Over a decade later and the Stonehenge I visited that day has been quite transformed. With the investment of millions, the stripping away of major roads and the creation of a brand new (and not without controversy) visitor centre, the Stonehenge experience has been transformed. More by chance, myself and the Prof found ourselves in the neck of the woods, and decided it was high time we revisited this most significant of henge monuments, and cast a judging eye over the new interpretive strategies. We could not have picked a worse day to do it.
It was probably when the lightning bolts started cracking over the Wiltshire skyline that we knew we might have got our timing a little wrong. As thunder rumbled overhead, and the heavens tipped out everything they had, Stonehenge and the surrounding access roads gradually began to fill up – this would be a soggy experience. The weather however, probably helped in terms of thinning out the potential visitor numbers on the day. Despite being a heritage professional who should always be encouraging visitor numbers, I always prefers next to no other visitors when I happen to be at a site (they can be busy when I’m not there).
We also were financially compensated through the Prof’s lifetime Cadw membership card, which secured free entry to the new site. Merciful, as otherwise this ‘experience’ would have cost us nearly £30 in total. If you want to take this as a review of Stonehenge, it’s probably best keeping that financial factor in mind. Going here for free, I was entirely satisfied, and generally impressed. Had I handed over £30 for two tickets, I think I would have felt pretty short changed – something not helped by the generally unfinished state of the site.
For those who don’t remember, Stonehenge was a World Heritage Site flirting with danger – danger of being placed on the World Heritage Sites in Danger List, something generally seen as a tremendous negative in British circles. Part of this criticism levelled at the site was the major road which ran alongside, and partially cutting, Stonehenge, and the disastrous visitor centre. Both are still there. They might be building (or deconstruction) sites, but the imprint of the road remains, the shell of the visitor centre still peeks out from the ground, while JCBs rumble around digging up the much maligned original car park. Work still to be done there, but you can see how the idea of an open landscape will be achieved, to some extent, once the works are complete.
Probably the most significant addition to the Stonehenge experience is the visitor/interpretation centre, within which the new exhibition space can be found. In addition, outside, is the Neolithic Houses project, which can be followed on twitter. I won’t write much about this aspect because, as with much of the complex, it is equally unfinished. However, the houses are looking great, and a sneaky insider view does suggest that this, when complete, will be a real asset to the visitor experience. The sooner this element is open the better – after all, everyone loves a roundhouse.
The exhibition space is equally promising. Some of the wall panel displays are, without getting too excited, quite visionary. Wall length video projections provide differing interpretations for the passage of time in the landscape surrounding Stonehenge. This is both effective and visually striking. Rarely has a wall mounted display proven to be so engaging, and watching visitors watching the display, this certainly seemed to secure an above average ‘stay time’. Smaller video projections are built into almost all the displays. Unfortunately, the positioning of the majority of these seems to be directed entirely at children, in terms of their height and positioning (my neck was no fan of them) – and there seems potential to make more of this interpretive technique. Still, this is only a minor grumble.
The bigger grumble relates to the space in which visitors have to work their way through the exhibition space. As stated, this was a very soggy day at Stonehenge, which I can only presume negatively impacted on visitor numbers. Still, the exhibition space felt very crowded. It seems odd that in a purpose built structure, designed to accommodate a high volume of visitors, that such limited space was included around certain exhibits. As a result, bottle necks seemed to occur frequently, with bumping and shoving not an unusual sight. Again, this seems very odd given the bespoke nature of the visitor centre, and the anti-tourist agenda corner of my brain can’t help but query whether too much space has been given over to the substantial shop, restaurant, toilet facilities and so on, at the expense of really developing a museum orientated exhibition space. It is these sorts of concerns that, if couple with a hot, visitor heavy day, that the entrance fee really becomes a questionable element.
The ‘new’ Stonehenge has potential, and the main henge site of course continues to impress and inspire, perhaps more so given the atmospheric conditions on the day. The real judgement of the value for money here can only come once the site is truly complete – though when that will be realised is again questionable. It’s been a half a year since the official opening, and much of what was intended for this site remains a work in progress. However, I don’t want to be overly critical. That these changes are being made is arguably the most important thing. The visitor experience pre 2013 was, frankly, pretty crap. This is much better, but much, much more expensive. Maybe saving up the pennies and waiting for the completion of this project would be the best advice for those who can’t blag free entry. For those who can, go now, it’s pretty good.