This is a follow-up to my post of last autumn, describing the proposed plans for new visitor facilities at Stonehenge. The plans have now become reality.
Pity poor English Heritage. Entrusted with the care of Northern Europe’s most important stone-age monument, it has had to balance the demands of UNESCO (who own the “World Heritage Site” brand), increasing visitor numbers (900,000 in 2013), diminishing budgets and an assortment of Druids, Pagans and New Agers all claiming Stonehenge as sacred to their beliefs.
Until last year, those 900,000 visitors have had to put up with inadequate facilities and heavy traffic thundering along the road just a few feet away from the stones. Which is why, when English Heritage were given £27 Million (about $44 Million) to improve the site, their priorities were to restore some measure of peace and quiet around Stonehenge itself, and significantly improve the visitor facilities. The solution to both was clear: build a large, modern visitor centre well away from the stones themselves. They did it, on time and within budget. And that’s when the trouble started.
Soon after opening on the 18th December, it became clear that the transportation between the visitor centre and the stones, a distance of about 1½ miles, wasn’t up to the job. The “land trains” (actually Land Rovers towing three cars each) carry about 45 people every 10 minutes either to or from the stones. There weren’t enough, and as the queues lengthened, English Heritage hired local buses to improve capacity. The crowds attracted by the pre-opening publicity were unwilling to wait an hour for transport, so they took to walking the 30-minute stretch instead. They haven’t yet segregated the walkers from the vehicles, so early television pictures like this showed buses weaving around pedestrians like refugees fleeing from a war zone. Appalling weather and plummeting online ratings completed English Heritage’s misery over the holiday period.
But there are positives too. The visitor centre generally is a great improvement, with a good café and much larger and more welcoming shop. The new exhibition is particularly good, providing an excellent introduction to when, how, why and by whom Stonehenge was built. It won’t be long before everyone will be asking how we ever managed without it.
Many highly rated public sites (Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport is an example) had major problems when they opened. The problems are now forgotten, and the time will come when these issues at Stonehenge are forgotten too. The best advice for now is to book your tickets in advance and print them off – including bar-code. This will allow you to walk straight in and onto one of the land trains or buses which will take you to the monument itself. And allow yourself time: no less than an hour and a half. Stonehenge used to be a drive-by item on a longer itinerary. If it now gets the time it deserves from the discerning visitor, then English Heritage will have achieved something of real value.