After many studies, surveys, plans and proposals, English Heritage have published their plans for a major revamp of Stonehenge. Not the stones themselves of course, but the “visitor experience”.
And the visitor experience could certainly use some improvement! Today, an overcrowded car park leads to a small, scruffy entrance, where 2 ticket offices struggle to keep up with a peak time total of 9000 visitors per day. An overcrowded shop, no sit-down café and barely adequate toilets conspire to dampen the enthusiasm of the average visitor.
And yet people still come. Because the stones themselves astound, through their extreme antiquity and their enduring mystery. Archaeologists, still busy at the site, broadly agree on when, how and by whom the monument was built. But no amount of excavation or carbon-dating can tell us for certain why it was built. It is precisely this lack of knowledge that produces the aura around Stonehenge – the experience many visitors report that, even when the site is crowded, they feel alone and somehow in contact with the consciousness of the stone age builders of this sacred place. The experience persists despite the closeness of the road, the noisy traffic and the signs of modernity that intrude at every turn.
To English Heritage’s credit, it is this aura that they are trying to preserve and improve in their plans for the site. Top priority is to close the access road that today passes within yards of the circle. Visitors will arrive at a purpose-built visitor centre about 2 miles west of Stonehenge and travel to the stones in a land train or on foot. The visitor centre will provide much more extensive background information about the site (it could hardly provide less). The intention is that once you know something about the age of the stones, who erected them, and how they might have lived, you can better appreciate the journey across open grass fields to a site which is now more isolated from the modern world. See more about the proposals here.
The revamp comes at a cost: £27 million for the onsite project alone. Some concerns remain about the practicalities. The increase in “dwell time” these new arrangements require have got tour operators looking again at excursions which combine Stonehenge with Bath and/or Windsor. English Heritage claims the longer time is justified by the additional material and a more meaningful trip up to the stones. In turn, they are hiking the entrance charge: £13.90 compared to £8.00 today.
All this is due to go live in the last quarter of 2013. There are still many unknowns, including the exact opening date. Concerns remain about the capacity of the land trains. But a thorough rethink was long overdue and this one does seem to be driven by respect for the simple magnificence of the stones themselves. Let us remember, this is a World Heritage Site.