Springtime in Neverland

Strangely optimistic people, architectural artists.

Have you ever noticed how, in their impressions of how places will look post-development, it’s always Springtime in Neverland? How their suggested decorative trees aren’t saplings open to vandalism by pubescent tearaways but are always mature and in full bloom, providing welcome shade for a few strolling pedestrians? How those pedestrians are elegantly-clad and never laden down with shopping-bags, pushchairs or toddlers? How to an architectural artist roads are always empty save for one or two cars, buses are invariably waiting and nobody ever needs to queue?

When somebody gets round to writing a PH.D thesis about the reasons for the Stonehenge Visitors Centre fiasco, I hope they go back to the original artists’ impressions, to compare and contrast the concept and the £27m reality.

The requirement was obvious enough. What was needed was something that could provide tens of thousands of visitors with a truly magical experience of what is one of the strangest sights (and sites) in the world. What we’ve got after years of delay, wrangling and design by committee is - according to some of the strongly-worded entries in Trip Advisor - a badly-placed, gimmicky and overpriced tourist-trap.

To be fair, the bitter criticism has prompted English Heritage to acknowledge that there have been “teething issues” which will soon be resolved.

Given that the issues include having a main entrance opening into the teeth of the prevailing wind, building the centre one-and-a-half miles from the stones and failing to provide for visitors even a distant panoramic view, such resolution may take some time. Add to that a car-park that’s too small; so-called visitor-trains which are ludicrously slow and short of capacity; the absence of a separate paved footpath for those deciding to walk rather than face more delay; and the lack of shelter for those obliged to wait for transport and the sheer incompetence moves out of the commonplace into the rare.

My favourite response from English Heritage was their explanation that the reason so many people were kept waiting for so long was because far more visitors than expected had arrived over the Christmas holiday period. Well, fancy that! It’s the Winter Solstice and people turn up to visit the stones? How could anyone possibly have foreseen that?

It’s almost as ridiculous as suggesting that next summer two or three mega-size cruise-liners berthing simultaneously at Southampton could each send a thousand or so passengers (20 coach-loads apiece) to visit a World Heritage site equal in importance to the Pyramids or the Great Wall. How improbable is that?

Currently about 800,000 people visit Stonehenge annually. When the nonsensical nine-page UK visa application-form now preventing well-heeled Chinese tourists from coming here is scrapped – as it’s about to be - expect that figure to sky-rocket. (To give you an idea, one per cent of the Chinese population equals 20m people, and there are now huge numbers of Chinese visiting the rest of Europe).

The new Visitors’ Centre has got serious problems. It’s in the wrong place and English Heritage is charging far, far too much (£14.90 per head just to enter the museum) for an experience that many find unsatisfying, and some are calling a rip-off. It needs serious re-thinking. But hopefully not by those responsible for what’s there now. They should go back to Neverland.

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