Stonehenge update: March 2024

SALISBURY, England – In February 2024 campaigners lost a High Court challenge to prevent the go-ahead of the proposed road tunnel beneath Salisbury Plain, close to Stonehenge. The plans for the tunnel were originally rejected, for a variety of reasons which we have investigated in previous Wild Hunt articles, but were approved by the Department for Transport (DfT) again in July 2023. A subsequent challenge was brought by the Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS) in December 2023 but this was thrown out by the High Court last month.

In a 50-page ruling, Mr Justice Holgate told the court that ministers had “rightly focused on the relevant policies” and said that the evidence provided by campaigners “provides no basis for undermining that conclusion”. James Strachan KC , acting for the Department for Transport, also told the court that the benefits of the scheme – which the DfT believes will minimise the impact of traffic on the site by taking it underground – will outweigh the negatives.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, who manages the monument, told the BBC that the charity approved of this decision:

“We firmly believe that putting much of the busy, noisy, and intrusive A303 road into a tunnel past Stonehenge is right for the World Heritage Site. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore this internationally important landscape, which has been of great importance to people for over 5,000 years.”

The SSWHS says on its website, however, that a panel of independent experts have described the tunnel as the ‘wrong solution’ and would introduce “a greater physical change to the Stonehenge landscape than has occurred in its 6,000 years as a place of widely acknowledged human significance.” They say that they plan to appeal the most recent decision. In their press release, they note that

“In the face of Government indifference to the harm this road will cause the World Heritage Site, we had no choice but to bring this legal action. While this judgement is a huge blow and exposes the site to National Highway’s state-sponsored vandalism, we will continue the fight. We cannot let the Government destroy our world heritage.” (John Adams, chair of the Stonehenge Alliance).

“This is a devastating loss, not just for everyone who has campaigned against the
Government’s pig-headed plans for the Stonehenge landscape, but for Britain, for the world,
and for subsequent generations.” (Tom Holland, historian and president of the Stonehenge Alliance).

David Bullock, National Highways A303 Stonehenge Project Director, says:

“We welcome the decision, it’s a huge step forward in tackling the long-standing issues of the A303 at Stonehenge and it represents years of working with our stakeholders, heritage bodies and local communities.”


Local opinion is mixed, with some of the WH’s local contacts relieved at the prospect of having the pressure taken off their villages, which often get used as a bypass or rat run if the A303 is busy or if there’s an accident, while others remain concerned about the significant impact on the landscape. Others may not be so concerned about the monument but don’t think that the tunnel will resolve the issues of the A303. Lucy Bennett, of Williton, told the Salisbury Journal that

“Until they build a dual carriageway from Countess Roundabout right the way down to Cornwall, I don’t think you’re going to solve the problem, because the problem at the moment is you’ve got dual carriageway, then it goes down to single carriageway, then it goes up to dual carriageway.”

Jeremy Budd, a resident of Salisbury, is quoted by the paper as saying

“I think it’s good. I think the traffic is horrendous going through there, so I think it’s great that it’s going ahead. Obviously, I hope they will do some proper excavations first to see what’s there. It would be nice to make sure they don’t destroy any kind of archaeological site or whatever. It would be nice if they obviously looked through that first. I know that will take time, but ultimately, progress has to be made somewhere.”

Local archaeology, under the aegis of private firm Cotswold Archaeology, is ongoing, although some of this is unconnected to the road developments (relating most recently to a dig scheduled prior to a new housing development in southwestern Salisbury). This uncovered a complex of Bronze Age burial mounds near the henge in January 2023. These barrows were constructed around the same time as parts of the monument, according to archaeologists, many of whom take the view that Stonehenge was primarily a burial ground with an additional communal function. There is, for instance, evidence of a mass Neolithic grave, but also other interesting features such as pits of red deer antlers which were used for a variety of tools, from digging implements to hair combs, throughout this period. Beakers have been found, further clues to the presence of the people named after this particular artefact. Signs of late occupation, such as during the Iron Age and Saxon periods, are also evident. A Saxon waterhole and tools such as knives have been found. On-site project leader Steve Bush says

“Developer-led archaeology projects now make up the majority of archaeological discoveries in the UK and help to increase our knowledge of the past enormously. The site has uncovered some brilliant archaeology and has been an amazing opportunity for our archaeologists to excavate and better understand how this area fits into a wider landscape of settlement.”

It is to be hoped that if the Stonehenge tunnel goes ahead, further rescue archaeology will at least uncover more of the secrets of Salisbury Plain’s unique history and release more clues about the lives of the people who built Britain’s primary monument.

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