Stonehenge Saved?

By Wainwright, G. J. | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview
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Stonehenge Saved?

Wainwright, G. J., Antiquity

As was noticed in the December 1995 ANTIQUITY, the present surroundings of Stonehenge - premier monument of European prehistory - are unhappy. Geoffrey Wainwright, head of archaeology at English Heritage, reports the current proposals to make a fit setting for Stonehenge, and what may happen now.

The present position

Stonehenge is one of the best-known and most important monuments in Europe, and its status is reflected in its designation as the centrepiece of a World Heritage Site. For England it is a national heritage icon and its management provides a litmus test for how English Heritage, the National Trust and Government care for our heritage.

Stonehenge was taken into guardianship by Parliament long ago. This responsibility was inherited by English Heritage upon our creation in 1984, and thus the stones themselves and the 12-acre triangle of land on which they stand are in the ownership of the State but protected and managed by English Heritage. We also lease from the National Trust an area across the A344 road to provide a free car-park for visitors, who reach the monument via a concrete tunnel under the road.

Part of the surrounding downland which forms the historic and natural setting of Stonehenge, and which contains a great number of important associated archaeological sites, is owned and managed by the National Trust. All of this National Trust land is held inalienably and in perpetuity for preservation. It cannot, by law, be disposed of, altered or developed without the consent of the Trust. If there were any such proposal to do so to which the Trust objected, it has the right, uniquely, to take its case to Parliament for consideration of the national interest. English Heritage and the National Trust are therefore, in different but complementary ways, charged with the protection and management of Stonehenge and its landscape, and for a number of years have been partners in a joint enterprise designed to provide Stonehenge with a setting worthy of its importance.

What we see today has been rightly described by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons as a 'national disgrace'. The setting of the monument is marred by the continuous stream of vehicles passing along the A303 and A344. The free car-park is a hideous intrusion on the landscape, and 700,000 visitors each year trudge through a concrete underpass to reach the monument, whilst unknown numbers risk life and limb to rush across the A344 in order to get a free view of the monument and to stroke the Heelstone just inside the wire fence. Despite the valiant efforts of the monument manager and her staff to alleviate the conditions, it is truly a cause for national shame that we have allowed one of the most important prehistoric monuments in the world to be so degraded.

One reason for the present lamentable state of affairs is that it has resulted from an accumulation of short-term decisions from earlier times when Stonehenge was managed as a single monument rather than a focus within a landscape which runs to the horizon. Also the two main roads and their junction were constructed long ago without any regard for the monument or its setting. Furthermore, although in 1984 the new and energetic English Heritage declared the sorting-out of Stonehenge to be a priority, after 10 years of negotiation no major physical improvements have been implemented. Everyone can agree that the present state of affairs is no good but individual groups have found it well-nigh impossible to work together to a common goal.

English Heritage and the National Trust are working in close partnership to protect the archaeology and to re-unite the historic landscape at Stonehenge. Our joint vision is to form a Stonehenge Trust which will manage the World Heritage Site as a Stonehenge Millennium Park where the public will be able to roam freely, uninterrupted by roads, fences and 20th-century detritus.

A powerful voice in the negotiations has been the Department of Transport who in 1993 identified the Yellow (on-line) and Grey (southern) routes as part of their public consultation on plans to make the A303 a dual-carriageway road constructed to the Trans European Road Network standard between Amesbury and Berwick Down.

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