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Stonehenge – a national disgrace

Stonehenge was given to the nation in 1918.  So far, almost a century later, the nation has done a remarkably bad job at looking after it. 

The situation at the site is currently, as its custodians English Heritage put it, ‘severely compromised’ and as others like leading archaeologist Mike Pitts would say, ‘ an embarrassing, abominable, inexcusable mess’. For decades, plans have been put forward to improve the site and then postponed.

Two main roads not only thunder past but divide the circle of stones from the Avenue that should lead to it.  The findings from Stonehenge are scattered piecemeal between some sixteen different museums and private holdings around the country.  For the almost one million annual visitors drawn there, it can be a dispiriting experience, with the stones themselves fenced off and the current ‘visitor centre’ resembling a British Rail station built in the 1970s.  Overall, it can be a bit like having a picnic in a car park.

Just last week the Government announced that it would no longer help finance the proposed new landscaping and visitor centre which Labour had announced last October. 

On the face of it, this might seem perfectly reasonable.  A saving of £10 million would result.  We all know that cuts have to be made;  the Government claims that Labour committed to projects that were never affordable.

What no one has pointed out is that they have left in place a whole raft of other projects that Labour committed to at the same time:  £50 million towards the extension of Tate Modern, £22.5 million towards the creation of the British Museum’s World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, and £33 million to secure the future of the British Library’s newspaper archive in new premises in Yorkshire. ‪

While all these projects may be worthwhile, they are certainly more expensive and show a strange sense of priorities.  Stonehenge is a quite unique prehistoric monument that has Unesco World Heritage status.   We are supposed to be conserving it not just for the nation but the planet, and at present are failing dismally.

You don’t have to be a paid-up pagan or druid to appreciate that this circle of megalithic stones represent an extraordinary imaginative and creative effort of our prehistoric fathers that compares well with our own Millennium Dome of 5000 years later – and how much better it would have been to divert some small change from that grandiose project to Salisbury Plain.

Surely it behoves us to spend what little money we have left in the public purse on preserving one of our greatest monuments before embarking on far more expensive new projects?  Or, as a Conservative Party obsessed with home-owners might put it, perhaps we should fix the roof before we build an extension?

 see The Times for the published version of this piece (subscribers only)

and the piece prompted the following letter in the Times a few days later:

July 16 2010 

Letters to the Editor:  Stonehenge

Sir, Hugh Thomson (Thunderer, the Times, July 13) rightly questions the wisdom of the coalition Government’s decision to cut its support for improving the setting and building of a new visitor centre at Stonehenge, an icon of our national heritage and the centrepiece of the “cultural offer” pitched to the International Olympics Committee for 2012. The casual saving of £10 million places Stonehenge under threat as a World Heritage Site of outstanding universal value.  

The news is felt all the more painfully since this is now the third time the project has been cancelled and it is estimated that £45 million to £55 million has already been spent abortively in developing these proposals. More than £25 million has been promised from other sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund. Added to this, the visitor centre has already received planning permission. So to make a saving of £10 million at this advanced stage makes no sense, either financially or strategically. It would be cheaper to finish the job now, rather than cancel and have to start again. We invite the Government to seek an effective solution to the problem.

Professor Maurice Howard
Professor Geoffrey Wainwright
Professor Colin Renfrew
Professor Timothy Darvill


  1. andy
    October 16th, 2010 at 18:14 | #1

    agreed, well done on naming and shaming

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