A £1.7billion plan to build a tunnel diverting traffic away from Stonehenge has today been given the green light.
The new two-mile tunnel is planned to be built south of the current A303, which runs within a few hundred metres of the famous UNESCO world heritage site in Wiltshire.
The controversial plan involves diverting the road into the new dual-carriageway tunnel while the current A303 – a main route for motorists travelling to and from the south west – will be turned into a public walkway.
Those behind the scheme hope it will help tackle congestion in the area – which is often at a standstill during Bank Holiday weekends.
But it will bring to an end a well-known tradition of drivers slowing down to take a glimpse of the Neolithic monument, which can be seen from the current A303.
Meanwhile, critics, including druids, green campaigners and archaeologists, have hit out at the project, with one describing it as a ‘complete violation’.
A £1.7billion plan to build a tunnel diverting traffic away from Stonehenge has today been given the green light. Pictured: An artist’s impression of the plans
The road tunnel is planned to be built south of the current A303, which runs within a few hundred metres of the famous UNESCO world heritage site in Wiltshire. Pictured: An artist’s impression of the plans
A tunnel will bring to an end a tradition of drivers slowing down to take a glimpse of the Neolithic monument, which can be seen from the current road
The latest plans, which were first unveiled by Highways England in 2017, were today given the green light by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who approved a development consent order.
Highways England says its plan for the dual carriageway tunnel, located 164ft further away from Stonehenge compared to the existing A303 route, will remove the sight and sound of traffic passing the site and cut journey times.
The area is often severely congested on the single carriageway stretch near the stones, particularly on Bank Holiday weekends.
But some environmentalists and archaeologists have voiced their opposition to the plan due to its potential impact on the area.
Modern day druids, who each year celebrate the winter and summer solstices at Stonehenge, have also hit out at the plans.
Modern day druids, who each year celebrate the winter and summer solstices at Stonehenge, have hit out at the plans
The project was designed to slash travel times on the A303 in Wiltshire which is often at a standstill on bank holidays. Pictured: An artist’s impression of the 2002 design
When the project was revealed in 2002, the tunnel was due to cost £183million. The latest proposals are set to cost around £1.7billion
The tunnel is part of a £27billion masterplan to improve the nation’s roads, which was announced in March
Cas Smith, a druid and anti-tunnel campaigner, said it was a ‘complete violation’.
She told the BBC: ‘You wouldn’t dream of pushing a bore tunnel next door to Salisbury Cathedral, so why Stonehenge.’
The Stonehenge Alliance, a campaign group which opposes the plans and has gained nearly 60,000 signatures on an online petition, have also hit out at today’s announcement.
Dr Kate Fielden, from the Stonehenge Alliance, told the BBC that building the tunnel would remove ‘what was once there and has been there for thousands of years’.
The Stonehenge monument standing today was the final stage of a four part building project that ended 3,500 years ago
Stonehenge is one of the most prominent prehistoric monuments in Britain. The Stonehenge that can be seen today is the final stage that was completed about 3,500 years ago.
According to the monument’s website, Stonehenge was built in four stages:
First stage: The first version of Stonehenge was a large earthwork or Henge, comprising a ditch, bank and the Aubrey holes, all probably built around 3100 BC.
The Aubrey holes are round pits in the chalk, about one metre (3.3 feet) wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms.
They form a circle about 86.6 metres (284 feet) in diameter.
Excavations revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling, but the holes themselves were likely not made to be used as graves, but as part of a religious ceremony.
After this first stage, Stonehenge was abandoned and left untouched for more than 1,000 years.
Second stage: The second and most dramatic stage of Stonehenge started around 2150 years BC, when about 82 bluestones from the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales were transported to the site. It’s thought that the stones, some of which weigh four tonnes each, were dragged on rollers and sledges to the waters at Milford Haven, where they were loaded onto rafts.
They were carried on water along the south coast of Wales and up the rivers Avon and Frome, before being dragged overland again near Warminster and Wiltshire.
The final stage of the journey was mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Salisbury Avon to west Amesbury.
The journey spanned nearly 240 miles, and once at the site, the stones were set up in the centre to form an incomplete double circle.
During the same period, the original entrance was widened and a pair of Heel Stones were erected. The nearer part of the Avenue, connecting Stonehenge with the River Avon, was built aligned with the midsummer sunrise.
Third stage: The third stage of Stonehenge, which took place about 2000 years BC, saw the arrival of the sarsen stones (a type of sandstone), which were larger than the bluestones.
They were likely brought from the Marlborough Downs (40 kilometres, or 25 miles, north of Stonehenge).
The largest of the sarsen stones transported to Stonehenge weighs 50 tonnes, and transportation by water would not have been possible, so it’s suspected that they were transported using sledges and ropes.
Calculations have shown that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, with an extra 100 men needed to lay the rollers in front of the sledge.
These stones were arranged in an outer circle with a continuous run of lintels – horizontal supports.
Inside the circle, five trilithons – structures consisting of two upright stones and a third across the top as a lintel – were placed in a horseshoe arrangement, which can still be seen today.
Final stage: The fourth and final stage took place just after 1500 years BC, when the smaller bluestones were rearranged in the horseshoe and circle that can be seen today.
The original number of stones in the bluestone circle was probably around 60, but these have since been removed or broken up. Some remain as stumps below ground level.
The group has previously called for any tunnel to be deeper and more extensive, over concerns of damage to the landscape surrounding Stonehenge.
English Heritage welcomed the decision as a ‘landmark day for Stonehenge’.
Its chief executive, Kate Mavor, told the Guardian: ‘Placing the noisy and intrusive A303 within a tunnel will reunite Stonehenge with the surrounding prehistoric landscape and help future generations to better understand and appreciate this wonder of the world.’
Today’s announcement is the latest in a 25-year battle over the proposals, which were first touted in 1995.
For decades, motorists on the A303, which passes the stone circle, have endured severe congestion on the popular route to and from the South West
Motorists used to be able to get even closer when the A344 existed. But the road was closed in 2013
Opponents have argued that plans for a tunnel to ease gridlock around the World Heritage Site could ruin the prehistoric archaeological surroundings
The battle of Stonehenge: The 25 year fight over plans to build a tunnel near to the historic site
1995: Proposals for a simple cut and cover tunnel are put forward by the government. They are criticised by groups including the National Trust.
2002: New plans for a properly bored tunnel are announced, at a cost of £183million.
2004: Despite opposition to the plans, a public inquiry finds the proposals as adequate. However, the scheme is ditched, with construction costs spiralling to £470million.
2015: The scheme is touted again, but it comes under fire from historian Dan Snow, who accused ministers of acting like ‘vandals and zealots’.
2017: The government approves plans for a tunnel again.
2018: Highways England holds a consultation for the scheme, with costs now at £1.6million. The new plans include a grass covered canopy at one end to help it blend in with the landscape. The improvements are ‘welcomed’ by The National Trust, English Heritage and Historic England, but groups such as the Stonehenge Alliance continue their opposition.
2018: Public-private funding model for the scheme is ditched by then-chancellor Philip Hammond.
February 2020: The scheme comes under scrutiny again after survey work shows project could now cost over £2billion.
March 2020: Rishi Sunak says the scheme will be included in a £27billion national roads investment plan.
June 2020: A team of archaeologists had discovered a ring of at least 20 large shafts within the World Heritage Site, a short distance from the stones.
November 2020: The latest scheme is given the green light again by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. The two-mile dual-carriageway tunnel is set to cost £1.7billion.
Official proposals for a simple cut and cover tunnel were put forward by the government in 1999, but were criticised at the time by groups, including the National Trust.
New plans for a bored tunnel were announced in 2002 – at the cost of £183million – but these were again criticised.
A public inquiry in 2004 found the plans were adequate, but were ditched a year later by the government after a rise in construction costs meant the bill had more than doubled, to around £470million.
The scheme was again touted in 2015, but came under immediate fire from historians, including Dan Snow, who likened ministers to vandals and zealots who destroy artefacts of ancient civilisations.
Time Team presenter Tony Robinson also labelled the tunnel ‘the most brutal intrusion into the Stone Age landscape ever’.
Proposals for a tunnel were again approved by the government in 2017, with then-Transport Secretary Chris Grayling announcing the scheme would ‘transform the A303, cutting congestion and improving journey times’.
In 2018, Highways England held consultations for the scheme – which at that point had risen in cost to around £1.6million.
This time the plans featured a grass covered canopy at one end to help it blend into the landscape.
The National Trust, English Heritage and government agency Historic England, welcomed the ‘improvements’ to the plans, but groups such as the Stonehenge Alliance continued to oppose the proposals.
Public-private funding was due to be used to finance the work, but in October 2018 the then-chancellor Philip Hammond cancelled future deals using such a model.
The scheme came under scrutiny again this year, when in February it was revealed that survey work carried out on the UNESCO World Heritage Site last summer had allegedly uncovered a series of issues that would escalate the cost to over £2billion.
Then, in his first ever budget in March this year, Chancellor Rishi Sunak in the Commons described the A303 as ‘one of our most important regional arteries.
He said: ‘Every year, millions of cars crawl along it in traffic, ruining the backdrop to one of our most important historic landmarks.’
But he said the scheme had become ‘one of those totemic projects symbolising delay and obstruction’.
He announced that the tunnel project would be part of a £27billion masterplan to improve the nation’s roads.
The Planning Inspectorate – an executive agency of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – recommended the Transport Secretary withhold consent. But Grant Shapps has granted a Development Consent Order
Four months later, in June, it emerged that a team of archaeologists had discovered a ring of at least 20 large shafts within the World Heritage Site, a short distance from the stones.
Experts believe these may have served as a boundary to a sacred area, but Highways England said the finds were ‘well outside the scheme boundary’ .
Because the project is classified as nationally significant, it means a Development Consent Order is needed for it to go ahead – which Mr Shapps has now granted.
The Planning Inspectorate – an executive agency of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – recommended the Transport Secretary withhold consent.
The inspectorate said the project would substantially and permanently harm the integrity and authenticity of the World Heritage Site, which includes the stone circle and the wider archaeology-rich landscape.
In a report to Mr Shapps, the officials said permanent, irreversible harm, critical to the outstanding universal value of the site, or why it is internationally important, would occur, ‘affecting not only our own, but future generations’.
The Department for Transport wrote to Highways England stating that: ‘The Secretary of State is satisfied that, on balance, the need case for the development together with the other benefits identified outweigh any harm.’
There is now a six-week period in which the decision can be challenged in the High Court.
Preparatory work is due to begin in spring next year, with the five-year construction phase expected to start by 2023.
A hole new ‘Stonehenge’! New prehistoric monument dating back 4,500 years made up of 15ft-deep shafts in a mile-wide circle is discovered in English countryside
A team of archaeologists discovered a major new prehistoric monument just a short distance away from Stonehenge in June.
Fieldwork and analysis revealed evidence of 20 or more massive prehistoric shafts – more than 10 metres in diameter and five metres deep – forming a circle more than two kilometres in diameter around the Durrington Walls henge.
Coring of the shafts suggest the features are Neolithic and excavated more than 4,500 years ago – around the time Durrington Walls was built.
A new circle discovered near Stonehenge, pictured above, is more than 10 metres in diameter and five metres deep
Coring of the shafts suggest the features are Neolithic and excavated more than 4,500 years ago – around the time Durrington Walls was built
It is thought the shafts served as a boundary to a sacred area or precinct associated with the henge.
The discovery was made as part of the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, led by the University of Bradford. Experts from the University of St Andrews also joined along with counterparts from institutes including Birmingham, Warwick, the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (at the University of Glasgow).
Professor Vince Gaffney, of the University of Bradford, said: ‘The area around Stonehenge is amongst the most studied archaeological landscapes on earth.
‘It is remarkable that the application of new technology can still lead to the discovery of such a massive prehistoric structure.’
Dr Richard Bates, of the university’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said: ‘Yet again, the use of a multidisciplinary effort with remote sensing and careful sampling is giving us an insight to the past that shows an even more complex society than we could ever imagine.
It is thought the shafts served as a boundary to a sacred area or precinct associated with the henge. Map pictured above
‘Clearly sophisticated practices demonstrate that the people were so in tune with natural events to an extent that we can barely conceive in the modern world we live in today.’
Tim Kinnaird, of the same school, said: ‘The sedimentary infills contain a rich and fascinating archive of previously unknown environmental information.
‘With optically stimulated luminescence profiling and dating, we can write detailed narratives of the Stonehenge landscape for the last 4,000 years.’
The announcement of the discovery comes after the Summer Solstice, which took place online this year with the annual gathering cancelled due to coronavirus.
English Heritage has provided access to the event since 2000 but warned visitors not to travel to the 3,000BC Neolithic monument this year.
A team of archaeologists have discovered a major new prehistoric monument just a short distance away from Stonehenge. Stonehenge pictured above
Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, hailed the ‘astonishing discovery’.
He said: ‘As the place where the builders of Stonehenge lived and feasted Durrington Walls is key to unlocking the story of the wider Stonehenge landscape, and this astonishing discovery offers us new insights into the lives and beliefs of our Neolithic ancestors.
‘The Hidden Landscapes team have combined cutting-edge, archaeological fieldwork with good old-fashioned detective work to reveal this extraordinary discovery and write a whole new chapter in the story of the Stonehenge landscape.’