It has been bitterly debated for the past three decades, but the latest plans to partly bury the A303 in a tunnel beside Stonehenge may this week finally get approval from transport secretary Grant Shapps.
The £2.4bn scheme – which will see the traffic-choked road to the west country widened into a dual carriageway near the ancient site before shooting down a two-mile tunnel – has pitted archaeologists, local campaigners and even the nation’s druids against the combined might of Highways England, English Heritage and the National Trust.
Professor Mike Parker Pearson, whose archaeological digs have transformed current thinking about the purpose of Stonehenge, fears the scheme will cause irreparable damage to a still largely unexplored ancient landscape. “The world heritage site where Stonehenge sits is over 5km long but the tunnel is under 3km. This means a dual carriageway will emerge from both portals within this unique and protected landscape,” he said. “There will be almost total destruction of all archaeological remains within its path.”
Pearson, who is a member of Highways England’s independent A303 scientific committee, says the agency’s contractors will only be expected to retrieve 4% of artefacts in the ploughed soil during construction. “We are looking at losing about half a million artefacts – they will be machined off without recording. You could say ‘they are just a bunch of old flints’ but they tell us about the use of the Stonehenge landscape over the millennia,” he said.
The western end of the tunnel will, he claims, erase most of the remains of a camp which may have been used by the builders of Stonehenge. “When we’re looking at prehistory, the buried remains are the only evidence we have. It’s rather like burning ancient manuscripts,” says Pearson, who has been excavating the site since 2004.
The Unesco World Heritage Committee, which designates areas of exceptional importance to humanity, has warned that the current scheme will “impact adversely” on the Stonehenge landscape because the tunnel is too short.
Local resident Kate Fielden, who has been campaigning against tunnel proposals for over 20 years, says landscape surrounding Stonehenge will be “trashed” by gouging out a vast trench for the dual carriageway. “It is too depressing. It’s not just that a world heritage site will be spoiled for ever, but my greater sadness is that our government should care so little about something which means so much to so many people,” she said.
Fielden, a retired curator, who regularly walks the chalk downland around Stonehenge, says opponents of the scheme haven’t decided what to do if Shapps gives the go-ahead but she is prepared to put herself in harm’s way. “I’m not ruling out lying in front of a bulldozer, but that’s a long way down the line,” she said.
She is not the only one willing to protest. King Arthur Pendragon, one of most senior druids in Britain, says he would join her in front of any bulldozers. “Never mind Boris Johnson threatening to do it at Heathrow Airport, I have actually done it, I’m known for doing it,” he said.
The light that could be cast by vehicles entering the tunnel also worries druids like Pendragon. “The light pollution from the western portal is in line with the sunset at the winter solstice,” he said. “Stonehenge was built for that purpose and that’s what it is used for to this day. Druids and pilgrims won’t come if the tunnel is there because there will be nothing to observe any more.”
The scheme’s supporters take a very different view. Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s curatorial director, whose responsibilities include Stonehenge, argues the tunnel will join up the ancient features cut off by the road and allow people to enjoy Stonehenge in peace. “If you stand by the stones at the moment all you can see to the south is a great queue of vehicles. It is noisy and smelly and it looks awful,” she said.
Eavis adds the line of the road has already been archaeologically evaluated: “We already have a good idea of what’s there and there will be a full programme of mitigation to ensure that any archaeology that isn’t preserved in situ is fully recorded.”
Highways England, which has devised the plan, says it is the best way of tackling congestion. “We’re confident that the proposed scheme presents the best solution for tackling the longstanding bottleneck on this section of the A303, returning the Stonehenge landscape to something like its original setting and helping to boost the south-west economy,” said Derek Parody, the project’s director.