TV historian [and according to the Daily Mail a would be Conservative Party candidate in Kensington and Chelsea] Dan Snow and the Council for British Archaeology are quoted in today’s Guardian, as the controversy over what to do with the A303 and the wider Stonehenge landscape makes yet another appearance in the media with the publication of a Department of Transport road strategy document which appears to commit the Department to an upgrade of the A303 corridor. The DoT plan includes a tunnel past the infamous bottleneck as the road, a main arterial route to the West Country, passes World Heritage Site and English Heritage/Historic England’s flagship visitor attraction, Stonehenge.
Speaking as President of the Council for British Archaeology [CBA] Mr Snow is quoted as saying ““We have recently started to realise that the standing stones are just a beginning, they sit at the heart of the world’s most significant and best preserved stone age landscape. The government’s plans endanger this unique site.”
In a calculated allusion to the recent cultural war crimes apparently committed by Jihadist fighters loyal to DAESH/IS at Ninevah, Hattra and Nimrud, Mr Snow adds
“Around the world we see pictures of our fellow humans smashing the treasures of the past and count ourselves lucky that we live in a country which values its rich history and appreciates what it offers modern Britain. Our heritage helps us understand ourselves, how we got here and where we are going.”
While many in the wider heritage sector will sympathise with the sentiment behind Mr Snow’s comment, the implicit suggestion that heritage vandalism can be driven by the secular religion of profit driven infrastructure development endorsed by the Cameron Government as much as by an early medieval view of theology personified by DAESH/IS, might be unwelcome to those who have to broker relationships with Government. Nuancing Mr Snows view CBA Director Mike Heyworth told the Guardian “Stonehenge is arguably the best known prehistoric monument in the world and we must think hard before we cause irreversible damage to the landscape surrounding it – which contains many nationally important archaeological features which are not yet fully understood.”
“There are potential benefits from a tunnel to bury the A303 in the area of Stonehenge, but any proposals need to be carefully scrutinised and we need to think of the long-term implications, not just the short-term needs.”
Making its own response to the issue of the revived Stonehenge tunnel plans the Department of Transport made clear that while the Treasury might prefer to see Stonehenge demolished or transported to an area with similar soil structures and replaced with the Wiltshire Powerhouse Technology Park, it loves motherhood, apple pie and Stonehenge. The Department commented
“Stonehenge is one of Britain’s greatest treasures and it is important to note that English Heritage and National Trust support our plans. It is essential that we ensure this site of cultural and historical significance is safeguarded as we progress with the upgrade.”
The Department of Transport’s strategy document fleshes out this commitment stating “As part of this investment plan, we are committing to a new tunnel at Stonehenge, together with the removal of the existing A303 from the landscape around the stones.” then adding that the Department is undertaking a feasibility study into tunneling under sensitive parts of the Peak District and is making a £300 million fund available to “…improve hundreds of sites nationwide, and start the process of retrofitting modern environment standards to the rest of the network.”
With specific reference to Stonehenge the document adds
“The A303/A30/A358 corridor is a vital connection between the South West and London and the South East. While the majority of the road has been dualled, there are still over 35 miles of single carriageway. These sections act as bottlenecks for users of the route resulting in congestion, particularly in the summer months and at weekends, delays to traffic travelling between the M3 and the South West and an increased risk of accidents. The A303 passes through the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, separating the iconic stones from other Scheduled Monuments and severely limiting the enjoyment of the wider site. Further west the road passes through the Cranborne Chase and Blackdown Hills AONB [Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty]. We recognise the damage that the existing road does to the setting of numerous Scheduled Monuments and Stonehenge itself, and so we intend to construct a tunnel at least 1.8 miles long to take traffic away from the surface, reuniting the landscape of the World Heritage Site.”
[Department of Transport: Road Investment Strategy:
for the 2015/16 – 2019/20 Road Period, March 2015]
This argument has run for many years and not a few archaeologists would argue one of the great lost opportunities of the Millennium was not “sorting out” Stonehenge and the A303 at a time when funding for large scale projects was under far less pressure than it is now.
Previous problems fatal to making progress have included the suggestion a Stonehenge tunnel should be built using the cheaper “cut and cover” method which would destroy the sensitive and irreplaceable archaeological record across a broad swathe of Salisbury Plain, rather than the less intrusive and damaging, but more expensive process of boring the tunnel underground.
Of course, if the Stonehenge Tunnel project falls through yet again for any reason we could always preserve the A303 in situ as an example of 20th century transport infrastructure, complete with Living History reenactments of Bank Holiday traffic jams every weekend?