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On 18 December, a mere 24 years after the parliamentary public accounts committee denounced the visitor facilities at one of the world’s most famous ancient monuments as “a national disgrace”, and 85 years after the idea was first mooted, a new £27m visitor centre will open at Stonehenge.
For the first time there will be a museum-quality gallery interpreting the site and displaying original finds, as well as a cafe and shop. There was a distinct air of incredulity among many of the English Heritage staff, bruised and battered survivors of decades of debate, funding rows, public inquiries and planning consultations, sites identified and then abandoned, grandiose plans announced and promptly cancelled, landmark dates including the millennium and the Olympics missed, even as they stood in hard hats and hi-vis jackets in the shadow of the almost completed building.
“We’ve looked at this building so many times as a computer drawing, it still feels a bit like being in a computer drawing now,” the chief executive, Simon Thurley, said.
On a grey morning the new building, to the west and out of sight of the stones, designed by the London office of the Australian firm Denton Corker Marshall, is elegant if very grey – “certainly not a Fred Flintstone imitation Stonehenge”, Thurley said. An undulating lightweight roof is supported by 211 narrow steel columns, sheltering a glass box holding the cafe and shop, and a chestnut timber-covered box holding the displays. The exhibition will include a 360-degree projection based on minutely detailed laser scans of the stones, and original finds on loan from the museums at Salisbury and Devizes. The opening exhibition will include Bronze Age gold, among the greatest treasures of the Devizes museum.
Visitors will buy tickets or, English Heritage hopes, book them online in advance, visit the exhibition explaining the site as well as the centuries of argument and excavation that have managed to comprehend it, and also a recreated Neolithic village – which, unlike the modern steel and glass, can’t be built yet until the season is right for cutting thousands of hazel rods.
The visitors will then clamber into a less gaudy cousin of those land trains that trundle along many seafronts, three small wagons towed by a Land Rover, and be driven the 1.5 miles to the stones along the old A344, which will be closed to all other traffic. The other end of the road has already been closed, and is being dug up and turfed over where it used to pass within yards of the edge of the stones. The vehicle will pause at the top of the hill giving the first sight of the monument, allowing anyone who wants to to walk the rest of the way, before dropping the others a short walk from the stones.
There may be some disappointment that the romantic vision in artists’ impressions of earlier attempts to resolve the site, with happy tourists strolling among the stones with sheep nibbling acres of unfenced turf downland, will not be realised. The stones will be still be fenced off – though Thurley promised “something much less aggressive” than the previous industrial chainlink – and visitors will still be barred from entering the circle, except on specially booked groups.
“If we let millions of people in to trample the grass, in a confined space which still contains archaeological material, it would soon become a muddy quagmire,” Thurley said.
There will also be many vehicles trundling along the road. The site already gets almost a million visitors a year, and that is expected to rise. At peak times they hope to transport 850 people an hour, at 60 to each transporter.
Thurley said the new building “sits very lightly in the landscape”.
“This is a completely reversible building – if it’s ever necessary, it can all be taken up and taken away, leaving the site to revert to the chalk of Salisbury Plain.”
The mere thought of demolishing the building is enough to make his colleagues shudder. The centre is the third design, and the second by the present architects. Their original plan, part of an £87m project to be located east of the stones, was abandoned in 2007 when the government ditched the promise to bury the A303 road in a tunnel under the site, on cost grounds.
Even the present, much more modest scheme was only rescued by the Heritage Lottery Fund when one of the first actions of the coalition government was to scrap a promised £10m grant.
The A303, a main artery towards the south-west, still roars past the site, with traffic regularly slowing to a crawl where it narrows to two lanes.
Thurley promised that the fight is not over. “This is definitively not it. The absolutely crucial thing is to close the A303, and English Heritage will continue to argue this with all its strength. It is absolutely imperative that the road goes, and the stones are returned to the tranquillity of the chalk downland in which it was built.”
Surprisingly, at the site there was some affection for the present huddle of huts. The people crouched against the misty chill over paper cups of tea included business travellers and dog walkers, used to stopping off in the free car park for a break, and a free if grim loo, with the stones as a spectacular backdrop.
“Looks bloody expensive. How much is it going to cost?” one man snarled, squinting at the photograph of the new centre.
His suspicions may be justified. The present car park and buildings will be bulldozed when the new centre opens, and although there will be free access to the smart new cafe, the car park will charge. The full admission price will not be announced until advance booking opens in early December, but it will be more than the present £8 adult ticket.
“Whatever it costs, it will be very good value,” the Stonehenge director, Loraine Knowles, said.
8500 to 7000BC: pits from timber posts mark the earliest human constructions on the site.
3100BC: a circle of earth banks and ditches is made.
2500 to 2300BC: rearrangements of huge sarsen stones from Salisbury plain, and smaller bluestones from the Preseli hills in Wales. An outer circle of uprights and lintels gives the monument its world-famous profile.
1968: a “temporary” visitor centre opens.
1986: Stonehenge is declared a Unesco world heritage site.
1989: the parliamentary public accounts committee condemns the visitor facilities and interpretation at Stonehenge as “a national disgrace”.
1992: Edward Cullinan Architects wins a design competition for a new visitor centre on army land at Larkhill, north of the stones.
1995: a Highways Agency planning conference recommends a 2.5-mile bored tunnel to bury the A303 under the site.
1996: an £83m scheme is announced to restore a grassland setting for the stones and a new visitor centre – to open in time for the millennium.
2001: new plans are made for a £65m Australian-designed Denton Corker Marshall visitor centre, east of the stones at Countess roundabout.
2007: the Labour government scraps the £540m road tunnel under Stonehenge on cost grounds, and English Heritage scraps the visitor centre.
2008: Lord Bruce-Lockhart, chair of English Heritage, says “it is inconceivable that the inadequacies of the site should be allowed to continue any longer”.
2010: a new £27m design by Denton Corker Marshall wins planning permission – to open in time for the 2012 London Olympics.
June 2010: the coalition scraps a £10m grant for the new visitor centre. The Heritage Lottery Fund gives £10m.
June 2013: the A344 closes where it passes within yards of the stones.
18 December 2013: a £27m visitor centre is to open at Airman’s Corner, 1.5 miles west of the stones.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk