Stonehenge: tunnel declared unlawful by high court

The British government has been campaigning for several years to tunnel under the Stonehenge monument. It argues with less noise, less congestion and more quality of life for the residents of the surrounding villages. But the opponents of the mega-project are not impressed by the reasoning. They formed the Stonehenge Alliance and took legal action against the construction project – and were proven right.

The Neolithic monument Stonehenge is surrounded by many stories and myths that attract thousands of visitors every year. Many of them arrive via the A303 motorway, which passes within sight and especially within earshot of the monument. There is no talk of mystical-romantic seclusion there.

Highways England, the state-owned company that looks after England’s motorways, wanted to do something about this. Their goal is to improve the A303, which connects England’s southwest with the southeast. At the height of the Neolithic monument, the single-lane section is to become a dual carriageway. But that’s not all: a tunnel is planned right next to Stonehenge, which would take traffic out of sight of the rock formation.

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But the planned reconstruction is not just for cosmetic reasons. According to Highways England, it currently takes an hour or more – depending on the time of day – to pass Stonehenge on the motorway. The extension wants to reduce this time to eight minutes.

Two tunnels more than three kilometres long – one for each direction of travel – will run 200 metres underground next to Stonehenge, reconnecting the landscape on the surface for visitors, horse riders, cyclists and, of course, flora and fauna. Several new junctions will also prevent motorists from clogging up the surrounding villages to avoid congestion. Highways england planned to start the first phase of the mega-project in 2023.

No alternative for Stonehenge tunnel

But nothing will come of it for the time being. This is because a group of NGOs and individuals have come together under the name The Stonehenge Alliance to protect the World Heritage Site. The Stonehenge Alliance had already formed in 2001 to prevent an expansion of the motorway in the World Heritage Site. This was finally put on hold – whether this result can only be attributed to the Alliance remains unclear.

Today, the Stonehenge Alliance is speaking out against Highways England’s Stonehenge tunnel with its Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site campaign. Their argument: the extension and alteration would severely damage the landscape, which is considered one of the most archaeologically significant land sites in Europe. The campaign criticises, among other things, that Highways England has not considered any alternatives, that previously undiscovered archaeological finds could be damaged and that the local animals would be permanently disturbed by the construction work. Furthermore, too little clarification had been made with regard to flood risk, groundwater protection, geology and land contamination, as the subsoil is a unique limestone rock whose reaction to the planned measures is not certain.

Stonehenge judgement as a wake-up call for the government

In addition, the planned construction works violate the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and ignore UNESCO’s recommendations on the plans. This could result in Stonehenge ending up on the Red List of World Heritage in Danger. According to UNESCO, inscription on the Red List is linked to specific requirements to remedy or avert the endangerment, a programme of remedial measures and increased monitoring through annual reports on the state of conservation.

The Stonehenge Alliance’s objections have borne fruit. At the end of July, the High Court ruled that the UK Transport Secretary had acted unlawfully. He had not considered less harmful alternatives. On these grounds, the judge quashed the consent order that the UK Transport Secretary had granted. According to the British news site BBC, the Stonehenge tunnel will now be put on hold until the government decides on its next steps.

John Adams, head of the Stonehenge Alliance states in a press release on the ruling: “Now that we are facing a climate emergency, it is all the more important that this ruling should be a wake-up call for the Government. It should look again at its roads programme and take action to reduce road traffic and eliminate any need to build new and wider roads that threaten the environment as well as our cultural heritage.”

Stonehenge took over a millennium to build

That Stonehenge is a huge part of Britain’s cultural heritage is clear. Not only is it one of Britain’s most famous landmarks, it is also a masterpiece of engineering. Located in England, between Bournemouth and Bristol, it is part of the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites World Heritage Site. The structure was built over a period of several hundred years – even before the invention of the wheel or before people started working with metal. In fact, construction began as early as 3 000 BC, with the first of several stages.

The first monument – the first stage – consisted mainly of earthwork and found its purpose in cremations. It was only between about 2 500 and 2 000 BC that the typical stones were added in further stages. Stonehenge as we know it today came into being from huge sarsen stones weighing tons and smaller bluestones. But this required enormous efforts – moving this mass (and without using wheels!) would have required the manpower of hundreds of workers at that time. Not to mention the planning and organisation. In total, Stonehenge took over 1 000 years to build.

Sacrificial site or observatory?

So what’s the fun in that? Several theories and myths surround the Neolithic monument, but no one can say with certainty what the exact purpose behind it was. And this despite the fact that researchers have been looking into it for decades. But Stonehenge is so old that there is no longer any collective memory that can recall its original meaning. There are no accurate records that have survived the last 4,500 years – although there are, of course, some theories. Among them, for example, that Stonehenge was a place for ceremonies, a sacrificial site or an observatory. The latter refers to the orientation of the stones, which are arranged according to the solstice and the equinox.

Interested in other UNESCO-related content? In November 2020, UNESCO launched an international design competition for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Al-Nouri Mosque complex in Mosul, Iraq. An international jury has now announced the winning design entry by eight Egyptian architects. Click here for more.