I was looking forward to visiting the new exhibition centre at Stonehenge, which opened in December. After approximately 20 visits to Stonehenge over the last ten years, I was well aware of the need for some sort of interpretive museum, a way to explain what happened at Stonehenge other than the audio guide you're given prior to viewing the stones.
Plus, I'm always in favor of progress, and a new scheme for viewing Stonehenge, located next to the very busy A303 and almost sideswiped by the entrance road, seemed a no-brainer, despite its £27 million price tag.
Yet, when I finally visited the new Stonehenge yesterday, I left disappointed. It's definitely a different experience than the old Stonehenge, which could be seen in less than an hour, start to finish. But I'm not sure it's a better one, especially for those of us who want to see other sites in the area, crucial to understanding the importance of the location in ancient times.
Visiting Stonehenge is no longer the intimate experience it once was. Previously you could park near the stones, walk up to the entrance, hand your cards to the attendant and grab an audio guide before joining the throngs viewing the stones. Walking to the stones is still possible, but the shortest route involves walking a mile and a half along a paved road busy with trolley traffic and buses whizzing past, in a hurry to get the overflow crowds to the stones. The journey to the stones via the "land train", i.e. a LandRover pulling a trolley, takes ten minutes. After the chaos of the opening weeks, when visitors queued for an hour for a trolley ride, buses were added, but there's hardly enough room for two vehicles to pass on the narrow lane.
Stay to the right to avoid getting hit by the whizzing buses and the "land train".
There's another path that goes through the fields and near the burial mounds (which are very much worth seeing) and though it's longer, it seems much shorter since the walk is more pleasant.
Why English Heritage couldn't separate the footpath portion from the rest of the paved road is beyond comprehension, and downright dangerous. Likewise, I'm not sure why the visitor facilities couldn't be placed closer to the stones. There are several empty (and presumably archaeologically unimportant) fields between the centre and the line of trees that splits the view so that there's no way to see the stones from the visitor centre (or more importantly, to see the visitor centre from the stones). I can see why they wouldn't want to clutter the site, but this is a battle that was lost decades ago. The A303 is still located very near the stones, and in fact, the traffic on the A303 is worse than ever, since the new entrance road for Stonehenge is located past the pinch point where the 4-lane A303 chokes down to two lanes.
The traffic crawls past Stonehenge
Due to the traffic on an August Saturday, a journey that's normally less than an hour and a half became an over two hour trip, and that was with a sat nav detour through Durrington Walls to avoid the heavy A303 traffic. For anyone with timed tickets, getting to Stonehenge would be fraught with anxiety, but fortunately, there seemed to be no reason to have a timed ticket, since we were told to just go to the stones anytime. (We were able to avoid the long queue to get in when we heard someone asking for anyone with English Heritage or National Trust membership to head toward the members-only queue.)
After seeing the queues for the "land train", we opted for the walk (which we probably would have done anyway).
But all this queueing and walking means you're no longer going to be able to stop at Stonehenge to view the ancient stone circle before heading to another destination, like the far more enjoyable Avebury stone circle. By the time we left it was already late in the afternoon.
The visitor centre, with the Disney-esque trolley just leaving
And the exhibition centre itself was less than I'd imagined. It came off a bit slick, like the large cafe and gift shop located across the ticket entrance. A handful of display cases held objects on loan from the nearby Devizes Museum (another place you won't be able to visit if you spend all your time queueing at Stonehenge). There were also large "totems" with quotes on them, a habit of modern museum design that adds very little to one's understanding, frankly. Maybe they should move those outside where people can read them while queueing to get in.
Inside the gift shop I saw some postcards with scenes from the early days of Stonehenge tourism, one depicting a family picnicking amongst the stones. That's when it struck me that this new era of Stonehenge has become even less user friendly than when access to the inside circle was no longer routine, sometime in the 70s. Now I understand why people sound so nostalgic when they refer to the good old days, when the inner circle of Stonehenge was open to all. I have a feeling I'll sound equally nostalgic one day when I remember the time when you could park next to the stones and view them without a half hour walk or an hour long queue.
There's a construction crew digging up the old carpark now, and once it's gone the area surrounding the stones will be even more pristine—if you can ignore the constant coming and going of trolleys and buses and the traffic crawling on the A303, not to mention the hoards of tourists queueing for the best viewpoint of the stones.
I'm more surprised than anyone that my experience turned out to be so disappointing, when I was so looking forward to seeing what they'd done with the place. Obviously something needed to be done, but I'm not sure English Heritage have arrived at the best solution, even after decades of pondering the problem of Stonehenge.
While I used to look forward to taking our houseguests to Stonehenge, I would no longer do so. It's not the easy day trip it used to be, nor is it an easy stop on the way to Avebury or Salisbury.
My advice: Skip Stonehenge and go to Avebury instead. You can still easily see the stones from your viewpoint on the A303 while you're stuck in traffic—and it's a better view than the pig farm that's on the other side of the highway.
If you do go to Stonehenge, plan to make a day of it and opt for the scenic walking path instead of the crowded and dangerous road. Don't bother to reserve a time slot, but do join English Heritage beforehand. (Since they've increased the entrance fee to almost £15, it's really worth it if you plan to see other English Heritage properties.)
But I'm not quite sure that English Heritage has got their money's worth with the £27 million they spent. Perhaps in another three decades or so we'll have yet another solution.
More photos below: