So, the government have finally agreed on plans to build a tunnel to the south of the ancient stone circle, Stonehenge, outside Amesbury in Wiltshire. The site is currently one of several bottlenecks on a major route from London to the south west of England, a two-lane stretch in between two sections of good-quality dual carriageway, one of which links to the M3 motorway from London; however, a lot of the delays are caused by people slowing down to look at the stones as they drive past. The scheme will also include a by-pass around the village of Winterbourne Stoke, also affected by the slow and heavy traffic along the A303.
Stonehenge is not the only famous landmark to fade from public view as a result of a bypass. When I was a child, we went to Portsmouth for the day, and the main road there, until 2011, ran past a formation called the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a “natural amphitheatre” overlooking Hindhead Common in Surrey. On the way out, you drove out of the village of Milford, along one of the A3’s many “silly little bits of dual carriageway”, as my Mum called them (all now either by-passed or linked together), which soon ended, the road climbing for several miles through thick woods which then opened to show this dramatic hollow on the right-hand side. As an adult when I started driving lorries, I relished trips to Portsmouth because — despite the inevitable traffic jams — I got a glimpse of the Devil’s Punch Bowl. That ended when the Hindhead Tunnel was opened in 2011 (there was a serious proposal to simply by-pass it through the common, but the landmarks’s Site of Special Scientific Interest status, as well as public opposition, scuppered that plan) and the original road was mostly removed. The upshot is that you can explore and see all the areas of the landscape in peace now, but few people get to see it on their way past and so it is probably less well-known now than it was until 2011.
Stonehenge had no such effect on me; we stopped there once on the way back from Devon, and I remember being bored to tears, especially as I had not been expecting to stop anywhere other than perhaps a service station. I still find it rather underwhelming, but those who want to enjoy the stones will be able to do so in peace once the passing traffic has been re-routed underground, while those who just need to get to and from the south-west will be able to do so without getting stuck behind farm tractors or people slowing down to have a look at the stones — although, it has to be said, the traffic delays have eased considerably since the A344, which ran to the north of Stonehenge, was demolished (people wanting to visit Stonehenge now have to turn off at the roundabout to the west and approach it from the Salisbury-Devizes road). I suspect they will rebuild that, and remove the existing A303 (or at least whatever of it isn’t required for farm access).
Building the tunnel will be good for Stonehenge. Not only will the noise of the passing traffic be gone; the pollution it emits, which no doubt has discoloured the stones as traffic pollution once discoloured Buckingham Palace in London, will also disappear. A place doesn’t have to be right on a major highway for people to appreciate it; when we went to the Lake District or North Wales on holiday, we would stop at Stratford or Ironbridge on the way there or back, neither of which are right by the motorway, and Stratford has prospered since being taken off the A34 trunk road from Birmingham to Southampton, which used to choke it with heavy goods traffic. Stonehenge is still quite well-known, people know what it looks like, and people who are interested and have time will still visit it.
I’m not in favour of building huge new roads for the sake of it, but there are places where they need to get built, because bottlenecks cause not only inconvenience but also extra pollution. The Hindhead tunnel needed to get built, the Tonbridge-Pembury upgrade on the A21 (in progress) needed to get built, and so does this. Stonehenge will be all the better for it, and I’ll be admiring the scenery further down.
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