The lengthy struggle to replace the existing public facilities at Stonehenge, described as a “national embarrassment” and a “disgrace” by owners of the space surrounding the Wiltshire landmark, is about to be settled.
© English Heritage
Contractors have moved in on Airman’s Corner, the much-mentioned site a mile and a half from the stones, to begin work on a new £27 million exhibition and visitor centre out of sight of the stone circle.
“A new dawn at Stonehenge is truly upon us,” said Dr Simon Thurley, the Chief Executive of English Heritage.
“After nearly 30 years, we finally have a scheme that will transform the setting of the stones and our visitors’ experience of them.”
The prospect of the plans ever being realised has seemed as muddied as the paths beyond the henge in recent years, not least since digital projections of the new centre were released in 2009.
One local councillor described them as “nothing less than a bunker” art70433, and £10 million in government funding – now replaced with Heritage Lottery Fund money – was withdrawn in 2010.
The road which passes the site, the A344, will be closed and grassed over, with visitors given the choice of a ten-minute shuttle bus trip or a stroll across chalk downland to access the site.
A large exhibition featuring “important objects” loaned from two respected local museums, the Wiltshire Heritage Museum and the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, will also enlighten audiences for the first time in a building with a “low-key” design incorporating education rooms and full disabled access.
“Almost all the money to achieve our vision comes from commercial or private sources,” added Thurley.
“Though the stones themselves have never failed to awe visitors, their setting has been a national embarrassment and disgrace.
“The restoration of the landscape, together with a major new exhibition on site, will finally give our greatest and most famous monument the treatment it deserves.”
The Highways Agency will begin to upgrade the nearby Longbarrow Roundabout in September 2012, and the first phase of the building process, opening the centre, galleries and shuttle bus routes, will be completed by autumn 2013.
The project is not expected to cause any disruption to the attraction, which will remain fully open throughout the developments.
The existing car-park, toilets, shop and fencing near the stones will be removed by summer 2014.