Plans for a dual carriageway-sized tunnel at Stonehenge were submitted on Friday. The object is to remove the road from the proximity of the world heritage site. The A303 seems a route that gained prominence almost by chance, a line from the M3 to the West Country that sometimes seems almost a motorway, and that other times is no more than a single carriageway road through rural areas. It is perhaps the only road in England about which the BBC has made a documentary and passing through Somerset it assumes many characters, including featuring long and slow moving tailbacks on summer weekends.
There is an abiding childhood memory of the A303, a memory of sitting in my Dad’s car in a lay-by. Waiting there, cars approached at speed, at at what seemed like speed in those years, and they passed by with a “whoosh.” Sometimes, a lorry passed and it caused the car to shake. The A303 is now so much changed that it is impossible to determine exactly where the location of the lay-by might have been. What is unmistakeable is that the lay-by was the A303, because beside the road there were green signs pointing to Honiton and Exeter in one direction and to Andover and London in the other. In the times before the motorways, the road offered a route to London from the West Country that was relatively direct, that avoided the major towns. Somewhere on that journey we would have passed Stonehenge on our journey eastwards.
Since the pause in that lay-by, the A303 has been the route for many prosaic journeys, but for that moment more than fifty years ago, it had a poetic glow. We were bound for London Airport (we always called Heathrow “London” Airport). The airport was a mythical place in the mind of a six year old boy and we were driving there to meet my aunt and her family who were returning from Canada for a visit. Canada was so far away, and the air fares were so astronomically high that it felt as though we were going to meet someone returning from outer space. Roadside lay-bys in those times were no more than a widening of the road, with an old oil drum serving as a litter bin, but as part of a journey that was important for a small boy, it the lay-by a memorable place. Somewhere along the A303, there is an unforgotten moment.
I remember that lay-by! Or one very like it.
On a (very slow and long) trip from Kent to Cornwall in approx 1957 (when I was 6), we stopped at Stonehenge. There were no fences, or even a hard edge to the A303 – we just pulled off onto the grass, where several coaches had already stopped, and walked up to the stones. No security at all – that came later, especially after some drunken soldiers from a nearby camp had painted some stones red as a joke.
I remember a school trip about 1970, and the bus stopping at Stonehenge and us being allowed out for a run around the stones! If Stonehenge survived all of the treatment of former times, I am still not sure the A303 needs to be put underground at a cost that would pay for countless hospital beds.