thinking about archaeology

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.”

Changing colours on admission stickers are intended to help cut down fraudulent entry

Changing colours on admission stickers are intended to help cut down fraudulent entry
The new visitor cetnre

The new visitor centre

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]

It was very busy at new year

It was very busy at new year. Note twice the number of staff that the old booths could accommodate

Private coaches had to be hired to supplement the land trains

Private coaches had to be hired to supplement the land trains

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.

Midwinter(ish) sunset

Midwinter(ish) sunset panorama

The new midwinter sunset, with a large bronze arrow on the solstice alignment and a bit of temporary mud (photo Simon Banton)

The new midwinter sunset, with a large bronze arrow on the solstice alignment and a bit of temporary mud (photo Simon Banton)

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.

Not quite ready 1: the old A344 route

Not quite ready 1: the old A344 route

Not quite ready 2: goodbye underground toilets

Not quite ready 2: goodbye underground toilets

Not quite ready 3: new information panel outside the visitor centre

Not quite ready 3: new information panel outside the visitor centre

 

 

 

And where did the murals go? (see below)

And where did the murals go? (see below)

tunnel 2

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.

visitors1

visitors 2

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.

Antiquity tests the land train: Chris Gosden, Chris Chippindale and Nicholas James (and me)

Antiquity tests the land train: Chris Gosden, Chris Chippindale and Nicholas James (and me)

First sight, lintels break horizon in the centre

First sight, lintels breaking horizon

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.

New orientation model outside the visitor centre

New orientation model outside the visitor centre

Building neolithic houses

Building neolithic houses

Luke Winter, Ancient Technology Centre

Luke Winter, Ancient Technology Centre

James Davies, English Heritage, photographer of "A Year at Stonehenge"

James Davies, English Heritage, photographer of  “A Year at Stonehenge”

It has been very, very wet: flooded Avon near Durrington Walls

It has been very, very wet: flooded Avon near Durrington Walls

August 2014: Airman’s Cross photographed in February 2014, soon after the visitor centre opened (see comment below)

cross

cross vc

cross panel

13 responses

  1. nickjones2012

    The new facilities add a huge amount to visitors’ experience and understanding of the monument, the wider landscape and life in the Neolithic. The houses are well underway despite the mud. Clearly, those only interested in a quick heritage photo opportunity will be disappointed. Stonehenge is now a more reflective place, as i think it should be. Nick Jones – Neolithic house builder.

    February 20, 2014 at 2:11 pm

  2. Your readers might be interested in the First Impressions feature we ran here last year – http://theheritagetrust.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/the-new-stonehenge-visitor-centre-first-impressions/ Overall we were very, very impressed with the new visitor centre. Of course not everything was in place on the opening day, and the wet and windy weather didn’t help much, but the general atmosphere was electric, and the enthusiasm of the staff in attendance infectious. The only serious problem we could see was the turning area for the ‘land trains’ at the back of the visitor centre; that really is going to have to be enlarged and more land trains put into service if things are to run smoothly during busy periods. We couldn’t help asking about toilets near the monument itself (it is, after all, quite a long way back to the visitor centre🙂 and were told that there would be facilities available but that they would be out of sight and not made generally available.

    As we said in our feature, “The new Stonehenge Visitor Centre offers world-class facilities and an information/exhibition area second to none. We never thought we’d see some of the earliest literature and illustrations on Stonehenge, let alone see them gathered together in one exhibition room (it was worth the admission fee just for that!) though there is so much more to see and enjoy there now.”

    February 20, 2014 at 3:28 pm

  3. It will be interesting to see how it works out. Something had to be done…the old facilities were appalling. But perhaps they should have delayed opening until properly ready and avoided all the negative press. They should have looked at how Newgrange operates here in Ireland. The biggest dissappointment at Stonehenge is that the visitor is not allowed anywhere near the stones…at Newgrange the tour actually takes you inside the monument and recreates the solstice experience…absolutely the most priceless a d unforgettable experience ever…for about half the price of a ticket for Stonehenge! I sincerely hope things settle and wish them success.

    February 20, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    • mikepitts

      Yes, already things are much better. The problem at Newgrange is that there is a limit to how many visitors can be accommodated by the system in a day. It’s the sort of problem that is inevitable at any popular yet sensitive heritage site. In principle, at Stonehenge (where there is much more space) the limit is determined only by the number of people the system can process, not by the arrangements themselves. That will grow with operational experience (from both sides – guides will learn how to make the most of the booking system). In addition, of course, with forward planning you can wander among the stones as part of a small group outside normal opening hours: I calculate that there are around 8500 or 9000 such visits available in a year. See http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/content/imported-docs/p-t/stone-circle-access-application-jan-sept14.pdf

      February 20, 2014 at 4:40 pm

      • That’s all good news, Mike, thanks for letting us know. The small group out of hours sounds like a good option…Have you ever been to Loughcrew over here? It’s free to get in. there is a gate on the main mound, and on the days when there is no guide waiting for you at the top, you can collect a key and let yourself in and out…yes, I know, only in Ireland! But its one of my favourite places, one of the reasons being the carvings at the back of the chamber are as clear and sharp as if they were cut yesterday. It is an amazing experience to trace those designs with your hand, knowing that their creator lived and died thousands of years ago. You get that feeling everywhere in Ireland, that’s what I missed on my visit to Stonehenge, but hopefully that will have changed now, and I will certainly be making a return visit…when the excitement has all died down a bit!

        February 21, 2014 at 5:30 pm

  4. i Find it a Pity That Hazel Is being used for the Neolithic houses; Chesnut is more Expensive to source, but will Last between 12-20 years and longer if covered Well, whereas hazel Is brittle at 4 years and Falls apart..

    February 24, 2014 at 11:22 am

  5. Visitor

    Just visited it yesterday. £15 each for 8 people and you cant even get close up. You must be joking. Walked there, saw it from afar and walked back. Why do we need buses? Why is the visitor center 1.3 miles away. Total idiocy.

    May 24, 2014 at 10:21 am

  6. I find it interesting and mildly annoying the way the Airman’s Cross has been treated. It’s not mentioned at all on the English Heritage site and where it is mentioned on other sites about the Centre it is treated and described as a ‘Historic Artifact’ rather than a Memorial (as in Place of Remembrance) to real people who lost their lives. The way its written (or not wrtitten) about does come across as if its regarded as an intrusive piece of ‘Edwardian Tat’ that many would have preferred to have seen quietly bulldozed.

    August 9, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    • mikepitts

      In my experience, this is not how people think about the cross, and if you get that impression it’s perhaps a communication fault that needs rectifying. These pictures show the cross at its new site soon after the visitor centre was opened.

      [Pictures didn’t work, so I put them at the end of the blog]

      August 9, 2014 at 4:21 pm

  7. Keith chadwick

    A number of years ago anyone could visit Stonehenge, wander around, have picnic etc what would be considered a family day out. English Heritage then decided to fence it off and charge an admission fee which gave access to the site but at a distance from the stones, a number of people opted to park at a cost of around £3 and then cross the road and take a few pics etc.
    Today the road passing Stonehenge is closed, to gain access to Stonehenge you have to go to the visitor centre, pay an absolutely extortionate amount of money to see what is supposed to be part of our heritage.

    August 16, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    • mikepitts

      That is pretty much what’s happened, though English Heritage can’t claim all the credit. Stonehenge was first fenced by its private owner in 1901 (after years of complaints about rowdy tourists, litter and the danger of falling stones), who set up a stall and charged a shilling to enter (modern equivalent £4.75). Public reaction was mixed, but one critic praised “nearly a mile” of barbed wire for excluding “all and sundry” and their “greasy papers, scraps of meat… wagons and breaks… and horses tethered nearby”. Those responsible for looking after the place have been trying to keep up with the pressure of rising visitor numbers ever since.

      August 16, 2014 at 4:45 pm

  8. Bruce

    Visitor centre works very well as a stunning bit of architecture and fairly well as a gateway to Sonehenge. Of course the restaurant and gift shop are horribly overpriced – but that’s the same the world over at these sort of places. Only downside was at the site itself where the works on the old road (unsightly – but it has to be done) meant that there was no way to get to the cursus field and the walk back to the centre without seeming like I was aggressively queue jumping for the buses back. Once the works on the old road are completed, it would be great to widen up access to the cursus field and encourage more people to explore this area.

    September 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

  9. Andrew

    £27m to build that rubbish? Glad that it’s not only my home country in Africa which has corrupt tenders

    July 23, 2015 at 10:04 am

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