The highlight of the A303 — a busy road connecting central England with the southwest of the country — is a brief, narrow section which commands impressive views of Stonehenge, the UNESCO World Heritage site whose precise origins (as early as 3000 BC) still continue to baffle many.
The road is also known for its dreadful traffic jams that have frustrated locals and commuters as well as visitors to and from Cornwall, the coastal county known its spectacular beaches and countryside. As road congestion has grown, the issue of what to do about the A303 and road traffic in general in the surrounding areas has, for decades now, been surrounded by much controversy.
However, solutions for improving the environment surrounding the site, while explored and pursued to high costs (and even involving a public inquiry) have resulted in nothing concrete. In December 2008, the then Labour government said it would be dropping plans for a 1.3-mile-long tunnel that would run below part of the site — as estimated costs more than doubled to over half a billion pounds.
The large quantities of soft chalk in the ground and a high water table along the line of the tunnel significantly raised the costs and time scale and the project was no longer affordable. Critics of the government accused it of leaving one of Britain’s “greatest cultural icons” in “limbo”.
Seven years on, the Conservative government of the then Prime Minister David Cameron revived the idea, with yet another plan for a 1.8-mile-long, four-lane tunnel. “The tunnel will ensure that this extraordinary monument has the setting and attention it deserves,” said Mr. Cameron at the time, promising the ITN news channel during a visit to the site that this time, things would be different because the money had been greenlighted. “We’ve managed the nation’s finances carefully. This will go ahead,” he said.
Highways England — which was tasked with driving the plans forward — said it will create a reliable route that will meet the country’s future traffic need and help job growth and help conserve and sustain the heritage site, as well as improve the biodiversity of the area.
However, the plans, supported by the country’s two main heritage bodies, the National Trust and English Heritage, have run up against stiff resistance, particularly from Stonehenge Alliance — a group of NGOs and individuals set up in 2001. For now, their plans centre on opposing the tunnel plans that Highways England wants to commence work on at a cost of £1.6 billion.
The groups argue the plans would result in “1.6 km of above-ground, 21st century road engineering,” within the heritage site that would destroy all archaeology within the construction zone. “The A303 would become the largest-ever human intervention in an area fashioned and revered by over a hundred generations of our ancestors,” they said.
Threat to landscape
They’ve attracted high-profile support. Tom Holland, a historian and author, warned that the plans would seriously compromise the area around the site, home to bronze-age burial sites among other things. “Stonehenge makes no sense without placing it in the whole vast expanse of the prehistoric landscape that surrounds it,’ he said in a YouTube video.
The battle over Stonehenge and the surrounding areas is perhaps unsurprising. Major questions still surround its history and construction — like, how were the sarsen sandstones, weighing as much as 30 tonnes, transported from 20 miles away all those centuries ago? The place has gained mythical status, with everyone from aliens to druids having been credited with its construction by some. It has been written about in text by authors, ranging from Samuel Pepys to William Wordsworth.
After the site was gifted to the country by barrister Cecil Chubb in 1918, a fundraising drive to acquire and save the landscape around it kicked off in the 1920s, with around £1.4 million in today’s money raised following a lengthy campaign that restored the area to grasslands.
Now, the area’s future will be in the hands of Britain’s bureaucracy: a six-month planning inspectorate process kicked off with a public meeting earlier this month, seen as an opportunity for both proponents and sceptics to make their case.
Vidya Ram is The Hindu’s London correspondent.