Stonehenge, with the possible exception of Big Ben, is Britain’s most recognisable monument. As a symbol of the nation’s antiquity, it is our Parthenon, our pyramids – although, admittedly, less impressive. Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, recalls that when he took a group of Egyptian archaeologists to see it, they were baffled by our national devotion to the stones, which, compared to the refined surfaces of the pyramids, seemed to them like something hastily thrown up over a weekend.
Unlike those other monuments, though, Stonehenge is more or less a complete mystery. Nobody knows for sure why, or by whom, this vast arrangement of boulders was erected on Wiltshire’s downlands, in the south of England, about 5,000 years ago. Into this void have rushed myriad theories, from the academically sober to the blatantly fantastic.
Over the centuries, its construction has been confidently credited to giants, wizards, Phoenicians, Mycenaeans, Romans, Saxons, Danes and aliens. (According to one medieval theory, Merlin had it transported from Ireland to serve as the funeral monument for Britons slaughtered by Hengist, the treacherous Saxon.)
Since Stonehenge slipped into the written record in the medieval era, it has been a place to project our ideas of ourselves. It was said, by the 20th-century archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes, that “every age has the Stonehenge it deserves”.
And so today’s Stonehenge is not William Blake’s terrifying “building of eternal death”; nor is it Thomas Hardy’s “monstrous place”, where Tess of the D’Urbervilles sleeps her last night before being taken to be hanged. Nor is it even the Stonehenge of the counterculture, where peace-freaks revelled until they were brutally routed in “the Battle of the Beanfield” in 1985, one of the most notorious episodes in the history of British policing.
Our Stonehenge has none of this grandeur or pathos. Instead, it is at the centre of a peculiarly modern British circus – one that involves an agonisingly long planning dispute, allegations of government incompetence, two deeply entrenched opposing sides, and a preoccupation with traffic and tourism. This absurdist drama, entirely worthy of our times, is a long and bitter battle over whether to sink the highway that runs beside it into a tunnel.
The A303, the road in question, is celebrated for the wonderful views it offers of the Stonehenge monoliths. But as one of the two major routes connecting the domesticated landscapes of the south-east of England with the wilder West Country, it is just as famous for its dire traffic jams, which begin as the highway narrows to a single lane near Stonehenge.
What could be a 10-minute ride through the 6,500-acre Unesco world heritage site in which Stonehenge sits is at peak times an hour-long, bad-tempered grind – a torture to holidaymakers making for Devon and Cornwall, a drag on the economy of the south-west of England and a bane to locals. According to David Bullock, who works for the national road-building agency, Highways England: “On Fridays, for a person living in Amesbury, it is quite a torrid affair, if you want to go anywhere.”
But this gridlock is not easily resolved. Diverting the road is hard to do: north of the current route lies Britain’s biggest Ministry of Defence training area, south of it pristine countryside. Simply widening it is unthinkable: the Stonehenge heritage site is a precious prehistoric landscape. Governments have been trying, and failing, to solve the problem of the A303 since the 1980s: numerous plans have been suggested and then dropped, at the cost of untold millions.
A dizzying number of bodies have been involved, representing every possible interest-group and opinion, from roadbuilders, heritage organisations, government departments and councils to the Campaign for the Preservation of the Lower Till Valley, the Stonehenge Traffic Action Group, the British Horse Society and the organisation that protects Europe’s heaviest flying birds, the Great Bustard Group.
The current proposal, to widen and sink the road into a tunnel running for almost two miles, mostly about 600 metres south of the stones, was announced in 2014, although the basic idea goes right back to the 1990s. The main difficulty is the cost: the government has allocated £1.7bn, which is not enough for a passage sufficiently long to avoid the world heritage site. That means tunnel portals would be bored, and dual carriageways built, through an ancient landscape unique in the world. This protected area is home to traces of a mesolithic settlement long predating Stonehenge, the ancient “Avenue” linking the monument and the river Avon, and hundreds of bronze-age burial mounds, or barrows.
But the long planning process is entering its endgame. Later this year, a panel of inspectors will meet in Wiltshire and, over a period of six months, examine the evidence for and against the scheme. They will have three months to make their recommendation to the transport secretary, Chris Grayling. He will have a further three months to decide whether or not to accept it. Construction could start in 2021.