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Roads to Nowhere

The Stonehenge landscape: a cultural icon or an economic inconvenience?

Sian Berry's picture
Stonehenge in Autumn 2014

George McDonic, Chairman of the Stonehenge Alliance, writes about an urgent call for transport ministers to protect our most precious landscape from a new dual carriageway.

The Stonehenge landscape is an outstanding monument to our past and probably the most famous of the 16 World Heritage Sites in England.  The Site itself covers nearly 27 square kilometres and is over 5 kilometres wide.  It is also of huge religious significance to many and a source of amazement to people who wonder how such an ancient civilisation as ours could construct such a monument.

That is why the Stonehenge Alliance has written to the Secretary of State for Transport expressing our concern at the options currently being proposed for upgrading the A303 near Stonehenge. It’s rather worrying that the solution here is being driven primarily by economic cost. This has resulted in an unacceptably short tunnel being proposed, somewhere between 2.5 and 2.9km long, as well as a northern diversion thought unlikely to be acceptable to the Ministry of Defence. 

If a bored tunnel were constructed, it would undoubtedly remove the road close to the Stones themselves, which would be welcomed. However, it would also result in a mile of new dual carriageway and deep cuttings being constructed within the World Heritage Site. In addition, a new grade separated junction with the A360 would need to be built and this would have a major impact on the archaeological landscape, especially the famous Winterbourne Stoke Barrow Group, including the upstanding long barrow from which the present roundabout takes its name.

The real tragedy is that the current process allows for no real consideration of the true value of the World Heritage Site, since the cultural value of the site is virtually impossible to quantify in simplistic economic models. We need a better way of valuing such treasures and we need a new understanding and commitment that it is not acceptable to cause them further harm. In fact we need to be thinking quite the other way round:  how can we make things better and repair the damage caused over the last century? This is, in fact, what the Government is committed to doing under the terms of the World Heritage Convention, a pledge it appears so far to have overlooked.

Another factor to consider is that we don’t know everything that is out there.  What we have mapped already is only part of the story. This was highlighted recently in the BBC mini-series Operation Stonehenge which identified numerous new associated sites in the wider Stonehenge area, the majority of them still to be analysed for their true significance as a part of the history of Stonehenge and those who built it.

It already seems likely that ceremonies presumed to have taken place at the Stones may also have been undertaken at other sites within a landscape that is acknowledged to be one ‘without parallel’ in the Statement of Outstanding Universal Value agreed by UNESCO only last year. Therefore we need to use the precautionary principle when thinking about new infrastructure in and around World Heritage Sites such as this one.

If a new dual carriageway is to be built, then the Stonehenge Alliance believes that a minimum tunnel length of 4.5km is what is needed to avoid further damaging the Site. It would show that the Government is serious about looking after our heritage and what makes Britain special. 

If you agree that Stonehenge is special, you might like to support our call by writing to the Secretary of State too, asking that if a new road is going to be constructed, it should be in a tunnel at least 4.5km long.  Thank you.

Campaign for Better Transport is a member of the Stonehenge Alliance, alongside the Ancient Sacred Landscape Network, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Friends of the Earth, and RESCUE: The British Archaeological Trust