Stonehenge by-pass is vital

Stonehenge

As a truck driver I have regularly had to use the A303 which goes past Stonehenge, the prehistoric stone-circle monument in Wiltshire. In today’s Observer there is a piece by Tom Holland which claims that the proposed tunnel to bypass the monument would be a “grotesque act of vandalism”, a “desecration”, a “disaster … of such calamitous proportions that, should it ever come to term, future generations will rub their eyes in wonder that a Conservative government – a Conservative government – could ever have let it occur”. He claims that it has “become clear, from the evidence of government officials themselves, that the £2bn the Stonehenge tunnel will cost … is a monstrous waste of money” and that it will shave only 4.8 seconds per mile off an “average 100 mile journey”. I find all these claims somewhat dubious.

First, the inflated cost of the scheme comes from accommodating the need to preserve the stones and to improve the environment around them both for visitors and in general. A cheaper option would be simply to build an extra two-lane carriageway next to the A303, though this would not suffice as a bypass to Winterbourne Stoke or for relieving congestion at the A360 junction. The supposed need to keep the westbound view from the stones such that any new road would not mar the view of sunset or sunrise on the solstice days comes from a tiny minority, yet it has resulted in major media coverage and been presented as an obstacle to the scheme going ahead, requiring yet another redesign (with yet further inflated costs) or a complete scrapping of the scheme. A tunnel would mean ordinary visitors could enjoy the stones in greater peace and quiet than they can now, without the constant roar of traffic; Holland complains that this would reduce the monument to “the equivalent of an otherwise extinct creature in a zoo”, a complaint that does not seem to bother visitors to the Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey, where a main road that was choked with traffic because of the limitations of the landscape was removed to a tunnel that opened in 2011; visitors can now enjoy the park on both sides of the former A3.

Second, there are costs to both ordinary people and business for there to be a major bottleneck on an important thoroughfare such as the A303. The delays can in fact be much longer than a few seconds; the combination of the stones, the A360 junction and the village of Winterbourne Stoke, combined with any accident, can result in half-hour or longer delays. For truck drivers, who are timed and whose driving time is restricted by the law, this can sometimes mean the difference between getting back to base in time or having to spend the night in the cab, or having to call off deliveries; such delays result in fatigue and thus increase the accident risk further down the line. There are environmental costs to having large numbers of slow-moving or idling vehicles in a small area; diverting this traffic would result in cleaner air for those who stop to enjoy the stones.

There aren’t viable alternative routes for many journeys undertaken using that stretch of the A303. Travellers from London to Devon and Cornwall can use the M4 and M5, but this is a much longer journey and involves travelling through the Bristol urban area where there is often major congestion. This option is not available to people who started their journeys outside London, for example in the Aldershot area which is where the companies I worked for were based. There are numerous local and regional journeys that require the use of the A303; the old Andover to Warminster road (the A344) was diverted via the A303 many years ago and part of it removed to both speed up the A303 and improve the visitors’ experience. Truck drivers passing through Salisbury, including those from Southampton pulling the taller containers, face a low bridge on the A36 which requires a diversion via the A360. Some locals suggest that the A303 itself be rerouted via Salisbury; this would require an upgrade to the entire A30 from Micheldever, which despite appearing straight on the map is hilly, and then a tunnel to avoid despoiling the landscape around Old Sarum, north of Salisbury. Too much has been invested in the A303, which also serves Andover and Amesbury which both have major industries and distribution centres, to simply reroute it for the sake of Stonehenge.

Stonehenge has little cultural significance for many people. Until the early 20th century, there were contemporary buildings in the area around the stones, which were cleared away as a result of a public campaign in the late 1920s. Despite many decades of study, the significance of them to those who built them remain a mystery and a matter of speculation; the neopaganism which uses the stones in its ritual is a modern invention. It’s ridiculous to inflate the costs of a vital public works project to accommodate a religion of modern invention that has a tiny number of followers; this would not be considered if the obstacles were houses, shops, even churches, and many might feel that the landscapes around Salisbury are of greater beauty and value than the bareness of Stonehenge which dates back only to the late 1920s. Stonehenge will not be ruined but improved by this tunnel; it will be a win for almost everyone who either stops or passes through the area. It should not be delayed by silly romanticism and sentimentality.

Image source: Simon Kisner, from Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence.

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