The Highway Holding up Stonehenge | A303 Stonehenge
If you've never visited the brilliant Stonehenge in person, you probably would 't know there is a highway 200 meters away and visible from the site. The road did not exist until the 19th century when a highway was driven from London to Exeter during the Victorian period. This is now known as highway A303. This highway does not only cause inconveniences for archaeologists working in the area, but has created horrible, consistent traffic around the site - that even creeps into the surrounding towns. Now, visitors - and even residents of the area - are finding it difficult to get around the area and to experience Stonehenge in all its glory.
Problems with the Highway
There are a few consistent problems that the highway creates, these are the most noticeable:
1. Splitting Heritage Sites
The most significant problem with the highway is that it cuts the world heritage site in two - it separates Stonehenge from the Barrows, the most famous Bronze Age burial monuments. Because of this, walking from one heritage site to the other is impossible, which removes the possibility of experiencing the area as it was in its original Bronze-age state. Additionally, it splits the attention of archaeologists working in that area, as it's only possible to work at one site at a time.
Tens of thousands of vehicles drive past Stonehenge on the A303 every day. This causes several types of pollution in the area. Visual pollution from the traffic constantly thundering past takes away from the experience of not only Stonehenge but the natural environment itself. Noise pollution from the cars compromises visitors' enjoyment of the site, as it is difficult to travel back in time as eighteen-wheelers are always in the background. Lastly, the highway has drastically increased the air pollution in the air due to the carbon emissions from cars.
3. Danger to Wildlife
As with any highway that cuts through the countryside, there is a constant danger to wildlife trying to cross the road to the other side. The road also cuts into natural habitats for wildflowers, bats, butterflies, and birds.
National Highways, England's government company that plans, designs, builds, operates, and maintains England's motorways and major roads, has devised a scheme that intends to solve these problems disturbing the heritage site. Their proposal includes eight miles of a new and improved dual carriageway road. The following list contains some of the key elements of their plan:
1. The Tunnel
The most well-known part of this plan is the idea to strip the previous road above ground and create a twin-bore tunnel. This tunnel will be around two miles long and will pass more than 200 meters to the south of Stonehenge. What was previously the A303 will become a dirt path, free for those walking, cycling, or riding on horseback to travel freely between the heritage sites. To reduce the visual impact of the tunnel, it is also planned that the east and west entrances will be covered with a 200-meter-long grassed-over canopy, out of sight of Stonehenge. Because of this, the ancient ceremonial route to Stonehenge from the River Avon can be reconnected over the eastern entrance.
2. Green Bridges
As stated, four green bridges are planned to cross over the new dual carriageway. It will be specially landscaped to blend in with the rest of the environment, and its main purpose is to maintain access to farmland and allow wildlife to cross the road. Non-motorized travelers such as walkers, cyclists, and horseback riders, will also be able to cross over the bridges through footpaths and bridleways.
3. Countess Junction
The A303 will have to pass above another highway - the A345 - at Countess roundabout, but will be connected by slip roads. The roundabout will be controlled by traffic signals to make it easier and safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles to travel along the A345. Included at this roundabout will be landscaped slopes and a noise barrier along both sides of the elevated wall to further protect Stonehenge from noise and visual pollution.
National Highways promotes five main elements that this plan will benefit, each important to the heritage site, the natural world around it, and the movement of the people who are visiting Stonehenge and living in the nearby towns:
Restores tranquility to the site
Reunites the north and south parts of the world heritage sites
Allows for easier travel around the heritage site
Reconnects "The Avenue," an ancient ceremonial route
Removes the headlights from cars that are seen during winter solstice celebrations
Creates 100 hectares of new chalk grassland
Allows wildlife to move freely between the north and south through green bridges
Creates more habitats for birds, insects, and fauna
Improves the current journey time of 60 minutes to 7/8 minutes long
Reduces connection around the heritage site and roads into surrounding towns
Reduces the number of accidents in the area
Improves the connection between the southeast and southwest
Unlocks economic development
Boosts job and housing opportunities
Removes rat-running traffic from local villages
Makes it safer and easier to travel in and around local villages
Improves connections for cyclists, walkers, and horse riders by creating new pathways
Work with Archaeologists
National Highways isn't working alone, however. Due to the scheme concerning a World Heritage Site, archaeologists have been consulted and have investigated the area in order to give the green light. Experts from Historic Wiltshire, Council Archaeology Service, National Trust, and English Heritage have all been joined to form an advisory. Furthermore, Wessex Archaeology has been appointed as this project's archaeological specialists. From the early stages of the project, Wessex Archaeology has been investigating possible routes to use.
This is crucial, as it needs to be known what will be disturbed by the construction - both inside and outside the World Heritage site - as well as archaeological sites and material culture that are discovered along the way.
[Key finds along the A303 route]
In fact, after almost 1800 small test pits and over 500 larger trial trenches, several things have been uncovered - some dating back as old as 7000 years - such as:
Pieces of pottery
Evidence of human activity dating back over 7000 years
Pottery pieces (between 4000 CE to 700 CE, but also from Roman and Medieval periods)
Beakers from approximately 4500 years ago
Tiny ear bones from an infant
If you want to know more, you can find the full evaluation reports in National Highways' Development Consent Order application.
Criticisms of the Plan
Although this scheme sounds convincing all planned out, it still has critics - both in the government and the public - that are keeping it from becoming official.
In 2019, the proposal was put to an Examination in Public, where planning inspectors recommended it be rejected. This was primarily due to the serious and irreversible construction - or as others phrase it, "damage" - it would do to the Heritage site. Other critics have also stated that the time that will be saved driving on this new highway is not enough to justify the expense.
[Traffic on the A303 heading to Stonehenge]
A well-known critic of National Highways' scheme, Phil Goodwin, comments on how the construction of this project and the increased traffic traveling on the road would undermine the UK's efforts to reach net-zero:
A stated preference survey purporting that the scheme would deliver a £1 billion of ‘heritage benefits’ was deeply flawed, the costs had risen, and inclusion of the new official higher ‘costs of carbon’ would even further undermine any economic or environmental case.
Other objections to the project include the long-term impact on the site's geology due to the tunnel, potential air and water pollution, and the stress that construction would put on the local wildlife and their habitats.
Although the High Court ruled against the decision to grant consent for the A303 Stonehenge scheme to go ahead in July of this year, the Secretary of State is going to review their application. Additionally, despite the critiques of their plan, National Highway states that they are "confident that our scheme presents the best solution for tackling the longstanding bottleneck on this section of the A303."
This scheme still has many supporters that publicly advocate for its approval. National Highways uploaded a video of professors and archaeologists stating why they support the project. Despite criticisms, Michael Fulford, a professor of archaeology at University of Reading states, "The biggest benefit to this scheme I think is removing the traffic, getting it underground, joining up the landscape, [and] taking that pollution away from Stonehenge itself."
Many want to see the A303 removed and for the landscape of Stonehnge to return to its former sight; "The proposed scheme is the best of a great many," says Ronald Hutton, professor of history at Bristol University.
[Young boy taking a photograph of Stonehenge]
Whether this plan comes to fruition or not is still up for the government to decide as both supporters of and supporters against the A303 Stonehenge scheme push their opinions. However, this does not mean the public has no place in this debate. Whether for or against, if this article intrestest you, I implore you to do more research and find where you stand on the issue. If you feel strongly enough, send letters to your governors, join groups that hold the same view as you, or keep up with the news to see whats happening.
This scheme is still very much ongoing, and I wouldn' be surprised if the scheme changes in order too fulfill government or societal needs. However, I hope what is decided in the end will be the best for the Heritage site itself and the future generations living, travelling, and visiting in the area.
[NOTICE: All information has been gathered from the links provided within the text]