Stonehenge, Wiltshire – new presentation for UNESCO World Heritage Site

StonehengeEverybody knows Stonehenge.  Even if you’ve never visited, those extraordinary standing stones are familiar to people across the world from countless photos and television programmes.  But Britain’s most iconic prehistoric monument had become a victim of its own popularity.  Parking was limited, traffic too heavy, and visitor facilities cramped and outdated.  Worse still, the dignity of this mystical site had been severely compromised.

Now, however, this most ancient of ancient monuments has had a revamp for the 21st century, a massive undertaking by English Heritage to restore the landscape around the UNESCO-listed site, sympathetically manage visitor access, and create new educational and visitor facilities to help us understand its significance. 

The future of Stonehenge has been under discussion for years and an earlier scheme to build a tunnel for the A303 was rejected by the Government, but its successor was unveiled to the public in December 2013.  In some ways the makeover is a look to the future, but it’s also a step back into the past as visitors can now see the bigger picture as they walk through a more authentic landscape that is rich in archaeology.  

StonehengeWhat struck me first was as much what you don’t see as what you do.  The country is gently undulating and as you drive towards the visitor centre, the low level building remains out of sight until the final moments.  Energy efficient, it stands 1.5 miles from the stones, with two separate pods linked by a covered ticket area.  

One of the main aims of the new visitor centre is to raise public awareness about the history and significance of the site and inside the exhibition hall, you’re plunged straight into the atmosphere of the winter and summer solstices, via a 3-minute film projected in the round.  Authentic artefacts are then put into context by state-of-the-art reconstructions that include the face of a Neolithic man, whilst a historical section looks at how Stonehenge was viewed and interpreted across the centuries.  

Stonehenge open-plan cafeBeyond the ticket desk, the bright, open plan cafe seats up to 260, indoors and out, and the large shop next door offers every permutation you can think of on Stonehenge, and then some.  Behind the centre, five Neolithic houses have been created from authentic materials and costumed interpreters give demonstrations to bring the whole thing zinging vividly to life.

All this sets the scene perfectly for the main attraction, that awe-inspiring stone circle, and the new project enables visitors to absorb the scene without 21st century distractions.  Major component of the project was the closure of the A344 road which previously passed closed to the Heel Stone, severing the processional avenue.

StonehengeNow you leave your vehicle in spacious new car parks and take a 10-minute ride in a land train along the route of the old road, while you listen to commentary on the free audio guide.  Along the way, the stones come into view.  Beyond the drop off point, less than 300 metres from the monument, the tarmac has been removed and the route grassed over.  Walk the level perimeter path then either return by land train, walk back, or explore the surrounding National Trust land, where interpretation panels highlight other archaeological treasures.

This hugely ambitious project is a triumph of environment over highways and cost £27M which included a £10M grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.  Tickets cost £13.90 for adults; over-60, £12.50; 5-15s, £8.30; English Heritage and National Trust members free.  

StonehengeEntry is by timed ticket, pre-bookable on line, and advance booking is strongly advised.  The site is open daily from 9.30 until 5pm in winter, 7pm in summer, with the last admission time two hours before closing.  Closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it is open Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day – check the website for opening hours.

This was my first visit to Stonehenge for many years and I was really impressed by this sensitive and imaginative revamp to one of Britain’s most important visitor attractions.  The new facilities and presentation make an impact at every level and there is something here to fire the imagination for all age groups.  Do go and see for yourself.

The main areas in and around the car/coach parks, the visitor centre and the Stone Circle are accessible by wheelchair via tarmac and grass paths (subject to weather).  The visitor shuttle carriages are also accessible though the wider landscape is not accessible to standard wheelchairs.  Two wheelchairs are available on a first come, first served basis.  For full details of facilities for visually impaired visitors or those who are hard of hearing, visit the website.  Disabled visitors may bring a companion or carer in free of charge to help them get more out of their visit.

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Gillian Thornton

Travel writer

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