For over 30 years people have been trying to come up with a solution to the problem of the A303 road that runs past Stonehenge. It’s a stretch of single carriageway road with a dual carriageway at either end. As a result it’s a traffic bottleneck, especially during holiday season, and people slow down to take a picture of Stonehenge as they drive by.
A number of options have been proposed – from upgrading the single carriageway road into a dual carriageway on the existing route, to a tunnel to hide an upgraded road from view. Tunnels have been suggested that range in length from 2km to 4.5km constructed either as “cut and cover” or “bored”.
Over 50 alternate routes – some that take the road entirely out of the World Heritage Site – have been put forward, so many that the map showing them all is called the Spaghetti Diagram.
Most recently, a 2.9km long bored tunnel has been proposed which would run about 200m south of the existing A303. The tunnel would be below the archaeological layer, well away from Stonehenge itself and remove the view, noise and fumes of traffic from the immediate vicinity of the monument.
You’d think everyone would be delighted. They’re not.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) runs from the A345 road in the east to the A360 road in the west, a distance of 5.4km. A tunnel of 2.9km clearly isn’t long enough to span its entire width, and this means that the tunnel portals must be dug into the ground within the WHS itself.
On top of that, new lengths of road and new junctions must also be built within the WHS – at the western and eastern end of the tunnel – to link up with the existing roads.
When the Stonehenge and Avebury WHS was inscribed in 1986 they were recognised as Cultural Sites. At the time, there was no designation of “Cultural Landscape” but the inscription said:
Criterion (iii): The complexes of monuments at Stonehenge and Avebury provide an exceptional insight into the funerary and ceremonial practices in Britain in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Together with their settings and associated sites, they form landscapes without parallel.
The proposal to destroy large areas of the Stonehenge landscape with new roads and tunnel portals is what has upset a lot of people.
The Stonehenge Alliance is a group that represents the views of a number of organisations, their view is that the tunnel is too short and would cause “irreparable damage to the WHS”.
ICOMOS is an important heritage advisory group to UNESCO and it “firmly objects to the current option for a 2.9km tunnel for the substantial negative and irreversible impact it would have on the attributes of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the World Heritage site (WHS) of Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated sites.”
A group of 21 leading archaeologists who have worked in the Stonehenge landscape over decades says that the proposal has “dreadful consequences for the world’s most famous archaeological site and its landscape setting.”
The list of objecting organisations goes on and on – the Council for British Archaeology, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, the Prehistoric Society, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Society of Antiquaries, the International Astronomical Union Commission on Heritage and Astronomy….
The National Trust, English Heritage and Historic England have also expressed very strong concerns over the positioning of the western portal and its approach road.
Historic England said “The current location is very close to the Normanton Down barrow cemetery, one of the best preserved and most significant Neolithic and Bronze Age cemeteries in the UK. The portal would certainly have a significant adverse impact upon the setting of this barrow group and upon the OUV of the WHS.”
The National Trust’s chief archaeologist for the WHS says, in an appendix to the Historic England report, “The western portal is very close to the Normanton Down Barrow Group while both surface routes have adverse visual and aural impacts on the surrounding Winterbourne Stoke, Normanton Down, Lake and Diamond Groups (nearly a quarter of the identified key attribute groups).”
The proposal actually places the western tunnel portal directly on the Winter Solstice Sunset line as seen from Stonehenge, and the new road leading away from it runs along this alignment.
Astronomers have viewed this idea as absolutely crazy.
Prof. Clive Ruggles, a leading archaeoastronomer and key figure in the interpretation of astronomical sightlines of ancient monuments across the world says there are “serious concerns that the integrity of the SW sightline from Stonehenge could be permanently destroyed, eliminating forever the possibility of visitors to Stonehenge once again seeing the winter solstice sun setting behind the distant natural horizon along the axis of the monument.”
The public consultation for the initial route proposals finished on the 5th March 2017. Highways England now have several months of work ahead of them to refine their proposal to take into account the more than 7,000 submissions they’ve received so far.
Local residents, holidaymakers and hauliers have suffered traffic problems along the A303 for over 30 years, so a solution that speeds up traffic is desperately sought by Government.
What’s crucial to bear in mind is that whatever solution is implemented, unless a route entirely outside the WHS is found, it will have a permanent impact on the setting of one of the most important landscapes in the world, and that we all have a responsibility to the future not to make a terrible mistake.
Article by guest blogger and local Stonehenge historian Simon Banton