Britain’s favourite monument is stuck in the middle of a bad-tempered row over road traffic.
Since Stonehenge slipped into the written record in the medieval era, it has been a place to project our ideas of ourselves. It was said, by the 20th-century archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes, that “every age has the Stonehenge it deserves”.
And so today’s Stonehenge is not William Blake’s terrifying “building of eternal death”; nor is it Thomas Hardy’s “monstrous place”, where Tess of the D’Urbervilles sleeps her last night before being taken to be hanged. Nor is it even the Stonehenge of the counterculture, where peace-freaks revelled until they were brutally routed in “the Battle of the Beanfield” in 1985, one of the most notorious episodes in the history of British policing.
Our Stonehenge has none of this grandeur or pathos. Instead, it is at the centre of a peculiarly modern British circus – one that involves an agonisingly long planning dispute, allegations of government incompetence, two deeply entrenched opposing sides, and a preoccupation with traffic and tourism. This absurdist drama, entirely worthy of our times, is a long and bitter battle over whether to sink the highway that runs beside it into a tunnel.
The A303, the road in question, is celebrated for the wonderful views it offers of the Stonehenge monoliths. But as one of the two major routes connecting the domesticated landscapes of the south-east of England with the wilder West Country, it is just as famous for its dire traffic jams, which begin as the highway narrows to a single lane near Stonehenge.
What could be a 10-minute ride through the 6,500-acre Unesco world heritage site in which Stonehenge sits is at peak times an hour-long, bad-tempered grind – a torture to holidaymakers making for Devon and Cornwall, a drag on the economy of the south-west of England and a bane to locals. According to David Bullock, who works for the national road-building agency, Highways England: “On Fridays, for a person living in Amesbury, it is quite a torrid affair, if you want to go anywhere.”
But this gridlock is not easily resolved. Diverting the road is hard to do: north of the current route lies Britain’s biggest Ministry of Defence training area, south of it pristine countryside. Simply widening it is unthinkable: the Stonehenge heritage site is a precious prehistoric landscape. Governments have been trying, and failing, to solve the problem of the A303 since the 1980s: numerous plans have been suggested and then dropped, at the cost of untold millions.