Everybody knows Stonehenge. It's Britain’s most famous stone circle. An iconic ancient monument at the heart of a World Heritage Site.
You may have seen the annual solstice celebrations there, with all the pagan pageantry and dramatic druids. Or maybe you’ve heard Spinal Tap’s epic musical tribute.
But you might be wondering why environmentalists like Friends of the Earth are so interested in Stonehenge right now.
Well, it’s because the campaign to protect Stonehenge World Heritage Site – particularly from damage by local road expansion – raises big issues about how we look after the climate, air quality, our landscape, our heritage and our future. Transport is now officially the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. The Stonehenge controversy shines a light on the lack of a sensible approach to transport in Britain.
If you’re allowed to dig up a World Heritage Site to build new roads, then is anything safe?
Stonehenge sits in a unique and highly sensitive landscape that's already under intense pressure from traffic, tourism and economic development. Should we really be risking thousands of years of history, and a unique natural environment, in a misguided attempt to shave a few minutes off a road journey?
In this article we briefly look at why Stonehenge and its surroundings are so valuable before giving an overview of the latest road plans, objections to them and some alternative options and actions.
What’s so special about Stonehenge?
The Stonehenge monument is over 4,500 years old – around the same age as the earliest Egyptian pyramids. The stone circle is one of the best-preserved complex structures left from the Stone Age.
There’s no doubt it was an extraordinary architectural feat – especially in pre-wheel Britain. It’s a unique relic of early human history.
But the ancient Wiltshire chalk landscape around Stonehenge is as crucial as the stone circle itself.
What protection does Stonehenge have?
Until the early 20th century Stonehenge was viewed as little more than a derelict ruin. No real attempt was made to preserve or protect it for posterity.
Even just a few decades ago you could have a picnic inside the circle, and potentially damage the stones or their surroundings.
But in 1986 the stone monument and wider landscape were inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site together with the stone circle and surrounding archaeological landscape at Avebury.
"These holy places and the nearby Neolithic sites are an incomparable testimony to prehistoric times,” says UNESCO of Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, each part 26.6 sq km in extent, forming "landscapes without parallel”.
Nowadays Stonehenge monument is under the guardianship of English Heritage and is firmly on the international tourist circuit. But most of the yearly million-plus visitors to Stonehenge are not allowed to get too close. You’re certainly not allowed to touch the stones, let alone deface or damage them in any way.
Having said that, some campaigners would argue that what’s being proposed with the new Stonehenge road and tunnel scheme amounts to nothing less than cultural and historical vandalism.
The controversial Stonehenge road plan
The A303 has long been one of the most contentious roads in Britain. A 19th century coaching road, parts of it dating back to Roman and earlier times, it has become a popular scenic cross-country trunk road from London to the South West. And it goes right past Stonehenge.
Over the past 40 years, many stretches of the A303 were widened to become dual carriageway. But it never seemed acceptable to create a bigger highway next to a unique ancient monument like Stonehenge. So that particular section of the A303 has stayed a single-carriage road.
The result is intermittent traffic congestion and rat-runs through nearby villages as drivers try to skip the queues, particularly during the holiday season. Some drivers resent the delays to their journey to the South West while causing misery for local communities going about their daily lives.
Road planners and heritage protectors have been at loggerheads for years over how to solve this dilemma.
Tunnel vision at Stonehenge
Road widening by Stonehenge is part of government’s long-term plans for a “mile-a-minute expressway to the south west”. This involves upgrading several single carriageways between London and Plymouth and improving links from the M3/M4 motorways in the east to the M5 in the west. The ambition is to create an alternative route to the M4/M5 – which can also become congested during the holiday season.
When it became clear that just widening the road running past Stonehenge was never going to be acceptable, thoughts turned to putting the road underground, into a tunnel.
Various versions of a short tunnel have been proposed since 1995. The most recent was 2.1 km long but rejected in 2007 on grounds of cost at £500m.
The latest proposal from Highways England is for a slightly longer, 2.9 km tunnel at a projected cost of £1.6bn. This was finally chosen as the preferred option by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling in September 2017 – thanks largely to support from the National Trust, which owns a lot of the land around Stonehenge and has ensured that its own landholding is not directly affected.
Under this proposal the exit and entrance roads – and so the visible/audible traffic – will be a bit further away from the Stones. But the tunnel portals will still be within the World Heritage Site and pass perilously close to a unique collection of bronze age burial mounds and the 10,000-year-old Mesolithic Blick Mead (which we'll come back to in a moment).
And of course it would still involve digging a dirty great hole right through a World Heritage Site, gouging out cuttings more than 40 metres wide, plus slip roads, concrete retaining walls, vast interchanges including roundabouts, a bridge and a flyover. And doubtless destroying undiscovered archaeological treasures in a unique man-made prehistoric landscape in the process.
Objections to the Stonehenge tunnel
The new tunnel plan has gone down badly with lots of people. Objectors say the tunnel is not nearly long enough. They highlight the destruction it would wreak across the board – to the site's ecology, its archaeological value, its tranquillity and the long-term impact on its unique geology. And what about the effect on air quality from the inevitable increase in traffic – not just locally but at destinations along the A303?
By mid-2018 nearly 40,000 people had signed a petition against the new tunnel scheme. Over 70% of respondents to the consultation in Spring 2017 were objectors.
World Heritage threat
Among those giving negative feedback was the International Council on Monuments and Sites for the UK (ICOMOS UK), the body which advises UNESCO, no less, on its World Heritage Sites in the UK.
ICOMOS UK said the preferred tunnel plan is “severely flawed and its impacts cannot be readily mitigated.”
In other words the government’s proposed tunnel plan could seriously jeopardise the World Heritage status of Stonehenge, and consequently that of Avebury which is part of the WHS inscription.
Professor David Jacques, who heads up the award winning Blick Mead research project, has pointed out that tunnelling through the local chalk could cause the water table to drop. At a precious site like Blick Mead, he says, it would mean bones and other organic remains could quickly dry out, and could be lost forever.
Jacques told BBC Inside Out West why the tunnel would be so disastrous.
Archaeologists have also pointed out that the new road would "cut a c.40m-wide swathe through the densest concentration of Neolithic long barrows in Britain" at the western end. "We risk losing the stories the site has to tell of past lives for future generations forever."
Wildlife and habitats at risk
But tunnelling would be bad news for wildlife and habitats too. Not to mention the noise disturbance from traffic, and the risk of greater air and water pollution locally and further afield.
The historic and natural environments are closely interrelated in the landscape of Stonehenge WHS. As well as the stone circle and hundreds of exceptional Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds, there are important natural spaces all around Stonehenge. Stonehenge itself also provides a home for rare lichen.
At Blick Mead on the eastern boundary of the WHS, exciting archaeology has been discovered that suggests people lived there 10,000 years ago. But Blick Mead is also home to a natural warm spring that probably hasn’t frozen since the Ice Age. Here the warm waters have created the perfect conditions for a rare red algae (Hildenbrandia rivularis) that grows on local flint stones and turns a spectacular bright pink when exposed to sunlight.
Elsewhere in the area there are bats (protected by law) and nesting sites for rare birds such as the elusive stone curlew, along with barn owls, corn buntings, grey partridges, lapwings and yellow wagtails.
The RSPB has objected to the tunnel scheme because the proposals will directly affect a number of stone-curlew nesting territories, and potentially the stone curlew population in the rest of Salisbury Plain.
The great bustard, a turkey-like bird that was driven to extinction in Britain, is being re-introduced here. One lucky recent visitor to Stonehenge got a bird's eye view of a great bustard right up at the stones. Happily Will George is a handy photographer too.
Stonehenge lies between the rivers Avon and Till , designated Special Areas of Conservation for aquatic plants and snails. Chalk streams are sometimes called Britain's rainforests because of the diversity of life they support. These precious habitats are already in serious trouble and could come under additional pressure as a result of roadbuilding.
Anglers and river keepers have reported a dramatic demise of the mayfly population in the Avon near Stonehenge in the past 3 years. The decline in wildlife in the river is attributed to increased siltation and to phosphate pollution from sewage works – itself a result of growing local population. This is set to intensify as more housing is built nearby.
The area around Stonehenge is a unique, irreplaceable landscape with lots of yet-to-be-discovered historic and natural wonders. A fragile place under intense stress from traffic, development and now new roadbuilding.
Alternatives to the Stonehenge tunnel?
So far objections to the current tunnel plan have been sidelined. But there is still a long way to go with the planning processes.
Friends of the Earth can see 4 options that are potentially better than the current tunnel plan.
Alternative 1 – Build a new road somewhere else.
For instance rerouting an overground road further south of the existing A303, so that it completely bypasses the World Heritage Site area. The bypass solution is favoured by ICOMOS UK, the UN’s World Heritage advisor.
This idea was rejected even before the public consultation began. Although this solution would seem to have fewer contentious issues than the preferred tunnel idea all new roads have social and environmental implications.
Alternative 2 – Make the tunnel even longer.
A longer tunnel is the preferred option for many archaeologists and environmentalists. They consider that it would protect the whole of the WHS from damage at the entrance and exit points (the tunnel portals), cuttings and slip roads.
Of course, a longer tunnel would cost more but some people argue it would be a price worth paying to protect the Stonehenge site.
Archaeologist and long-time Stonehenge campaigner Dr Kate Fielden (who works with the Stonehenge Alliance) has said:
"Clearly, if a tunnel is to be considered, one of some 6 km that avoids the WHS and its setting entirely must be the ultimate goal. … given the vast sums the government is proposing to spend on new roads, this should be perfectly feasible.”
We appreciate that protecting Stonehenge WHS is an exceptional case. But the truth is that building bigger roads generates more traffic.
Alternative 3 – Do nothing.
Should we accept the basic premise that the A303 needs to or should be widened at all?
Are the traffic jams around Stonehenge really as bad and constant as some people claim? Andy Rhind-Tutt, local businessman, founder of the nearby Amesbury Museum, and keen anti-tunneller, challenged the "bumper-to-bumper" notion with this recent short video tweet.
There are other sections of the road towards Devon and Cornwall that are still single carriageway. They will remain so if the road-building budget is blown on a tunnel. And would this not just move the traffic jams a bit further down the road?
If every part of the road were widened, would it not be an eye-wateringly expensive way of proving the well-established case that new roads generate new traffic?
As Dr Fielden says, “It would be infinitely better to leave well alone than to do the wrong thing.”
Alternative 4 – Spend the money on other transport options.
Leave the road as it is, improve local traffic management and redirect at least some of the £1.6bn saved on improving rail links to the South West and other public transport infrastructure in the West Country.
This would be Friends of the Earth’s preferred option. Not just because it avoids the damage to the Stonehenge environment, but because that’s how we should be focusing the country’s transport policy anyway.
As Friends of the Earth’s South West campaigner Siôn Elis Williams says, “money for the road scheme could be invested in a region that is crying out for significant investment in its bus and rail network to increase accessibility, improve air quality and boost sustainable tourism.”
Stonehenge, transport, air pollution and climate change
As we’ve said, we can’t ignore the fact that building more and wider roads inevitably draws in more vehicles. And we really don’t want more vehicles.
We know what more vehicles on roads means for local air quality and pollution. Exhaust from vehicle emissions has a serious impact on the health of people and nature everywhere.
And then there are the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels like petrol. Transport is now officially the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. We can’t hit our legal climate change targets without drastically reducing our use of petrol and diesel vehicles over the next few years.
The government’s roadbuilding plans – including the Stonehenge tunnel – are taking its transport policy in completely the wrong direction.
The politics of the Stonehenge road plan
Professor Tim Marshall of Oxford Brookes told the tunnel-planning consultation that he believed the scheme was based on an “essentially politically driven agenda, as against one based on an attempt to design genuinely long-term solutions".
“There is little or no research evidence,” he went on to say, “that road investments such as this will make a difference to the economic productivity of localities, regions or the UK as a whole.”
MPs in the South West from both the Conservative and Labour parties have called for better rail links to the region.
Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West has said: “The plans to upgrade the A303 shows a government rushing full speed towards road expansion just at a time when we need to put a brake on transport emissions.
“We need the money that might be squandered on this folly used to upgrade the railway line between Salisbury and Exeter – which is still single track for much of its length – and improve local and regional bus services instead.”
Friends of the Earth's Chief Executive Craig Bennett says: “What we desperately need right now is one, joined-up national strategy for transport and infrastructure that sets out to improve people’s quality of life right across the country.
“It should exploit 21st century technologies to improve connectivity, rather than 1970s thinking from old-fashioned sector lobby groups desperate for fat contracts to build mega-projects.”
Here’s what it boils down to. Is it worth jeopardising more than 5,000 years of history, and a unique natural environment, in the hope of cutting a few minutes off a road journey?
As for protecting Stonehenge’s World Heritage Site status, ICOMOS has made its position clear: “We urge the Highways Agency to put on hold the development of this A303 project to allow a wider range of options to be considered in line with the recommendations of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.”
The campaign to protect Stonehenge isn’t just about preserving the past. It also says a lot about our attitude to our environment, and our future.
Want to help protect the Stonehenge World Heritage Site?
If you'd like to help, you could sign the Stonehenge Alliance petition to the secretaries of state for transport and culture asking them not to damage Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
And please join thousands of others who've signed our petition urging the government to invest in better public transport that works for everyone. Thank you.