle, but also lies slap across the Avenue, believed to be the site’s ancient processional approach. In addition, the current visitor facilities, housed in a 1968 ‘concrete monstrosity’ on the other side of the A344, are not only outdated and ineffectual, but also represent a significant visual intrusion to the site.

In English Heritage’s most recent proposal, released in May, a new visitor centre will be built at Airman’s Corner, an area of farmland at the edge of the World Heritage Site (WHS), 1½ miles west of the current visitor centre, where the short A344 joins the A360. The junction of the A344 and the A303 will be closed, and the section of road from there to the Stones will be grassed over. The remaining part of the A344 will be the route for a visitor shuttle service between Airman’s Corner named after the monuments to three pilots killed while taking part in test flights over Salisbury Plain in the early 1900s and the Stones. Most of the current visitor centre and car park will be demolished and the land returned to grass. The total effect will be to reunite Stonehenge with the Avenue and greatly improve the setting.

Generally, the proposals have been positively received. ‘The first feeling on hearing the proposals was relief,’ says Maj George du Pré of the Countess Road Residents Group, which campaigned against the proposal, put forward in 1999, which would have seen the building of a new visitors’ centre two miles from Stonehenge near a residential area. This idea was shelved in 2007 following the collapse of the plan to build a tunnel for the A303 when geological factors caused the cost to spiral from £193 million to £540 million. ‘This seems to be a very reasonable solution,’ agrees Maj du Pré. ‘And the junction should have been closed years ago it’s a notorious spot for fatal accidents.’

As a site of major archaeological importance, any kind of disturbance to the surrounding area has ramifications. An earlier plan to locate a new visitor centre at a site known as Fargo Road, which lies inside the WHS, was abandoned over outcries about the site’s close proximity to an important barrow group. ‘We are very pleased with these suggestions,’ says Gill Chitty, head of conservation at the Council for British Architects. ‘One of the opportunities of this proposal is the chance for visitors to appreciate the landscape setting of Stonehenge, which includes ceremonial areas that are even older than the Stones themselves. As visitors move down to the Stones, they will have this wider landscape in their mind’s eye, which isn’t possible at present.’ She adds: ‘Our main concern is the visual impact the new building will have, as it will be very visible from the Stones.’

Plans for the visitor centre haven’t been finalised but, according to Barrie Marshall, director of Denton Corker Marshall, which has been awarded the contract for designing it, the building ‘is conceived as having the lightest possible touch on the landscape.’ The centre will be single-storey, ‘contained in a series of simple cubic volumes, sheltered by a fine perforated metal sheet canopy that echoes the rolling landforms of the Salisbury Plains’.

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Erskine Guinness, who, with his siblings, owns land to the south-east of Airman’s Corner, and is set to lose about an acre when the new centre is developed, comments: ‘The present site is a disgrace, and something has been needed to be done for about 20 years now. We’ve seen the plans and we’re very in favour of what is proposed the improvements to the area will far outweigh the loss of the land, although it will increase traffic on the lower stretch of the A360.’ However, Mr Guinness points out: ‘The only thing I’d say is that I’ll believe it when I see it. They’ve been talking about doing something for so long.’

Following a round of local exhibitions this summer, finalised details will be unveiled in September, when a final planning application is submitted. If all goes well, construction work is expected to take place in 2011, with the new facilities opening in 2012. The funding of about £25 million will be provided through sources including English Heritage, the Highways Agency, Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Transport. An application for support from the Heritage Lottery Fund is to be submitted shortly.