Under a scheme to be put to planners tomorrow by English Heritage, which manages the 5,000-year-old monument, a 1.3-mile stretch of the A344 will be closed and a new visitors’ centre and car park will be built. The £28m plan is a scaled-down version of a £600m project to build a road tunnel.
Motorists may be saddened by the prospect of losing a free close-up view of a national icon. Conservationists, however, have long been angry about the failure to remove the polluting eyesore from the archeologically rich landscape around Stonehenge. The area has been designated a world heritage site by Unesco, which has expressed concern about its shabby surroundings.
English Heritage, the quango responsible for state-owned historic sites, hopes the simplified plan will be agreed by Wiltshire county council early next year. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport wants the project completed in time to receive visitors for the 2012 Olympics.
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Under the scheme, funded by English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Highways Agency and the government, the closed section of the A344 will be grassed over and the visitors’ centre built 1½ miles west of the monument, at a site known as Airman’s Corner. Regular shuttles will take visitors to the monument. Through traffic will be diverted via the A303.
The single-storey centre, in glass and wood, is one of the most contentious parts of the project. English Heritage describes it as “sensitive to its ancient surroundings and having the lightest possible touch on the landscape”, but some critics, having seen mock-ups, have been harsh in their reaction.
Paul Sample, a local councillor and former mayor of Salisbury, has called it “cheap and nasty”, while Peter Alexander-Fitzgerald, a lawyer and member of the Unesco world heritage committee, likened it to “a derelict aircraft hangar”.
At present, most visitors — up to 900,000 a year — come to Stonehenge by car or coach and stop only a few hundred yards away in an unsightly parking area beside the A344. They then walk through an underpass to the monument.
The submission for planning comes as archeologists announced this weekend that they have discovered a mini-Stonehenge, a mile from the main site. The monument has been called Bluehenge after the 27 Welsh blue stones — made of Preseli dotted dolerite — which once formed it. Despite the 5,000-year age of the henge, all that is now left are the holes where the monoliths comprising the circle once stood.
Bluehenge, uncovered over the summer by Sheffield University archeologists, is at one end of the avenue connecting Stonehenge to the River Avon. It is thought it was built about the same time as Stonehenge with stones that would have been dragged 200 miles from the Preseli mountains in Wales. The find is already challenging conventional wisdom about how Stonehenge was built — and what it was used for. The two circles stood together for hundreds of years before Bluehenge was dismantled. Researchers believe its stones were used to enlarge Stonehenge during one of a number of redevelopments.
Professor Tim Darvill, a Stonehenge expert at Bournemouth University, said: “This adds to the richness of the story of Stonehenge. We thought we knew it all, but over the past few years we have discovered that something as familiar as Stonehenge is still a challenge to explore and understand. It wouldn’t surprise me if there weren’t more circles.”