BIRMINGHAM, England—The word “Stonehenge” might hum with prehistoric mystery and magic—but for locals it is a byword for gridlock.
A two-lane highway narrows to one lane as it ploughs through the World Heritage site, with trucks and cars crawling within 200 yards of the stones, seeding bumper-to-bumper traffic that blights local towns and villages.
After 30 years, a radical solution has finally been given the green light: a two-mile tunnel with a 2 billion pound ($2.44 billion) price tag.
Tunneling under the site may bring peace to the stones and calm the local traffic, but archaeologists say it will wreck the broader heritage.
Stonehenge, which sits on a relatively unspoiled sweep of countryside rich in prehistoric barrows and burial sites, attracts around 1.3 million visitors annually. Archaeologists believe the 83 stones are a 5,000-year-old, neolithic construction, but like many stone circles, it is imbued with legends and mystery.
The A303 road connects London to the southwest, slicing through Salisbury Plain as it ferries holidaymakers to the coast, and hitting a bottleneck at Stonehenge.
Plans to widen the road have been periodically proposed and rejected. The tunnel was finally approved by the government in January, and its route is now being finalised.
For decades, the nearby town of Amesbury has suffered most from the congestion, but benefited little from the tourist trade.
Julia Doig is the owner of Robin Hill Cottage, a guest house in Amesbury on Stonehenge Road, two miles from the stones. She believes the tunnel is the only solution, but is sad the stones will be hidden from motorists.
“I personally feel the nation should be able to see it as they go about their business without having to pay a 15 pound entrance fee, but something needs to be done about the road.”
She says traffic has improved in the eight years she has lived there, but the congestion is only part of the problem. The other part is the chaos of the road, with tourists pulling over and getting out to take photos.
A coroner’s report in 2015 on the death of a taxi driver who had parked near Stonehenge concluded it was dangerous for tourists to use the road as a vantage point to see the stones.
Doig says that walking through the countryside is the best way to see them anyway. “There are plenty of places for the public to view the stones. There is a web of footpaths all around.”
Another business owner in the town, who declined to give her name, agreed that it isn’t just the narrowing of the road to one lane that causes traffic jams.
“You have all these rubberneckers that creep up the A303 bashing into the back of each other. They want to look at Stonehenge and not pay for it. You wouldn’t see that with the pyramids, would you?” she said.
“By the time you get past the stones it all frees up and the traffic carries on.”
She says traffic is chaotic in holiday seasons, forcing locals to take side streets. She says a tunnel will bring to the streets a peace many haven’t experienced in their lifetime.
She also says it will be great for Stonehenge itself. “It’s a magical site. I used to go up as a child and climb on the stones. Of course, you can’t do that now.”
Stonehenge is the only stone circle in the world with horizontal stones on top, cementing its iconic image and status as perhaps the most famous prehistoric site in the world.
But there is far more to the site than the 20-tonne-plus stones. The whole World Heritage area is 9.5 square miles of land. Critics say the tunnels will damage other parts of the landscape, whose purpose and significance remain a mystery.
“It’s a designed landscape. It had meaning,” said Kate Fielden, honorary secretary of The Stonehenge Alliance, a group campaigning against the tunnel.
“The whole site is of outstanding universal value. The landscape around the henge is integral to its having been built, its meaning, its purpose,” said Fielden, who is also a former archaeologist.
Walking through the landscape, which is dotted with barrows, mounds, and ancient tracks, you can feel how everything is connected to the stones, said Fielden.
Fielden says that the best compromise would have been to leave the A303 where it is. The other option, she says, is a much longer tunnel.
Charity group English Heritage, which owns the site, supports the tunnel, saying it could reunite the landscape.
They and others hope that removing the traffic will return a little magic to the area.
Legends say Merlin had a hand in creating Stonehenge, either by directing giants to construct it or flying the stones from Ireland.
The A303 almost certainly wasn’t on his blueprints, however.
The Council of British Druid Orders did not respond to a request for comment.