It’s been a long time coming. After decades of argument and wrangling, of ambitious schemes scuppered by conflicting interests and funding shortfalls, Stonehenge is now set in a landscape suited to one of the world’s most iconic archaeological sites.
Stonehenge has stood in enigmatic splendour on the undulating chalky slopes of Salisbury Plain for 5,000 years.
Who built Stonehenge?
Experts have thought at various times that everyone from the Romans to the Danes, the Phoenicians to the Vikings, built the structure – before modern archaeological study confirmed its construction at the end of the Neolithic.
Stonehenge remains defiantly mysterious. Until recently, indisputable facts have been few, but opinions have always been plenty.
Stonehenge and the Perils of Popularity
Today’s Stonehenge has long been a victim of its own success. The direct railway from London reached Salisbury in 1857, and it subsequently became fashionable to make a picnic excursion to the stones.
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By the late nineteenth century the site was so popular that The Times thought Stonehenge “in danger of being vulgarized out of all knowledge and certainly out of all its venerable charms. To continue to allow this marvellous relic of prehistoric ages to be ruthlessly disfigured and perish inch by inch would be an eternal disgrace.”
In 2013, the site attracted 1,241,296 visitors, an increase of 18.9 percent on the preceding year, according to figures from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. If there has ever been one undisputed fact about Stonehenge, it’s that the monument has always drawn more visitors than its guardians were properly equipped to handle.
Stonehenge: The Management Challenge
Catering to such numbers proved to be a formidable challenge, giving rise to piecemeal development and a lamentable lack of long-term planning. The cramped visitor facilities, erected in 1968 as a temporary measure, satisfied no-one. Condemned as too small and too intrusive, the unlovely visitor centre quickly became overcrowded.
The monument somehow retained its age-old aura of mystery and dignity despite the chaos of its surroundings, although visitors couldn’t help but wonder at how different the experience would be if only cars weren’t roaring past on the A344 from Amesbury to Devizes. The road passed close by the Heel Stone, close enough to touch, or so it seemed.
The road had long been a bone of contention. A344 cut Stonehenge off from the landscape and gave the false impression that the monument stood in splendid isolation, removed from its surroundings. Calls to close the road were first aired in 1927, but it didn’t happen until 2013, as part of the major, and long awaited, revamp of the site.
A Bureaucratic Tangle
The lengthy wait for an appropriate setting for Stonehenge can be explained, in part, by the complex patchwork of ownership of the site. Local landowner Cecil Chubb gave the monument to the nation in 1918, and received a knighthood in return, becoming known locally as “Viscount Chubb of Stonehenge.”
Today the site and a small section of land around it is owned by English Heritage, the UK Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment.
The National Trust own 600 hectares of land around the monument, most of which is now leased to farmers, while the land to the north is owned by the Ministry of Defence. The roads are the responsibility of Wiltshire County Council and the Department of Transport.
Stonehenge Problems and Solutions
Nearly everyone agreed on the problems at Stonehenge, but not everyone agreed on the solutions. Proposals were put forward, then withdrawn for further consultation. Vested interests, bureaucratic inertia, and cost served to mire plans to improve the setting of the monument in a seemingly endless deadlock.
It was agreed the A344 that passed so close to the stones should be closed, and the cramped visitor facilities needed to be moved to a more discreet distance. These measures have finally come to pass, though not without long debate.
A Thorny Road
The controversy surrounding the A304, the main road from London to the West Country, is ongoing. The main issue here is the formidable cost.
The cheapest option is a short tunnel through the chalkland, burying just that length where a surface road would be visible from Stonehenge.
A fine idea, perhaps, but digging such a tunnel would destroy all the archaeology along its length, an odd thing to do when the whole point of caring for Stonehenge is to safeguard its archaeology. The scheme would have destroyed around 100,000 square metres of the site.
As for a deeper tunnel, bored far below the chalk – that would spare the archaeology, but would be much more expensive.
Opinions differed. English Heritage was happy with the short tunnel through the chalk, the cheapest option. The National Trust, on the other hand, supported the idea of a longer, deeper, bored tunnel.
Thus far, neither tunnel has come to pass.
The New Stonehenge
Just when it seemed the deadlock would continue forever, English Heritage announced their plans to improve the site. After so many years of debate, things happened quickly.
The A344 has now been closed and grassed over, and the visitor centre dismantled. The new visitor centre, located at Airman’s Corner some one and a half miles from the stones, opened in December 2013. It houses space for permanent and temporary exhibitions, along with a cafe and shop, and has seen visitor numbers exceed 500,000 in its first six months. Nearby sit five Neolithic roundhouses, their interiors filled with replicas of finds from the wider site.
A Glimpse of Stonehenge As It Once Was
Approaching the stones either by shuttle or on foot enables visitors to appreciate the sheer abundance of ancient sites which dot Salisbury Plain. Bronze Age long barrows sit side by side with mysterious sites that revel in names such as Robin Hood’s Ball and the Cuckoo Stone. Recent research has shown that Stonehenge was far from the only henge on Salisbury Plain and now it’s possible to get a feel for the culture that flourished here, millennia ago.