Museums Heritage United Kingdom

Welcome to the new Stonehenge

New visitor centre will finally provide an introduction worthy of England's most famous ancient monument, replacing a blot on the landscape

Stonehenge attracts up to one million visitors a year

A new visitor centre is due to open on 18 December at Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, UK. Dating from 2500BC and by far the most important pre-Christian site in Britain and one of the greatest in Europe, Stonehenge attracts up to one million visitors a year and it is hoped that the new facilities will finally provide what the site deserves.

Although a Parliamentary committee branded the visitor facilities at Stonehenge “a national disgrace” 30 years ago, the planning for improvements has been an ongoing disaster for nearly as long. Stonehenge represents the worst example since the Second World War of what a major UK heritage site offered its visitors. English Heritage has, since its creation in 1983, been responsible for the stones but its own chief executive, Simon Thurley, recently likened the 1968 visitor centre to a motorway service station. Although English Heritage holds primary responsibility, much of the blame lies with central and local government, with planning quagmires, endless road issues and lack of funding. English Heritage manages the site but the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust; the government’s Highways Agency is responsible for the adjacent roads.

The eventual solution was a new visitor centre 1.5 miles away, out of sight of the stones and with a shuttle service between both locations. After planning issues were resolved, funding was the final hurdle, when the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition reneged on a Labour government promise to provide £10m. Eventual funders for the £27m project were the Heritage Lottery Fund (£10m), donations (£7.2m), English Heritage’s commercial income (£6.2m), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (£2.6m) and the South West of England Regional Development Agency (£1m).

The new visitor centre, designed by the Anglo-Australian architects Denton Corker Marshall, includes a museum gallery with 300 antiquities. These are on loan from Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, the Wiltshire Museum and the Duckworth Collection (University of Cambridge). A temporary exhibition gallery will open with “How our ancestors saw Stonehenge” (until September 2014).

Although the visitor centre and the closure of the A344 road (just next to the stones) represent a great improvement, the main road between London and south-west England, the A303, still runs very close to the site. Six years ago a proposed tunnel was costed at £540m and dropped. Thurley says that English Heritage will continue to argue for the tunnel, “with all our strength”.

The Stonehenge saga: an abbreviated account

• 1986: Stonehenge is designated a World Heritage Site.

• 1991: A planning application for a new visitor centre at Larkhill, designed by architect Edward Cullinan, is applied for but rejected.

• 1996: English Heritage suggests the centre should be at Countess East, another of the nearby sites considered over the years. Later that year a funding bid is made to the Millennium Commission for a £83m scheme, under a Private Finance Initiative with the Tussauds Group, but this is turned down by the commission.

• 1998: The government suggests a visitor centre at Fargo North, but the following year English Heritage opts for a site at King Barrow Ridge.

• 2000: English Heritage changes its mind, buying land at Countess East.

• 2001: Denton Corker Marshall are selected as the architects.

• 2004: New planning application is submitted.

• 2007: Planning application is approved, conditional upon an A303 road tunnel. The government later cancels funding for the tunnel.

• 2009: Five locations are reconsidered and a year later the present site, Airman’s Corner, wins planning approval. That December the coalition government withdraws a promised £10m, but eventually English Heritage assembles a funding package.

• 2012: Building work starts on site in July.

The new visitor centre, designed by the Anglo-Australian architects Denton Corker Marshall, includes a museum gallery with 300 antiquities
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