The Not-So-Silent Stones

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Sion Touhig / Getty

Traffic passes in front of the Stonehenge near Amesbury in Wiltshire, United Kingdom.

Stonehenge is arguably the most famous pile of rocks on the planet. The mysterious 5,000-year-old, neolithic stone circle majestically graces the grassy, rolling hills of England's Salisbury Plain, and is an instantly recognizable British icon. So much so, in fact, that its image was used to bolster London's winning bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, and UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1986. Of course, it's also a mecca for New-Age seekers, who see it as a center of mystical energy. Not surprisingly, then, Stonehenge draws throngs of visitors — 875,000 last year alone — although they are often as shocked as they are awed by the ancient installation.

The discordant note for visitors is struck by the fact that the monoliths rest within the foul embrace of two busy highways, the A344 and A303, the latter a major route to England's West Country that's often awash with heavy traffic. The constant whoosh of highway noise makes quiet reflection impossible at what many consider sacred ground, and nearly every vista is marred by cars and trucks whizzing — or, too often, crawling — by in the background. "It would be more reverent to the site if there was no traffic," says Don Ghostlaw, from Tolland, Conn., who on a recent Saturday had rushed to see Stonehenge on his first day in England. "It's surprising there is traffic so close to such an historic site." The situation may soon get even worse: Last month, supermarket chain Tesco revealed plans to build a 280,000-square-foot warehouse 20 miles to east, which could mean scores more trucks a day rumbling past.

English Heritage, which manages the site, sees the situation as intolerable. But a much-anticipated solution recently collapsed when Britain's Department for Transport decided it was too expensive. English Heritage had proposed rerouting a 1.3-mile-long stretch of the A303 into a tunnel, rerouting the A344 well away from the circle, and building a $134 million state-of-the-art visitors center in the town of Amesbury, two miles away, linked by train to within walking distance of the stones. But in the eight years it took to win planning approval for the scheme, the cost of the tunnel and road alterations more than doubled to nearly $1.1 billion. Since the planning approval for the center was contingent on the tunnel's construction, "we're back to square one now," admits Renee Fok, the group's spokeswoman. "It was a major disappointment."

The ponderous pace of efforts to improve the site may, however, be in keeping with its history. Stonehenge was probably built in three key stages, roughly between 3050 B.C. and 1500 B.C. The identity of its builders, and its purpose, may never be known. Various theories suggest it may have been a place of worship or have astronomical significance. Since Victorian times, it has been popularly linked to New Age beliefs, particularly neo-Druidism — even though archeologists have shown that it was built long before Druidism arrived in England. Still, summer solstice gatherings by New Agers once drew huge crowds to Stonehenge. Fearing that the stones were at risk, English Heritage roped them off in 1977. In June 1985, 1,300 police officers confronted about 140 carloads of New Age travelers heading for Stonehenge, prompting the "Battle of the Beanfield." Since then, controlled gatherings within the monoliths have been allowed at special times, including the summer and winter solstices.

For most other visitors, however, a large, modern visitors center —nearby but out of sight — would certainly be a welcome addition. Visitors today arrive at a cramped parking lot set along the A344, that's far too small for so popular an attraction. The only other facilities are a tiny gift shop — selling Stonehenge Rocks! T-shirts — and an unappealing take-out food stand, both housed in ugly, shed-like structures. Maggie Livingstone of Suffolk, who last saw the stones more than 40 years ago when she was a youngster, was en route to Somerset with a friend when she decided to stop and visit them again. She was stunned that the facilities hadn't really changed in all those years. "It's quite extraordinary that they haven't taken care of it."

Local residents say there was widespread approval for English Heritage's plan, except for a small but vocal group of residents who lived near the projected visitors center. "Most people supported it; something needs to be done," says Mark Griffen, who runs The Bell pub in Amesbury. English Heritage is still trying. The group expects to disclose four new possible options within a few weeks. How much, if any, future opposition it encounters will likely depend on where it next wants to locate the center. As for the roads, any new plan will probably include closing the A344. But little will be done to the worse-offending A303; the government says it will consider only "small scale measures" to improve its traffic flows. Which means tranquility at prehistoric Stonehenge will also continue to be a relic of the past.