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Stonehenge and the A303

For many years, I have always associated Stonehenge with going on holiday. This, quite simply, is because it’s located right next to the A303 and as such is passed, and seen from the car, while driving down to the West Country.

A true wonder of the ancient world, Stonehenge is one of Britain’s oldest and most mysterious sites. Reckoned to date back some 5,000 years, with the construction phase spanning over 1,500 years (so it’s reckoned), no-one knows why it was built – it was the product of an ancient culture that left no written records – although the some of stones themselves are known to have been quarried from some mountains in Wales, 250 miles away from where it stands on Salisbury Plain. Did it have an astronomical function, or was it a religious site – a place of pilgrimage, a place of healing or maybe a place of death (there’s certainly plenty of evidence for people having been buried in the vicinity)? Archaeologists continue to be fascinated by the site and the surrounding area, and some of the theories as to how Stonehenge came to be built and what it was for go back centuries (it’s even been linked to the King Arthur legends, of which more in a later post).

What we do know for sure is that by the Middle Ages, the Stones and the surrounding land were owned by a local abbey, while following the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was owned by various aristocratic families, the last of which sold it in 1915 when their only heir was killed on the Western Front; by this stage, the Royal Flying Corps had established an airbase nearby. The man who bought it in 1915 donated it to the nation three years later, and following that a gradual campaign to save the monument from encroaching modern buildings got under way. Today, Stonehenge – a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s managed by English Heritage – stands majestically amid chalk grassland, with the modern age mostly in evidence courtesy of the traffic on the nearby A303.

Quite a few people have a favourite road, and the A303 is mine – probably because of its obvious holiday associations. Running from the M3 near Basingstoke until it joins with the A30 just outside Honiton, it passes through five counties and follows ancient routes such as the Harrow Way which pre-dates the Romans. The modern road dates back to the nineteenth century when the New Direct Road was built for stagecoaches travelling between London and Exeter; when Britain’s roads were numbered in the early twentieth century it clearly wasn’t thought of as being particularly significant, although nowadays it’s much busier than the A30 which runs parallel to the south (that’s the one to take if you’re heading for Salisbury or Yeovil). Even though a few parts of the A303 are still single-carriageway, many drivers heading west seem to prefer it to the motorways (it’s less boring, what with getting to see Stonehenge en route) and it has even been the subject of a TV documentary in which it was called the ‘Highway to the Sun’.

Recent developments in the vicinity of Stonehenge, which is where the A303 is single-carriageway and a bit of a traffic hotspot partly because it’s single-carriageway (the notion of a dual-carriageway running through a World Heritage Site is a controversial one) and partly because people slow down to look at Stonehenge, have focussed on returning this ancient site to the haven of tranquillity that people might expect to find. The A344, the road that branched off from the A303 just before Stonehenge and ran right past it, was closed in 2013 and grassed over; the visitor centre that had stood on that road was taken down and a new one was built some 1½ miles away. Now, visitors heading west on the A303 have to drive past Stonehenge in order to get to the new, state-of-the-art (and environmentally sensitive) visitor centre, from which the monument itself cannot be seen – you can either get a shuttle-bus there or walk to it, just as pilgrims presumably did for millennia.

Nowadays, if you’re an adult who didn’t book in advance, a visit to Stonehenge will set you back £18:20. For this, you get the shuttle-bus service and the chance to walk near (but not among) the Stones (the access visits, where you get to go into the Stone Circle itself, are over £30 for adults and are only available outside usual opening times, meaning that access visits only take place early in the morning or late in the evening; these have to be booked in advance). Having visited recently, I’ve found out that if you walk from the visitor centre and don’t mind seeing the Stones from a bit further away then you don’t have to pay.

Future plans for the area involve redirecting the A303 into a tunnel that will run underneath Salisbury Plain, meaning that it won’t go past Stonehenge. This idea has been mooted for years and quite frankly I’ll believe it when I see it, but I can’t say I’m keen on it. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea. Sure, Stonehenge itself will be a bit more peaceful without the sound of nearby traffic once the construction work on the tunnel has (eventually) finished, but for many the chance to briefly catch a glimpse of this historic and magnificent monument, one of few links we have with the prehistoric world, will be lost; only those willing to stop and pay will be able to lay eyes on it. And that, I feel, would somehow be wrong.

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