Tunnel truths

ICOMOS and UNESCO are visiting Stonehenge this week, to ponder the current set of road tunnel proposals. A lot has changed since we were last thinking about such a tunnel. Despite stories in the press, these changes add up to a much better proposition than the one that had, in principle, been accepted a decade ago.

The government has apparently promised funding for an unprecedented 2.9km-long bored tunnel and further beneficial works. After so many years of failed projects, I still find that promise difficult to believe, welcome as it is. However, I was assured it really is true by National Trust and Historic England representatives on a helpful tour put on for Council for British Archaeology trustees (who kindly invited me along) a couple of weeks ago.

HE-NT mapA 2.9km-long tunnel is (in my opinion) the best of three options, none of which has been examined in detail and for none of which precise routes have been agreed. So talk of threats to archaeological remains at Blick Mead (which is a kilometre beyond reach of any proposed roadworks, not “within 20 metres”), and even vague comparisons to the destruction wreaked on heritage by ISIS, is premature and quite silly. The National Trust and Historic England are not heritage terrorists.

With any proposed tunnel, this road would disappear
With any proposed tunnel, this road would disappear and we could continue on this track to Stonehenge 

Here is where we are now:

  1. A new visitor centre has been opened on the western edge of the world heritage site.visitor centre
  1. Former, much-derided facilities close to Stonehenge have been removed, and the A344 road that passed close to the stones has been closed and grassed over.
    Mesolithic pits marked by concrete, once in a car park
    Mesolithic pits marked by concrete, once in a car park

    That was a road
  2. A new concept of “outstanding universal value” (OUV) has been introduced to world heritage site thinking. In the past, greater conservation emphasis was given to the area around Stonehenge (known as the “Stonehenge bowl”) than the rest of the world heritage site. OUV gives equal weight to the entire area. This means the conservation demands that have to be met along any future road route are greater than they were. (Thus, scored this way, the approved 2004 tunnel loses its benefits, and comes out “neutral” – no point).
  1. Traffic on the A303, the main road passing through the Stonehenge world heritage site, continues to grow, and major delays are becoming commoner.
  1. The government, in a pre-election pledge, says it is determined to improve traffic flow along the entire route of the A303.
  1. As part of that project, the government says it is prepared to fund works through the Stonehenge world heritage site. Option 3 (A1–E on the map above) includes a 2.9km tunnel past the stones; beyond the western tunnel entrance, the present A303 would be moved south to leave clear land around the important Winterbourne Stoke barrow group.
  1. In a joint statement, the National Trust and Historic England have described this option as “a huge improvement on the previous 2.1km tunnel scheme and in line with the initial preliminary assessment work which suggests that a tunnel of at least 2.9km might have a substantive beneficial impact on the World Heritage property, subject to detailed design.”

On available evidence, I can’t find any reason to disagree with this statement. What is on offer is extraordinary. It would greatly extend the already radical improvements to the immediate surroundings at Stonehenge, and to the world heritage site as a whole.

A344 gates

coach park

Byway 12, north of Stonehenge
Byway 12, north of Stonehenge
cars byway 12
Byway 12 close to Stonehenge, cars parked having left the A303
Cursus bank looking north
Cursus bank looking north
Earthworks of an apparently unfinished road north of Stonehenge, perhaps dug in the mid 18th century (looking east towards King Barrow Ridge)
Earthworks of an apparently unfinished road north of Stonehenge, perhaps dug in the mid 18th century (looking east towards King Barrow Ridge)

sunset 1

14 thoughts on “Tunnel truths

  1. Thanks for clarifying the tunnel myths. The media coverage has been confusing, particularly about Blick Mead (that’s an interesting name). Lets hope they really get it done. Although the UK does get stuff accomplished like the CrossRail project for example. Unlike Canada where infrastructure investment has been almost banished. I continue to enjoy your Posts……………Brian PS nice shot of the Cursus bank, I couldn’t get a good one when I was there. Date: Thu, 29 Oct 2015 15:06:31 +0000 To: el_prez@sympatico.ca

    1. The default position with Blick Mead (as indeed with any archaeological story you read about in the media) is to make what you can of it, but reserve judgment until you can see the evidence first hand, preferably in peer-reviewed publications. This is what lies behind the joint comment from Historic England and the National Trust quoted in the Guardian: “We look forward to hearing more about this important mesolithic site and seeing the full academic results.” I wrote a very carefully considered review of the site, as then known, for British Archaeology May/Jun 2015/142 (which of course I heartily recommend!) and a blog here. Personally I find the most recent release, as described in the Guardian, difficult to make sense of at all.

  2. “Personally I find the most recent release, as described in the Guardian, difficult to make sense of at all.”

    The timing of that release, generated by one opposed to the tunnel (and just prior to the UNESCO and ICOMOS visit to Stonehenge) speaks for itself Mike.

  3. ‘With any proposed tunnel, this road would disappear and we could continue on this track to Stonehenge’ . That is until you reach the inevitable EH fences around Stonehenge.

    1. Well of course Pat, but there’s a difference between a fence, and a road you risk death to cross that traverses the entire WHS. And even now, if you book ahead online you can walk to the site and gain entry through the fence. That most of my photos of the stones (as here) are taken from the north is no coincidence – I can walk to the place across fields that way.

  4. Thanks Mike that is very helpful. I am still keeping my fingers crossed that we will get the tunnel. There is a massive campaign in the south west for the A303 to be dualed and the Council leaders here do not care about Stonehenge, only faster travel time to London. Thanks for your help in the past.

    Richard Younger Ross,

  5. There should not be a tunnel of any length. It would not solve the traffic problems. What is the difference between emerging from a tunnel at a roundabout and reaching a roundabout by driving along a surface road? None except I know I would prefer to be driving slowly or stopped in the open air rather than in a tunnel.

    The tunnel suggestion is part and parcel of the sort of “solution” that those without a real feeling for the area would make.

    1. I’d agree with you if all that was being proposed was a tunnel by Stonehenge, which on its own would be pointless from a traffic perspective. But it’s not alone. First, the road, most of which is currently single carriage, would be dual carriageway. One way or another that’s going to happen, so in the long term the choice is not between the present road and a tunnel, but a bigger road and a tunnel. Second, Stonehenge Is but part of a project to improve traffic flow along the entire A303 (hence the huge Costa), something for which there is powerful local pressure throughout the south-west. We can agree to differ on our judgments, but there are some of us who love and know extremely well the world heritage landscape who think the tunnel a good thing.

  6. Hi Mike,

    Living Stateside often has advantages when coping with things Stonehenge. Initial, sometimes wildly speculative, information can be evenly collated and often a balanced overview can be obtained with a certain objectivity.
    This has hardly been the case with the Tunnel. High passion, diametrically conflicting stories, quantum differences in opinion, and bad maps have made ‘my job’ much more difficult.

    First, Blick Mead was threatened ─ so No to the tunnel. Soon, it was merely a ploy by EH-the-Evil-Empire to keep even a glimpse of the Stones hidden from view without paying. Then it was to be built within the existing A303. This didn’t make sense, but OK ─ Yes to the tunnel. Then it was going to be bored. Who’s gonna pay for that? No. Then it’s Cut & Cover through the sensitive landscape … maybe Yes / maybe No. Politicians materialize out of thin air waving theoretical money while foisting lofty promises.
    In short, the scheme was designed specifically to drive me (and many others) mad!

    Now I see it in plain cloth and hear the true arguments. Short of a dual carriageway on the existing road, (and doubling noise), moving the road altogether and into a 2.9 km tunnel seems to be the best idea.
    Thanks for the clarification!

    Best Wishes,

    1. It’s not only you that gets confused! Seen through the media, it’s often noise that gets heard above informed comment, and further opinion is informed only by noise. Much of the confusion stems from people who know and love Stonehenge (or other parts of the WHS) well, but not the rest of the landscape or its history on the one hand; and on the other people who know the whole place only from afar and perhaps a visit around 1950. Antiquity changes constantly.

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