Work to realise the long-held vision to return Stonehenge to a more tranquil setting and improve its visitor facilities has officially started. Successful fundraising also means that virtually all of the total project cost has now been secured with only £500,000 left to raise, English Heritage has announced.
Contractor VINCI Construction UK has taken possession of the site at Airman's Corner, 1.5 miles to the west of the Stones, to start construction of the new exhibition and visitor building out of sight of the stone circle. In September, the Highways Agency will start work to upgrade Longbarrow Roundabout prior to the closure of the A344 in April 2013.
The £27-million project is financed almost entirely by Heritage Lottery Fund money, commercial income and philanthropic donations including significant gifts from the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Linbury Trust and the Wolfson Foundation.
A new dawn
Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: "A new dawn at Stonehenge is truly upon us. Though the stones themselves have never failed to awe visitors their setting has been a national embarrassment and disgrace. After nearly 30 years English Heritage finally has a scheme that will transform the setting of the stones and our visitor's experience of them. 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.
"Almost all the money to achieve our vision comes from commercial or private sources. We are tremendously grateful to have so many partners and private sector sponsors supporting us along the way."
Heritage Minister John Penrose said: "People have been talking about the project for nearly 30 years and so I'm absolutely delighted that work is finally underway to preserve this internationally recognisable prehistoric World Heritage Site, and to improve the visitor experience for those who come to marvel at it too."
Transforming the setting of Stonehenge
The project, developed with the support of the National Trust, Wiltshire Council, the Highways Agency, and Natural England, will transform the setting of Stonehenge. The section of the A344 which currently runs past the monument - almost touching the Heel Stone - will be closed and grassed over, reuniting the stone circle with its ancient processional way and the surrounding landscape. The remaining part of the A344 will be closed to public vehicles, and will become the route of a new visitor shuttle service to the stones.
The existing outdated facilities, car park, fences and clutter near the monument will be removed. Visitors will be welcomed at the new facilities located at Airman's Corner and, instead of approaching the stone circle from the east on a busy road, they will approach over chalk downland from the west either via a 10-min journey on the visitor shuttle, or on foot.
New exhibition, education rooms and more
A visit to the stones will, for the first time, be enhanced by a large exhibition which will tell the story of this complex site and its relationship with the wider landscape. It will feature important objects excavated near Stonehenge on loan from the Wiltshire Heritage Museum and the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.
Sensitively designed by Denton Corker Marshall, the low-key visitor building also features education rooms and much improved amenities with full disabled access.
Visitor centre opens Autumn 2013
The Stonehenge project will be completed in two phases:
- In autumn 2013, the new visitor facilities and galleries will open and the A344 will be closed to traffic. (The section of the A344 adjacent to the stones will already have been closed earlier in 2013.) Visitors will be taken to near the stones on a low-impact shuttle, with the option to disembark mid-way at a landscape viewpoint and walk to the stones from there.
- By summer 2014, the existing car park, toilets, shop and fencing near the stones will have been removed and restoration of the landscape will be well underway. Visitors will be able to walk and enjoy the wider landscape and other outstanding prehistoric monuments.
Throughout the construction, Stonehenge will continue to welcome visitors as normal at its existing facilities. An opening date for the new visitor building will be announced in 2013, and the switch-over to the new facilities will be overnight so that there will be no disruption to visitors.