Is new Stonehenge centre a disaster?
That’s what many seemed to think in January. The Western Daily Press called it “a £27m flop”, describing “furious visitors”, “chaotic scenes” and “queues of more than an hour”. The Daily Mail picked up the story, with a headline that summed up the apparent problem: “Moanhenge! Furious visitors criticise ‘chaotic’ new £27m centre at historic monument as it struggles to cope with crowds.”
Anyone with half an eye on social media would have been sceptical of a story line driven by people who write things like this on TripAdvisor:
“I am shocked and embarrassed by the result of their [National Heritage’s] efforts and their ignorance of what a world class facility should be.” [We can guess that the educated Philip B means English Heritage]
“Entrance charge of £14.99 is rip off!. You can not even walk near the stones now.” [You can walk as close to the stones as you have been able to since 1978, which stretches “now” to cover 36 years]
“The visitor centre is about 2 km away from the stones. With all the surrounding land around, did they really put any thought into this?” [It would have taken less time than it took to write this complete comment to discover that just thinking about what to do with Stonehenge began about a century ago, and recently included public inquiries, the employment of hundreds of consultants and – up to 2007 – £37.8m being spent by the UK government]
The visitor centre opened to the public on schedule (delayed) on December 18. Denton Corker Marshall’s striking building was complete, and fitted out with new archaeological displays, a well stocked shop – with a revised guidebook – café and toilets. New information panels were in place around the centre and stones, and beyond. Car parks (coaches and cars are now separated) were ready, the A344 was closed, and where it used to pass Stonehenge and the Heelstone, had been removed and backfilled with soil. Back at the visitor centre, a new roundabout at Airman’s Cross was working well. These were substantial changes for any site, and for Stonehenge, after all the years of talk, planning and failures, revolutionary.
Yet clearly something did go wrong. The old, much derided facilities beside Stonehenge – car park, temporary and permanent toilets, small subsurface offices, cafe and shop – were being taken apart, but the site was a mess. The new hard surface turning circle there for the land train was too small, and the half-way stop-off point at Fargo Plantation was not ready. Newly landscaped areas, not least the A344 footprint, were still largely bare soil and mud. There was mud around the new visitor centre too, where landscaping had fallen behind schedule. Reconstructed neolithic houses, part of the promised outdoor visitor experience, were nowhere to be seen.
A complex, untested new visitor experience at one of the world’s busiest and most contested heritage locations – from which the government had spitefully pulled a promised £10m soon after election in 2010 – was being opened before it was completely ready. And people wanted to see it, in unprecedented numbers – there were days during what is normally the quietest time of year at a highly seasonal site, when attendances were at the level of the previous August.
Richard Williams, EH’s Stonehenge Project Manager (one of a skilled, experienced team that includes Loraine Knowles, Stonehenge Director and Lisa Holmes, Stonehenge Community Projects Manager), told me that Christmas was “unbelievable… chaos, horrific”. Capacity and timing estimates for the land train linking the centre to the stones were “over optimistic”. Midwinter, newly opened and swamped with visitors: hard on those for whom theirs was a once-only visit, but overall a success more than a disaster.
The absence of any teething troubles would have been a sign that the changes were insufficiently ambitious. It will take time for the facilities to be completed, the landscape to regrow and the staff to adjust. It will also take time for visitors and tour guides to adapt and find their way around. Already changes are being planned – Williams told me they hope to enlarge the hard car parking area, and add toilets at the coach park.
The real test will come in the summer. Which is why at British Archaeology I decided to wait until then before we report on the new Stonehenge. Look out for a special feature in the July/August edition, out on June 6.
August 2014: Airman’s Cross photographed in February 2014, soon after the visitor centre opened (see comment below)