MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW
Landscapes are not only the setting for history; they are also a major source of our sense of history and identity. Read them right, and historical landscapes can be more informative than any other kind of source. They can also offer a profound experience if we respond with curiosity and sensitivity to the contours and landmarks left by previous generations who have lived and worked in them. This is even more the case with sacred landscapes, which were a reflection of our ancestors’ beliefs about their relation to the cosmos and can still today seem to hold a numinous residue.
Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to have spent time in many resonant historical landscapes, hoping to conjure up something of the spirits of the people who shaped them over the centuries. I still remember years ago walking along the Inca sacred lines around Cusco, Peru. In this ancient landscape – visible now only to the initiated – old sites that once belonged to Incan royals had become tumbledown Spanish haciendas, where locals tending fire altars kept the whole elaborate network alive. Or many years ago, before the Gulf Wars, I took a journey through south Iraq, the heartland of civilisation, where the desert is still crossed by dried up riverbeds of the Euphrates and silted canals that once sustained the world’s first cities. It was hard to imagine anything more evocative, though now the city mounds of Larsa and Shuruppak are scarred by the vehicle tracks of illicit diggers.
But Britain also has its own magical ancient landscapes. Think of the rolling downs of Wiltshire between Old Sarum and Avebury. Here, signs left by human society stretch back over 10,000 years – patterns by which our early ancestors marked out their world and signified its relation to the unseen powers of the universe. From the Mesolithic to the Bronze and Iron Ages, rich layers of the past are still present in the landscape surrounding Stonehenge, even as traffic rushes down the A303. And it’s the A303 that’s the problem. As the main artery to the south west from the home counties, the road runs right past Stonehenge, just west of Amesbury.
One of humanity’s most famous monuments, Stonehenge is an archaeological landscape without parallel in Europe, and perhaps the world. The first circle at Stonehenge was made 5,000 years ago, and the great stone circle itself in around 2500 BC – the age of the pyramids! And the mysteries of this amazing monument and the complex prehistoric societies that produced it are by no means exhausted, as new discoveries continue to show.
All the more worrying to me then, that this unique landscape is currently at the centre of a projected plan by Highways England to relieve congestion on the A303 by creating a four lane road with a 1.8-mile tunnel, and an expressway interchange 1.5 miles to the west, on the precise line of the midwinter sunset alignment that we now know was crucial to the ancient Britons.
While the National Trust and English Heritage have offered qualified support for the plan, Unesco has expressed its opposition. Meanwhile, the Stonehenge Alliance, a consortium of archaeologists and environmental campaigners, says the plan is based on inadequate and obsolete information. According to archaeological experts, a southern bypass road beyond the World Heritage Site zone is the only proposal that won’t have a severe impact on the monument and its landscape.
In the end, the argument is about the totality of an ancient landscape, and that includes the ancient astronomical alignment that was purposefully chosen by our ancestors, and that will, in my view, be wrecked by the expressway interchange. Time perhaps for a rethink in the name of future generations?
WEBSITE You can offer your thoughts on the Stonehenge road plans (until 14 August) at highwaysengland.citizenspace.com/cip/a303-stonehenge-consultation-july-2018