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Stonehenge's £27m Makeover Will End its Days as a Traffic IslandJuly 11, 2012
Steven Morris, The Guardian, July 11, 2012
As ever, the verdict from the visitors arriving by the coach-load at Stonehenge was mixed: wonderful monument, poor access, disappointing facilities.
And what is it with those two busy roads rumbling within a few metres of the stones?
But finally, after years of planning, scheming and wrangling, changes are afoot.
On Wednesday work officially began on a £27m project to transform the area around Britain's most famous monument from a "national embarrassment" into a tranquil and dignified setting.
The project, which will take two years to complete, is bound to be controversial – anything involving Stonehenge is. Few will argue against the key concept of making it possible to walk to the stones from the landscape without risking collision with a juggernaut. The removal of stock fences and ugly security barriers is also bound to be welcomed by just about everyone.
English Heritage will be limiting the number of people who can arrive by car or coach via its planned new visitor facilities. In the future, tourists will have to book to be sure of a place in the car park and on the shuttles that will ferry them to the stones. A visit to England's greatest prehistoric site will take a little bit of thinking ahead.
Bad news for people like Dave Willetts, who was to be found gazing at the stone circle not just for cultural reasons but for religious ones. He is a pagan and likes to pop up from time to time.
"I don't live too far away, I looked out of the window, saw that for once there were blue skies and thought I'd come and see if the stones were still here. I don't like to plan too much.
"But it's about time they did something about the place. It is astounding that this amazing monument feels like it is in the middle of a traffic island."
Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage, agreed the "new dawn" was coming not a day too soon.
"The stones have never failed to awe visitors but the setting had been a national embarrassment and disgrace," he said.
"After nearly 30 years, English Heritage finally has a scheme that will transform the setting of the stones and our visitors' experience of them."
The most dramatic change will be the closure of the A344, which very nearly clips the heel stone at the northern tip of the site.
The road close to the stones will be grassed over, linking Stonehenge with a downland dotted with barrows and ancient paths including the Avenue, which starts on the banks of the river Avon near Amesbury and curves around to Stonehenge.
This was the route that ancient people used to arrive at the stones and the closure of the A344, together with the removal of two fences, means people will once again be able to walk along the Avenue and up to the circle.
The view is one of the best, with the stones gradually emerging out of the landscape. But visitors will still not be able to get right up to the stones; they will be intercepted by staff and asked to pay the admission fee (currently £7.80 for an adult).
English Heritage will encourage people to arrive, instead, at its new exhibition and visitor centre, being built 1.5 miles west of the stones at Airman's Corner. Here they will be able to learn about the history of the site, before trundling up to the monument on the "visitor transit system", carriages hauled by a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The ramshackle collection of buildings and tents that currently serve as ticket booths, cafes (rock cakes £2.05) and shops will be knocked down, while the notorious underpass beneath the A344, with its dated murals of prehistoric people, will be filled in.
A possible catch is a limit in the number of people who will be able to arrive via the visitor centre, due to open in autumn 2013. A timed ticket system will be introduced to try to make sure the centre is not overwhelmed. No more than 7,650 people a day will be given a ticket.
The project will not satisfy everyone. Many members of the pagan and druidic communities want greater access, right up to the stones.
Though fences are being removed, security guards will continue to make sure the stones remain out of bounds for most of the time.
And the A303 will continue to roar just south of the site. A plan to build a tunnel so that traffic was not visible or audible to visitors to Stonehenge was rejected by the government because of the high costs.
Apart from a £2.6m Department for Culture, Media and Sport grant, which was spent before government funding was withdrawn in June 2010, the money for the project comes from a combination of sources – including £10m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, gifts from charitable trusts and individuals, and English Heritage profits from its commercial activities at the stones.
English Heritage says there remains only £500,000 left to raise. With 1 million people visiting Stonehenge every year – and that number could grow with people keen to see how the project is shaping up – finding the extra cash should not be a huge problem.