Hard place: the battle for Stonehenge

The government is barrelling ahead with a road-building plan near the sacred site of Stonehenge. But this isn’t just a matter for “sentimental historians or tree-hugging Extinction Rebellion activists”. This is about our past, present and future.

Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.

It’s a grey day in December and a woman in a feathered crown is pacing the street banging a bodhrán. On her drum skin is the image of a wolf. The stones, the ancestors, Mother Earth, the universe all brought me here,” she says, assuredly. People from all over the world will be vibing with this energy. Stonehenge is a portal to the womb of Mother Earth and the universe.” We might be in the urban thicket of central London, but the 40 or so protesters gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice today are here to fight for a piece of the landscape a hundred miles away.

This is a demo against a proposed two-mile road tunnel the government wants to build 200 metres from Stonehenge, the 5,000-odd-year-old prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain. The stated aim: reduce traffic congestion on an eight-mile stretch of the A303. The estimated cost: £1.7 billion. The damage caused according to campaigners: incalculable.

Which is what brings us to the UK’s most famous court. Volunteer group Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site (SSWHS), a company set up by The Stonehenge Alliance, is bidding to block the scheme in the High Court. Today, a hearing is taking place to decide whether transport secretary Mark Harper’s decision to give the project a green light was unlawful due to its potential impact on the site.

But the idea of digging a subterranean road near Stonehenge is nothing new: the initial proposal for a tunnel dates back to the 1980s. Since then, it has been revisited at least once a decade. In 2020, then-transport secretary Grant Shapps gave it the go-ahead, but the following year the government was beaten in court by campaigners. In 2023, Harper looked over the proposal and, despite the historic controversy, approved it again.

These attempts to build the tunnel keep coming despite opposition from Unesco, which created the World Heritage Site List, campaigners, historians, druids, archaeologists and a petition that has collected 225,000 signatures from 147 countries. This time, the SSWHS crowdfunded £160,000 for their legal fees and took Harper to court.

They are the David to the Tory Goliath, a thorn in the side of a government hellbent on building this tunnel. Outside the RCJ, the picket line is made up of druids in capes and regalia, countryside rambler-types, Extinction Rebellion radicals, academics, elders in raincoats and a bloke with the word love” tattooed dozens of times across his entire face.

Angela has come here today from Bedford with her friend, Hertfordshire resident Jan. We’re pilgrims that visit and celebrate Stonehenge for many reasons,” she says. For the sacredness of it, for the history, for the archaeology and the importance of it as a heritage site. And so we want to save it.”

Celebrated historians Michael Wood and Tom Holland arrive, shaking hands and posing for photos before joining the picket. Holland explains that it’s not just Stonehenge at risk. The [nearby] sites that we know contain archaeology [artefacts] will also be lost. The diggers will be moving in next to a crucial Mesolithic site called Blick Mead [a mile from the stones],” he says. Blick Mead offers us a window into how and why Stonehenge, many thousands of years later, came to be built. It is further in time from Stonehenge than Stonehenge is from us.”

When he’s not out campaigning, Holland is an author and broadcaster who’s written bestselling books on the Roman Empire and ancient Persia, and has made history shows for the BBC. He knows his stuff. The archaeologists digging [at Blick Mead] have found all kinds of fascinating organic material: the skulls of [extinct cattle species] aurochs, a dog tooth, human remains. If the developers move in and start building a huge concrete portal on the site, that water table will be so badly affected we will lose all the organic material we know is there.”

He emphasises that the resistance is much larger than the group here today. That it’s not just about sentimental historians or tree-hugging Extinction Rebellion activists” who the government thinks they can ignore. The National Audit Office and the Taxpayers’ Alliance are also firmly against the road tunnel,” he says. And they are nobody’s idea of tree-huggers.”

The hearing goes on for three days. At time of writing (early February), there has been no verdict from the High Court. One thing is for certain, though: the campaigners are braced for the fight ahead.

Update: On Monday 19th February, the High Court ruled against the challenge. The campaign to save Stonehenge continues.

Arther Uther Pendragon, druid leader

Why should people care?
It’s a waste of bloody money. We, the taxpayers, haven’t got the money for this. It should be dead in the water. But the trouble with this is, like many governments, they just kick it into the long grass and hope somebody else can bloody deal with it.

How optimistic are you about the outcome of the court case?
We won in the 80s. We won in the 90s. And we’ll win this!

Rollo Maughfling, Archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain

Do you feel confident about the hearing?
I think that the Stonehenge Alliance has done an amazing job. We all came together and realised we had to take it seriously. We have to win, or Stonehenge is going to be left in a mess forever.

Do you think people have the power?
Yes. It’s not something you can say on every occasion – [things aren’t always] necessarily going to come to the fore and win. But sometimes it does come to the fore and it does win!

Jan Chawley (left) Angela Harding (right), campaigners

Why are you here?
Jan: Because I’m really passionate about the landscape, the rocks, the waters, all of England and all of this land. We are all guardians of this land.

Some people who live locally say the tunnel will help traffic congestion. What do you think about that?
Angela: I can understand that. [The A303] is disruptive locally. But we have to think about the 11,000 years of history there, and also our descendants. We have all that history and archaeology yet to be discovered, and it can all be lost just for smaller journey times.

Sarah, artist

What made you come here?
People think it’s just a tunnel but it’s not. It is a massive cutting within a World Heritage Site. This is permanent vandalism. I’ve been up and down the A303 my whole life and I think I’ve only been stuck there once. I’ll look at Google Maps and if it’s busy I’ll go another way. I’ll plan ahead.

How confident are you about the court hearing?
No idea. I know how this government bulldozes things through, against any sense. They’re just determined to keep building more and more roads.

Stuart Hannington, aka The Wizard of Tottenham

Why are you here?
I’m here because I don’t think it’s right, them building a tunnel and taking away an ancient route. Plus, I’m a druid. I park there several times throughout the year and do moon ceremonies and people turn up. Some of them are in crisis, some of them have questions, and there should be one of us there to meet them. They’re restricting us from doing our job. Stonehenge is my church, my temple.

SUN YA, healer

How confident do you feel about the court case?
I’m here to support these guys. I’m not attached to an outcome. You’ve just got to go with the flow. What will be, will be.

How do you feel when you visit Stonehenge?
Mother Earth called me there for the summer solstice. It’s all about the sacred feminine and masculine coming into balance. There’s been too much masculine energy on this planet and she’s woken up. She’s not having it anymore.

Tigger, campaigner

How are you feeling about it all?
It makes me sad that people can be so short-sighted. To save 10 minutes of traffic they’re willing to disrupt the oldest known site of human habitation in the UK, Blick Mead, which is part of the landscape around Stonehenge. Archaeologists’ estimates say they could lose half a million artefacts due to the construction process. It’ll uncover a lot, but it’ll destroy far more.

Tom Holland, historian and author

How are you feeling about the hearing?
I’m just very, very angry that we’re back here again. [The last time this happened, in 2020] the Planning Inspectorate, which is a government agency, recommended that the tunnels should be scrapped. Now [the government is] basically just bringing the same plan back again. That seems, to me, unacceptable. And I have full confidence that they will lose.

Some archaeologists support the road tunnel…
Of course, because for them, the chance to dig in the wake of transport developments [and excavate the earthworks] is a source of income. I am not standing here objecting to the tunnel as an archaeologist. I’m objecting to it as someone who thinks that the landscape is sacred.

That’s why you’re supporting today’s picket?
It’s absolutely shocking. We’re standing outside the Royal Courts, which isn’t far from St Paul’s Cathedral. We could get through the city much quicker if we got rid of it. But that’s not a sufficient justification for knocking down St Paul’s Cathedral.

More like this

The best of THE FACE. Straight to your inbox. 

00:00 / 00:00