This morning we had final confirmation of the tunnel to be built near Stonehenge. After centuries of evocative journeys, from now on travellers will be denied the dramatic view of the stones so enjoyed by their ancestors for hundreds of years. What a depressing development from Highways England, English Heritage, the National Trust and others - a true democratic land grab, to coin a current phrase from the political zietgiest. Lucre is more important than lustre these days.
The creation of a road-free Stonehenge is yet more evidence of today's "experience" centred marketing approach. It is, the argument supposes, important to see Stonehenge as it was once seen: magisterial in a cultural landscape of barrows, earthworks and religious sites. As English Heritage puts it in their marketing spin, they want to "reconnect the stones with their ancient landscape".
Apparently, it is now important when viewing the past to strip away the past. Like removing London from round the Tower, or demolishing Clifford's Tower so we can see the original Norman motte. We need to experience the monument in all its contemplative glory, set in what we might perceive to have been a quiet religious centre where people from across Britain and beyond journeyed in distant times.
Pollution and context
This is a compelling argument of course, linked quite rightly to excessive noise and actual pollution caused by the current road which runs by the monument. Not forgetting the fact that the road is often described as a "bottleneck" and is seen as dangerous to local villagers. All good stuff in the true British way.
And yet... The problem with Stonehenge in itself is that, as a building, it is somewhat underwhelming when viewed up close. Any visitor to the stones today joins a dreary trudge around roped off pathways and then processes in funereal style through the ubiquitous visitor centre and its obligatory stock of largely imported gifts and gewgaws. Been there, done that, got the bear-skin tee-shirt.
This somewhat gruesome experience does not of course deny the emotional appeal of the stones; ceremony rather than substance was crucial. They are (were?) a magnet for celebration and not, it would seem, an architectural apogee worthy of investigation (unless one is a craftsperson intrigued by the use of mortise and tenon joints executed in stone).
Of course, we cannot deny the mystery of the stones. What do they mean? Why were they put here? How were they erected? Yet it is unclear whether these questions actually require a tunnel in order to answer them.
A new kind of bottleneck
The argument in the tunnel's favour suggests it does: With a tunnel, the "bottleneck" disappears and once again we can contemplate these major questions in the silence of a Wiltshire day (surrounded by thousands of tourists from around the world taking "selfies" of themselves contemplating these major issues before returning to the visitor centre). A new visitor centre and hidden-away car parks complete the scene.
Ironically, in creating a tunnel and changing the visitor facilities, we return the stones to their original purpose: a locus for thousands of people from across the land and beyond to come together in some form or ritual celebratory procession.
Instead of ritual feasting by thousands at the solstice, substitute an international tourist centre where humanity comes together in celebration of commercial ecstasy and filling the ancient landscape with cars, coaches and caravans. And buying lots of lovely gifts imported from countries all round the world in a celebration of a bizarre quazi-spiritualism which probably never existed and certainly doesn't speak of "England".
Money more important
So the true reason for the tunnel it seems is to enhance the visitor experience and ultimately to ingest the tourist dollar through an experience like no other. Not forgetting that it is important to hide away from the visiting hordes the fact that Britain is an overcrowded island with a creaking infrastructure.
So it is that the tunnel is less about traffic and more about commerce. And in this, the tunnel has one final sting in its tail: the denial to millions of travellers of the best view of Stonehenge to be had anywhere. The stunning view of it you see from the A303 as you crest the hill heading west. Which is free to all.
(Above: the stolen view of Stonehenge, centuries old, of the fork in the road and a traveller's connection with the past. Painting: William Turner of Oxford)
This view has been enjoyed for thousands of years by millions of travellers unknown. In olden times, the road forked at the stones too - the stones being a marker in the land for travellers on their way. In a hundred years, arguably, the pollution and traffic will have gone anyway - leaving the A303 to wind its way west in silence once again.
An ancient, excellent view denied to all - unless you pay
The unpleasant truth for the tourism chiefs is that the best way to see Stonehenge is not close up, but from afar, on this ancient road across ancient Britain. The stones here sink in the landscape. You see them as your ancestors saw them. They excite. They are mysterious. And they are free.
Even the contextualised landscape argument of the archaeologists is illusory. If we followed the logic of recreating a lost landscape by removing modern accretions we might just as well demolish all the skyscrapers in London in order do enjoy the mediaeval majesty of its once magnificent landscape of church spires.
The construction of the Stonehenge tunnel is therefore a denial of democracy in favour of commerce. In many ways it symbolises much of what is wrong with a Britain today obsessed with brand and perceived experience - an obsession which now Covid has revealed as an economy of the Emperor's New Clothes.
When marketing words and spin are more important than the substance of deeds, we know that we have failed in serving the people.
About the author
Michael Smith read history at the University of York and is an historian, printmaker and translator of fourteenth century Middle English poetry.
His illustrated translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Unbound in 2018. His translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem written during the time of Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke, publishes in February 2021.
Michael is currently translating William and the Werewolf, a new translation of the 14th Century masterpiece William of Palerne, written for Humphrey de Bohun in c. 1340.
To help this book become reality, please be a patron here.