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It’s been tough for Stonehenge – insulted for decades and endlessly argued about – but now a lack of money has forced common sense to triumph and a site has finally, finally been selected for a modest visitors’ centre. It’s not the ideal location but it’s infinitely preferable to the mass vandalism that was being pushed for over oh so many years so we’re minded to feel grateful for small mercies. History after all will record that for several decades the British contemplated replacing a temporary national disgrace with a permanent one but saw sense at the eleventh hour.

But it’s not quite over, it seems.

Some 4×4 owners are opposing a couple of byway closures, citing their rights as free born Englishmen in a pompous metaldetectoristic way. Hopefully the rights of Stonehenge and the vast majority of people will count for more.

More reasonably, we understand there’s some local opposition to the closure of the A344 past the stones. While we can understand and sympathise, we feel that traffic speeding past the stones is part of the national disgrace – and ending it just has to be a national priority so we hope that view will prevail.

But of most concern to us is this, from Section 5.3 of a Wiltshire Council Strategic Planning Department document: “a proposed land train between the new visitor centre and the stones.” Land trains have lots of economic and environmental advantages no doubt.However, there’s more to consider than that is there not? After all, this is our national icon, fresh from decades of national disgrace; don’t we owe it some dignity, irrespective of running cost considerations? Wouldn’t that be impossible with a transit system that reminded visitors of trips to Drayton Manor and Disneyland?

So…. why not just use buses? These days there are as many environment-friendly innovations applying to them as to land trains – electric, hybrid, low-impact, you name it. And in addition, they are arguably just as or more flexible, inexpensive, safe, weatherproof, robust, long-lasting, reliable and easy to load – and they have a pretty small turning circle (hence require only a small footprint near the stones). Half a dozen of those and the job could be done – with no expensive, exclusive maintenance agreements with manufacturers, no equally expensive “custom built” elements – and let’s face it, buses are rather well-tested technology so they’d definitely give a high degree of reliability. There are thousands currently on sale, you’d get some beauties for £15,000 each so we’ll wager you could solve the whole visitor transit issue for a shed load less than the combined supply and exclusive maintenance packages the land train companies are quoting. And bear in mind six times £15,000 adds up to about one seven hundredth of what was to be cheerfully spent on the previous £70 million visitors’ centre!

But actually, never mind the cost, it’s the dignity thing. Land trains on the Stonehenge landscape would look AWFUL – Noddyland imposed upon megaliths, who could possibly bear it? Apparently they’ll be based on the ones currently used at The Eden Project. Like this?

It ought to be recalled that land trains on special tracks were essential originally because the intended visitors’ centre wasn’t on a metalled road to the stones. It is now, so the necessity for a land train has completely disappeared. Which makes us fret in our paranoid way. Why are land trains still being talked of at all? Could there be a plan to take the land train off the A344 and go metaphorically parp parping all over the landscape on new access tracks like was proposed before? We hope not, but if it is then it should be firmly confirmed or denied not let through without discussion. Future intentions are relevant to current planning discussions we’d have thought, and the public has a massive right to know exactly what is contemplated for their monument. (Yes, we know it might not go parp parp – but it would inside the heads of any who saw it chuffing past King Barrow Ridge in all its teletubby, ice-cream waving glory! That’s the thing about this issue; it’s a perception thing that can’t be discussed using monetary terms. Naff is in the eye of the beholder not the accountant or the environmentalist and we’re betting most people would share our view of what’s naff. If there’s doubt, they should be asked of course. Before the event!)

So here’s our plea. Think bus, not Noddyland. In very subdued colours at that, without adverts or any writing at all on the sides! Let’s run them only where they’re essential, for as short a time as possible, straight along the A344 and back, nowhere else, or come clean if that’s not the plan. Let’s finally give Stonehenge and its landscape a break. It has been widely proclaimed that the “core objective” of the Stonehenge Environmental Improvements Project is to “restore a sense of dignity to the site.” We question if the Eden project transit system is a good starting point to achieve that, no matter how many modifications might be proposed.

“Perky” the Land Train takes visitors on tours of the Eden Project
Image: © Copyright Gary Rogers and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


April 2010

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