thinking about archaeology

The new new Stonehenge visitor centre

Airman’s Cross as seen walking back from Stonehenge early on a June solstice morning in 2006. The proposed coach park would be behind the trees on the right, with car park and visitor facilities in the field in front

Airman’s Cross as seen walking back from Stonehenge early on a June solstice morning in 2006. The proposed coach park would be behind the trees on the right, with car park and visitor facilities in the field in front

Last week I went down to Amesbury (the town closest to Stonehenge) for the English Heritage panel that meets occasionally to discuss the information and ideas that will be presented to visitors in the new Stonehenge arrangements – whatever, and still, even, if, they might be. This was the first time I had seen Denton Corker Marshall’s architectural concept for the facilities that will be at Airman’s Cross, the site chosen to the west of Stonehenge after extensive consultation. I’m pleased to be able to say that the whole solution is looking good to me. I would have liked the more ambitious scheme to the east; but with hindsight we may come to think that only something low-key, subtle and small ever stood a chance. Stonehenge’s recent history is very clear that any attempt at change there makes meddlers of us all – and the bigger the vision, the greater the opposition. English Heritage never mustered a respected public figure to fight for that vision, and it fell to the wolves.

Denton Corker Marshall was chosen to design the eastern visitor centre in 2001. Barrie Marshall created a robust idea that was subtle and low-rise, and excitingly avoided the clichéd references to Stonehenge so common to previous schemes – no stone, no circles, no tall lintelled structures. On the other hand, perhaps unwittingly, the steel entrance was a little redolent of the sweeping facade of a huge long barrow, as if the portal into the world heritage site that the centre set out to be was also an entry to the underworld.

After this whole plan failed late in 2007 with the withdrawal of government support for the proposed tunnelling of the A303, in May 2008 EH dropped DCM. But here it is back again, under its London director Stephen Quinlan, and, I imagine, Barrie Marshall at the end of a conference phone in Melbourne. Airman’s Cross, as English Heritage says, is “a pragmatic and practical scheme, and more affordable than previous proposals”. It is indeed tiny by comparison. But it retains some of Marshall’s key themes, and within the severe limitations of the commission, it’s difficult to fault the result.

Now we have two squarish “pods”, slightly askew from one another, between which visitors will walk to reach whatever has been laid on to take them to the stones. One pod is in glass (café, shop and education facilities), the other in wood (loos, first aid and – the largest single indoor space – the exhibition gallery). Beyond the gallery there is a proposed outdoor space with reconstructions of two or three of the square houses recently excavated at Durrington Walls.

When Marshall came up with his original idea, these neolithic houses were unknown. Yet their domestic, rectangular opposition to the ritual circularity of the world heritage site foretells his scheme, and the new pods are fascinatingly similar in shape and arrangement to the huts at Durrington. I’m sure people will like these huts. And I’ll not name the archaeologist at the panel meeting, who on seeing the hut reconstructions on the plan, asked, “What have they got to do with Stonehenge?”

Expect many, many hours of debate about what will happen to these white discs, marking mesolithic post pits in what should soon no longer be a Stonehenge car park

Expect many, many hours of debate about what will happen to these white discs, marking mesolithic post pits in what should soon no longer be a Stonehenge car park

3 responses

  1. akhen3sir

    Hi Mike,

    I concur that this is the best available option, but I’ve yet to discover what’s actually going to be the arrangement at the monument itself with regard to access restrictions.

    If the ticketing is all going to be done at Airman’s Corner, and the A344 east of Stonehenge down to the A303 is going to be closed and grassed over to enable the Avenue to be rejoined to the monument, what’s the situation with people bypassing the visitor centre ticketing and (legitimately) entering the WHS via one of the many public rights of way in order to walk/cycle to Stonehenge?

    Wondered if you had any thoughts on that.

    September 8, 2009 at 9:20 am

  2. mikepitts

    That’s a fair question. Free access to the world heritage site (respecting the diversity of land ownership and rights of way) was part of the original vision. You’d park your car at the Amesbury visitor centre, buy a ticket, see the exhibitions and take a land train across the fields to a point close to Stonehenge, from where you would walk (or take assisted transport). What in fact you were paying for was not to see Stonehenge, but to be conveyed there, and to see the displays: you could make your own way on foot, from the visitor centre or other points around the world heritage site, and pay nothing. My understanding is that the same principle will apply in the currently proposed arrangements.

    A separate point concerns the present rope fence at the monument, and access to the inner part of the stones. Again, I believe the principle is that current arrangements will stay: everyone can see the stones from close by, but crossing the rope and experiencing the inner space amongst the megaliths will necessarily remain a special privilege (for anyone with the time and foresight to plan far enough ahead). This system has worked well to offer the best to visitors, while preserving the fragile site

    September 8, 2009 at 10:04 am

  3. akhen3sir

    Thanks – sounds like a great improvement to me. I assume the boundary fence alongside the A303 will be retained – otherwise people are bound to try and stop on the A303 just to nip across the field, which would be madness on that stretch of road.

    September 8, 2009 at 10:34 am

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