A short distance from the bustling heart of London rests one of the most iconic landmarks the world can claim: the prehistoric site of Stonehenge. To this day, this Neolithic circle of stones has continued to amaze visitors with its enormity and perplex them with its origins. From the beginning of the eighth millenium BC through the last recorded construction in 1600 BC, Stonehenge has been thought to be a burial ground, a solstitial observatory, and a religious crossroads — all theories hold archaeological evidence and inescapable doubt in equal strides. One fact is for certain: this UNESCO World Heritage Site sees visitors, visitors, and more visitors each year as travellers of all nationalities make the trek to this awe-inspiring destination.
What does this influx of traffic mean for the integrity of this prehistoric monument? The effect, it turns out, is quite large. The visitor’s centre that has existed on the site since 1968 was intended to be a temporary solution and thus lacks an educational space or adequate facilities for the nearly 900,000 annual visitors. Furthermore, this facility, its corresponding car park, and the surrounding roads interrupt the visual and physical vistas that are critical to maintaining the archaeological landscape existing all around Stonehenge. Perhaps the most intrusive is the A344, a road that bisects the ancient processional approach to the monument, The Avenue. The detriment is therefore not only to the integrity of the site but to the integrity of the visiting experience, which until recently provided little opportunity to escape the hubbub and view Stonehenge alongside many other Neolithic features and monuments.
English Heritage, the owners of the site on on behalf of the Crown since 1918, has sought to remedy the problems facing Stonehenge. To accomplish this, English Heritage began work several years ago on proposals for the transformation of the visitor’s centre and the surrounding area. The £27 million project will be financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and by English Heritage’s commercial income in conjunction with philanthropic donations. It will accomplish the following:
1) A new, environmentally friendly visitor’s centre to replace its outdated predecessor. The new structure will showcase an exhibition and an education centre with high-quality galleries housed apart from the shop and café that will also be built on the site. Built with ecologically sensitive materials, the building will aim to blend into the surrounding landscape, while the car and coach parks will be screened from view by foliage. The former centre will be removed and the area returned to grass.
2) In concurrence with the exhibition galleries, English Heritage has called on volunteers to construct three Neolithic houses that will be featured outside the new visitor’s centre. Based on archaeological evidence that was recently found near Stonehenge, the volunteers have been assembling the houses using tools and materials true to the period. This video, provided by English Heritage, follows the work these volunteers have been doing:
3) As of June 2013, the A344 has been closed to traffic past Airman’s Junction and will be returned to grass. Surrounding traffic circles will be upgraded to ensure safety and to accommodate rerouted cars. A new, low-impact transportation system will be implemented to shuttle visitors to and from the monument and to permit a broader viewing of the monuments that surround Stonehenge. Some of our intrepid Context travellers may enjoy the opportunity this will offer to walk part of the distance to the Stones. The system will be fully handicap accessible. Take a look at the following video from English Heritage for an overview of the project:
The visitor’s centre is scheduled to be opened in December 2013, and all work is scheduled to be completed by June 2014 (although landscaping over existing areas will require additional time to grow in). The project will not disrupt visits to Stonehenge in the interim, and the transition to the new visitor’s centre will occur overnight. We here are Context Travel are all incredibly excited for the unveiling next summer and hope to see you on one of our London walks to celebrate!
To read more about the ongoing restoration process, visit the English Heritage website here.