Stonehenge déjà vu; the A303, tunnelling, dualling and the feeling we’ve been here before…

Stonehenge: a World Heritage Site, a complex landscape not just an isolated stone circle

Stonehenge: a World Heritage Site, a complex landscape not just an isolated stone circle

Stonehenge is back in the news again. Following the unceremonious dropping of the last major scheme on grounds of cost, the government have now announced the A303 will get an upgrade, including a tunnel at Stonehenge.

This blog post has been hanging around for some time now so is rather less current than once it was. But unfortunately, blogging on topics other than research and commercial activities are necessarily lower on my priority list at present…

Haven’t we been here before…?

I must admit to be being stunned when the recent consultation was announced, including “new” proposed routes. As Mike Pitts said, pretty much every route that could be looked at, has been. I’ve collated the data for the earlier assessments as part of the more recent assessments and have worked on more Stonehenge road scheme and visitor centre related projects than I care to mention. Incidentally, I’m currently going through all the data again as part of my PhD research.

I was going to produce a map showing all the different routes examined previously to stress this point but Mike has already published the exact map so I shall include his (and encourage everyone to go read his excellent blog).

A303 schemes by Mike Pitts

A303 schemes, spaghetti style, by Mike Pitts

The current proposal has had a mixed response. For a change, the National Trust and English Heritage are in agreement this new plan is the best option. This despite some vocal opposition from the ever eloquent Kate Fielden and others, opposition which is quite justifiable and put the National Trust in a tight spot at their recent AGM (see link for video and times of relevant bits).

The government however are steaming ahead. And with a new and different scheme rather than recycling an old one. So bring on the next round of Environmental Impact Assessments, Heritage Statements and planning documents…

At risk

I must come clean. I would like to see nothing more than a long tunnel which extends across the entire World Heritage Site. However much positive spin is put on shorter tunnel options, they would still result in significant amounts of new dual carriageway and infrastructure within a WHS. This not only jeopardises the WHS status of the landscape (yes, the landscape as that is what is designated not just the stone circle) but sets a dangerous precedent for other WHS around the world at risk from development. How can we, the UK, who have ratified international treaties on cultural heritage, criticise the destruction of World Heritage by other countries when we destroy our own?

It’s surely bad enough that the proposed developments at Liverpool have put that WHS on the at UNESCO At Risk register. Wholesale destruction of Listed Buildings in Edinburgh has resulted in submissions to UNESCO to have that site stripped of its status also. Having two (or more) sites on the UNESCO register would be a national disgrace. Here’s the current list with countries having two or more sites at risk indicated in bold.

  • Afghanistan – 2
  • Belize
  • Bolivia (Plurinational State of)
  • Central African Republic
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Côte d’Ivoire – 2
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo – 5
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia
  • Georgia – 2
  • Guinea
  • Honduras
  • Indonesia
  • Iraq – 2
  • Jerusalem (Site proposed by Jordan)
  • Madagascar
  • Mali – 2
  • Niger
  • Palestine – 2
  • Panama
  • Peru
  • Senegal
  • Serbia
  • Solomon Islands
  • Syrian Arab Republic – 6
  • Tanzania, United Republic of
  • Uganda
  • United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
  • United States of America
  • Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of)
  • Yemen

Not often you see such a group of countries. Note not a single other European country is on the list and many of the list members are currently embroiled in wars, are occupied by foreign powers or do not have the resources to properly care for heritage; they have other priorities. Were we to have two sites on the list, what does that say for the UK attitude to heritage…?

Archaeology in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site

Archaeology in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site

As shown in the above map I produced some time ago, the whole landscape is full of archaeological sites and monuments. Even more sites have been discovered since then.

This time around

Road Proposals (Guardian)

Road Proposals (Guardian)

Having said that, the current scheme appears to be an improvement on the previous published scheme. The tunnel options this time round are 2.5km, 2.9km and 4.5km. (Plus a crazy pair of surface routes apparently put in to lighten the mood due to their utter ridiculousness)

On the face of it, this is pretty much the same as last time round but with some minor deviations to the routes. And no cut and cover options this time round (thankfully). The big difference is in the length of the tunnel; last time round it was a meagre 2.1km. So whilst I think all would agree a longer bored tunnel would be best for the landscape as a whole, this current scheme is actually an improvement on the previous published scheme.

(Not sure what is going on with proposal 2 however. Why the kink? It’s not present in any of the other proposals. Strange.)

And whilst the construction of new dual carriageway within the WHS really should be avoided, it must be noted that a lot of work has been done on the route(s) already. Yes, there may be more to find, but that would be discovered through a planned evaluation/excavation programme in advance of any construction. Bog standard planning process. Just as a taster of what has been discovered already, please see the previous publications from earlier phases of assessment. They’re all publicly accessible from the National Archives and the Archaeology Data Service.

The real impact would be from having massive portals and cutting and new dual carriageway at each side of the WHS. This is, quite frankly, unacceptable.


The previous published scheme (Highways Agency)

The previous published scheme (Highways Agency)

Public perception

One problematic area for me is the commentary on the proposals. Many of the comments show the archaeological community have failed abysmally to convey basic information about the archaeology, the scheme(s) and the WHS. Of course, this may also be due to a widespread phenomenon, prevalent online in particular, of folks commenting on online content from positions of total ignorance without bothering to do even basic background reading.

As Bertrand Russell once said: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts” – Mortals and Others (1931–35).

But it shows that widespread support for the protection of this unique heritage is far from the norm; issues such as traffic, journey times and anticipated/perceived monetary costs often take precedence. With the current issues surrounding the transport infrastructure which undoubtedly need a solution, combined with the current austerity philosophy espoused by the government plus widespread lack of understanding of the various heritage issues, not helped by politically driven statements  from the major heritage agencies, there is a real risk of a perfect storm of adverse conditions leading to some terrible, pseudo-populist decision making.

There is only one Stonehenge and it deserves better.

Time for some myth dispelling

There are, however, some ideas being mooted that need to be tackled.

It’s all about supporting ‘well paid heritage jobs’, some kind of heritage gravy train

Anyone who knows anything about heritage in the UK will tell you this concept is bizarre and alien. An anathema if you will. Archaeologists are some of the worst paid professionals, all too often working on zero hours contracts for less pay than labourers working on the same construction sites. Most of the people putting most time and effort into protecting our heritage through groups such as the Stonehenge Alliance, ASLAN, Rescue, etc are volunteers.

If any development is to take place, it will be funded by the developer as with any archaeological works undertaken as part of the planning process in accordance with National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). In such a case, the budget for heritage will (as usual) be a tiny weeny proportion of the overall development budget. It will probably be argued that much mitigation has already taken place with the countless investigations already undertaken along the plethora of routes previously examined.

Yes, it can be argued that considerable time and effort is wasted on heritage assessments, impact assessments and the like but that is not due to the heritage sector, rather that the development has become a political football with funding coming available then cancelled then available again and each time with new schemes, new plans and therefore the requirement for new assessments of impact. It is vitally important that the potential impacts of development schemes are properly assessed to ensure environmental damage is measured, limited/controlled and where necessary mitigated; it is very dangerous to decry such work as it is exactly this kind of assessment that protects us all and ensures developments are properly planned, appropriate and sustainable.

Construction will damage the stones

No it won’t. The tunnel is not underneath the stone circle. Even if it were, it would be unlikely to disturb the stones. After all, we can quite easily tunnel beneath London right up next to the foundations of major buildings.

And I’m pretty confident the supposed energies of the site will be just fine too; remember, most of the stones at Avebury are set in concrete thanks to Alexander Keiller and that doesn’t appear to have affected new ages rites and rituals.

Boring through chalk is problematic

It probably is. Building tunnels on this scale is unlikely to be a trivial, walk in the park kind of exercise.

But engineers have lots of experience boring through chalk. The A3 Hindhead tunnel underneath the Devil’s punchbowl is a good example. And let’s not forget that other little tunnel that stretches over to France. Put simply, engineers are good at what they do and this includes tunneling through chalk.

Just put the new road a bit south/north to avoid the stones

This argument really misses the point. The whole landscape is a World Heritage Site. The UNESCO inscription states:

Together with inter-related monuments, and their associated landscapes, they [Stonehenge & Avebury] demonstrate Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial and mortuary practices resulting from around 2000 years of continuous use and monument building between circa 3700 and 1600 BC

So it is not the stone circle that is of prime importance, even though it is the most obvious and iconic element of the World Heritage Site. It is the entire complex including all the barrows, earthworks, alignments, vistas and yet undiscovered sites still buried.

Dual the road where it is; Plant some trees; Put the road in a cutting/embankment

Again, these arguments totally miss the point.

Screening using trees or landscaping is not a suitable form of mitigation for an inappropriate  surface route road scheme at Stonehenge. This would not help to restore the landscape and would result in further impacts on the archaeology, both direct (from tree planting or digging cutting and making embankments) and indirect (through further blocking of sight lines between monuments). To top it all, there would still be a new dual carriageway through a WHS, a terrible precedent for the UK to set.

A flyover will protect the archaeology

One of the more, um, fringe suggestions I have seen proposed. What better way to protect the wealth of heritage than by building a massive superstructure over the top of it. Arguably, this would ‘protect’ some sub-surface archaeological remains but as for the visual impact on the cultural landscape which UNESCO inscribed… It’s a bit like saying a Tesco Metro in the central space of St Paul’s Cathedral would be fine as long as it were built on non-invasive stilts, to protect the historic fabric.

This is almost as bizarre as the Heritage Assessment which stated there would be ‘no adverse impact’ from demolition. Seriously; this happened. A heritage statement which was apparently deemed fine as the Listed structure is no longer there… But I digress.


We really do need a solution. The A303 is a major arterial road and the situation at Stonehenge, particularly Longbarrow Crossroads is unsustainable. The landscape is marred by the road with traffic and noise virtually on top of the stone circle.

But, we only get one opportunity to do this and get it right. Just remember all the decisions made by eg the forward thinking Victorians and the optimistic post-war planners where we now look back with the benefit of hindsight and think how on earth did they think that was a good idea. Let’s not add the desecration of Stonehenge to our long list of heritage catastrophes, especially not for the sake of short term monetary arguments based on current demands for ‘austerity’. A proposal which involves massive new construction *within* the World Heritage Site is really not acceptable, even if it is in an improvement on some previous options.

Let’s move forward with the development, support businesses in the South West, give assistance to the local residents who currently suffer and last but not least fulfill our international heritage obligations and give Stonehenge the exemplary, world class engineering solution it deserves. Do please sign the petition to this effect and help ensure this happens.

Update 03/03/2015

Readers of the original post have pointed out that considerable work has been done on feasibility of tunnelling relating to the HS2 project in the Chilterns. Here, the proposed line of the high speed railway would cut straight through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and destroy various heritage assets including Listed Buildings and Scheduled Monuments. A study was commissioned by Chiltern District Council to look at solutions which include various long bore tunnel options, considerably longer than the proposed tunnel at Stonehenge and also running through areas of chalk geology. The report can be found here (a copy has also been put on this website here should the linked copy be removed for any reason).