The 4,500-year-old Stonehenge attracts hordes of tourists—and massive congestion. To alleviate traffic, the British government is considering a plan to build a tunnel near the monument, but historians and modern Druids alike are concerned that the development could damage artifacts critical to understanding the ancient stone circle.
ILANA STRAUSS (HOST): It’s June 2021. And Alice Zoo—this National Geographic photographer—she’s in a field in rural England. It’s this gray, overcast English morning.
ALICE ZOO (PHOTOGRAPHER): It was still totally dark when we arrived. There were a few other figures quietly making their way in the morning. It was totally silent. There were all these cows in the field, so there’s this herd of cows sort of looking at us quite suspiciously.
STRAUSS: Then she hears drums beating in the distance.
STRAUSS: Alice finds what she’s looking for: a dozen people dressed in long, white robes, standing in a wide circle. These are Druids: a modern religious movement inspired by ancient Celtic traditions. They’re holding a ceremony to honor the summer solstice.
ZOO: In the center of the circle, there was this altar made up of various different things to represent the four elements. So there was some candles burning and some incense and gathered leaves and some crystals and all different things.
STRAUSS: One of the Druids blows a conch shell.
The ceremony has begun. The group sings songs, reads passages, chants.
ZOO: It felt really sacred, and it felt really quiet and really intimate. And I was sort of trying to be quiet, picking up my tripod, moving it around, stepping in cowpats, kneeling in cowpats.
STRAUSS: Ceremonies like the one Alice photographed happen around various Neolithic ruins throughout the year in England. This one was at one of the Stanton Drew stone circles in Somerset. But the really big ones happen at perhaps the most famous Neolithic monument of all: Stonehenge.
These giant stones have been standing in a circle since the Stone Age. The entire complex has captured people’s imaginations for millennia. Today Stonehenge attracts a couple million visitors from all over the world each year. Some come just to sightsee, but others, like the Druids, come to worship.
But those who go might be surprised to find the sound of traffic filling the air. The monument is near a pretty busy road, one that’s causing the government to consider implementing a pretty surprising plan: drilling a tunnel near Stonehenge. And it’s making some people mad.
I’m Ilana Strauss, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. Today, we see what happens when the modern collides with the ancient. We learn why there are plans to build a tunnel under the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, meet some delightfully costumed protesters, and we might even get tapped on the shoulder by a ghost. More after the break.
But before we get on with the episode … thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, consider a National Geographic subscription, and get exclusive access to stories published daily, curated newsletters, and 130 years of archives. Subscribe today at natgeo.com/exploremore.
Before I can get to talking about the tunnel, I actually need to talk to Amy Briggs, the Nat Geo History magazine executive editor. You’ll see why in a second.
STRAUSS: Amy. Uh, I have a confession. This is true. I don't know very much about Stonehenge. I think it’s like—
AMY BRIGGS (EDITOR): Wait. You don’t know very much about Stonehenge? How can you not know about Stonehenge?
STRAUSS: I’m aware that it’s like a circle of rocks in England. I think?
BRIGGS: Yes. It’s in England.
STRAUSS: I feel like if I’m gonna do this episode, I’m gonna need like a bit more information.
STRAUSS: Is it just the ring of stones on the ground? Is it something else?
BRIGGS: No, it’s actually bigger than just the ring of stones. So basically Stonehenge is actually this big interconnected complex of all these different structures. Some are made out of the earth. Some are made out of wood. Like there’s literally a wood henge, at Stonehenge. There’s no brick henge that I know of. Maybe they haven’t found that yet, but—
STRAUSS: That’s the third one; it’s coming.
BRIGGS: It’s coming. It’s mysterious. Archaeologists are looking for it. There might be some Three Little Pigs. We don’t know. Anyway, so they stretch out. They’re all interconnected across this landscape, and they’re aligned with different astronomical events. Like Stonehenge itself, you know, the big standing stones of rocks, it’s most famous for aligning with the solstices in June and December. So that’s when you get, like, the Druids and people showing up and having their ceremonies there today, because those stones still align with the sunset and the sunrise on those days. We know that these structures, they play some sort of big deal in the cosmology of these, you know, ancient Stone Age peoples in Britain.
So History magazine did a piece on Stonehenge a year or so ago. Weird little fun fact: So these giant stones—there are all these theories going back almost a thousand years to how the stones got there. There’s one from the 12th century that says, like, the wizard Merlin moved them via magic.
BRIGGS: From Ireland, all the way.
STRAUSS: I like that one.
BRIGGS: Yeah, but it’s not true.
STRAUSS: But haven’t we already studied it at this point? Like, aren't we pretty much done with having figured out Stonehenge?
BRIGGS: You would think. But no, archaeologists are still learning new stuff every day. They’re digging up pig bones at Stonehenge, and they’re figuring out that people came from all over to attend pig roasts at Stonehenge, that this was a big deal.
STRAUSS: There were the Three Little Pigs!
BRIGGS: Yes. And they ate them, and they ate them. Probably some big pigs too, if the crowds were what people were thinking. So really, like the digging and the studying that’s going on, there’s this valuable source of information about Neolithic Britain, and it’s still under the soil. There’s still a lot of knowledge left at that site about what, you know, people have been doing there for millennia.
STRAUSS: As Amy says, Stonehenge is an ancient sacred site that we’re still making discoveries about. And given that, it’s easy to understand why a proposal to build a highway under the world heritage site would get a lot of people riled up. And to be clear, the world heritage site is not just the stones - it covers a huge area, 6,500 acres – more than 7 times the size of New York City’s Central Park.
So to understand why someone would want to build this tunnel, you have to know something about the monument: Traffic there is terrible. Here’s Alice Zoo again.
ZOO: There’s this very busy road with cars driving past it. There’s, you know, traffic, which is an eyesore. It’s also not contemporary to the, to the stones themselves.
STRAUSS: It doesn’t look like a horse, you know, trotting along a dirt road.
ZOO: Exactly. Exactly.
STRAUSS: See, there’s been a small road next to Stonehenge for centuries. But as car usage grew in the mid-1900s, that road became a lot busier. As I mentioned, a couple million people visit Stonehenge every year: religious seekers, school groups, archaeologists, partyers ...
ROFF SMITH (WRITER): And because it does go so close to Stonehenge, a lot of people slow right down to take a look.
STRAUSS: That’s Roff Smith, a National Geographic writer who covers Stonehenge.
SMITH: And which, you know, further aggravates the situation. It really does go very close to the monument.
STRAUSS: How close is it?
SMITH: About 150 meters, something like that—150 yards.
STRAUSS: But the tourists are only part of the problem.
SMITH: The same road, the A303, it has become a major truck route from London to the southwest part of England. It’s also England’s holiday route.
STRAUSS: People use it to get from London to seaside resorts on the coast.
SMITH: So you have massive amounts of traffic going right past Stonehenge, creating a visual eyesore and a real hassle for people who live nearby. People who might live in one village who want to go to another village 15 miles away could find that it takes an hour to get there because there’s a massive traffic jam on the A303 almost constantly.
STRAUSS: Since it’s only a two-lane road, it can’t handle all that traffic. And that’s not just annoying; it’s dangerous. From 2013 to 2016, there were 60 motor accidents at the site, making it one of the most accident-prone landmarks in the U.K. So everyone wants to find a solution.
SMITH: The thing that nobody wants is for them to widen it to four lanes. That, you know, that’s a very pragmatic solution that would certainly make the traffic flow more easily, but that would be really destructive. I mean, everybody seems to agree that that would be a really bad idea.
STRAUSS: It seems like there should be an easy answer.
SMITH: Naturally you think, well, why don’t you just move the road? You can’t. If you move the road to the south, you’re going onto some really sensitive eco-sensitive areas that you would never get permission to build a road through. And if you go to the north, you’re in a military training area, which is off-limits.
SMITH: So it’s out of sight, the traffic’s out of sight, you can make it four lanes, and you’re not going to create a visual or a cultural eyesore.
STRAUSS: Druids, activists, preservation groups, truckers, locals, drivers—no one can agree on whether this is a good idea. Some Druids, for instance, are for the tunnel, and some are opposed. Some archaeologists think digging could destroy all the historic artifacts buried under Stonehenge. On the other hand …
SMITH: Some archaeologists are saying, Well, OK. It’s a sacrifice. And yes, we will probably lose some artifacts, but we’ll solve a bigger problem.
Other people are saying, No, we can’t do that because we’re going to be digging up in a World Heritage site.
STRAUSS: At one point, Roff interviewed Arthur Pendragon, a Druid leader. It was during lockdown, so they met up at a gas station.
SMITH: And so we stood there in the parking lot and had our chat. He was there on his motorcycle. And I was there in my rental car, and we just sort of stood there in this rather drafty parking lot and, uh, chatted about Stonehenge.
STRAUSS: Pendragon wasn’t into the current plan.
SMITH: He was not for the tunnel as it stands. He said he could understand the idea of having a longer tunnel. He was certainly in favor of something being done about the A303. Everybody agrees that that’s a mess—I mean everybody on both sides—that it’s a problem that is crying out for a solution. And what the solution is, you know, who knows?
STRAUSS: Roff himself has even gone back and forth on the issue.
SMITH: When I first heard about a tunnel going under, I thought, Oh, you gotta be kidding. But personally, I think I’m kind of on the side of the people who are in favor of it as the best option of the options that are available.
STRAUSS: Not that he’s sure that’s the right answer.
SMITH: And one of the funny things was, as a journalist doing this, I would talk to people on one side or the other, and you’d hang up the phone thinking, Well, yes, that’s, that’s clearly the case. And then you’d speak to the other side and find yourself in total agreement with them as well. So I don’t know what they’re going to do. It’s a really knotty one.
STRAUSS: After the break, we’ll try and untie this knot. We learn that this isn’t the first time modern practicalities have clashed with Stonehenge.
As weird as this all sounds, it’s not the first time Stonehenge has been subject to startling practicality. So let’s step back from the tunnel plan for a moment. There’s a 20th-century ghost I want to introduce you to.
During World War I, the U.K. turned Stonehenge into a training field for pilots. Over a million British soldiers trained at the monument. Reuben Wu, another Nat Geo photographer, says Britain made some interesting plans for the monument in World War II as well.
REUBEN WU (PHOTOGRAPHER): They actually did some kind of military maneuvers involving Stonehenge in World War II.
STRAUSS: The military had photographer Harold “Doc” Edgerton document their experience in nighttime aerial reconnaissance.
WU: So they put like these big, powerful flash guns on the bottom of bombers. And the bomber kind of flew very low over Stonehenge and flashed Stonehenge and took pictures of it at night.
STRAUSS: Wu had actually photographed Stonehenge recently. He was using drones to light the monument from above. And this was all months before he learned about these World War II photos.
WU: This guy had done exactly the same thing, but using different methods, 70 years ago.
STRAUSS: What do you mean he’d done … What are sort of the similarities between your work and his, other than that you were both photographing Stonehenge, of course?
WU: Can I share my screen with you?
I’m looking at two photos of Stonehenge. In both, the stones are off to one side of the photo. Edgerton’s photo is in black-and-white, and a large flash bursts through the clouds.
WU: You can actually see, like, cows: cows, frightened cows, next to the flare gun.
STRAUSS: Poor cows. Can you imagine just being a cow, just trying to eat some grass, and then all of a sudden there’s like, I don’t know, this crazy magical thing that’s, like, [an] explosion next to you?
WU: It was wartime, though. So there was a lot of weird stuff flying, flying above the stones, flying above the cows. So they’re just like, OK, whatever: humans.
STRAUSS: Wu’s photo looks almost exactly the same as Edgerton’s, except in his photo, a smaller flare slices through an orange sky.
STRAUSS: Oh, my God.
WU: But yeah, it’s also exactly the same composition. It’s kind of crazy.
STRAUSS: It really does look like it could have been the same photographer on the same day, and they just did, like, one black-and-white photo and, like, one color photo.
STRAUSS: How did you feel when you, when you saw that picture?
WU: I felt like I’d just been tapped on the shoulder by a ghost.
STRAUSS: Humans must have been pretty confused too when they saw Reuben’s drone flying over Stonehenge at night.
WU: They saw this big bright light above the stones, and they probably thought some kind of UFO or something like that.
STRAUSS: I just had that realization that, like, people probably totally thought there were aliens at Stonehenge.
If anyone was around at night to see Reuben’s drones, it was probably the anti-tunnel activists. When Alice visited, she found this group of about 50 activists camped out in a woodland next to Stonehenge.
ZOO: The trees are in full leaf. There’s this light kind of filtering through the trees very prettily. And it’s all sort of lush and green, and there were tents dotted around where people were sleeping. It was very, it was very kind of idyllic-looking: these little brightly colored tents dotted around the undergrowth, and then these green leaves and beautiful light pouring through. And then this funny thing of the traffic. You could hear the sound of cars.
(sound of cars)
STRAUSS: The place was filled with painted banners about protecting Stonehenge.
ZOO: They were doing wood carving to build a geo dome, and they were doing skill-share workshops. And there was a consent workshop when we were there.
And there were composting toilets set up, and there were very elaborate and clearly signed, like, places where you’d put your garbage. And then tents where people were cooking big vegan meals together, communal meals. It really did feel like a well-functioning community of people who were very respectful of the land that they were on.
STRAUSS: The campers had been camped out for months, waiting. Because if the tunnel plan started, they wanted to be there to stop it before it was too late.
This is such a weird quandary. It seems like everybody’s kind of on the same side, but there’s no solution that sort of satisfies everything.
ZOO: Yeah, I agree. The thing that lots of people spoke about when I was talking to people at the camp was just the cost of the road.
STRAUSS: The tunnel is expected to cost 1.6 billion pounds, or over two billion dollars.
ZOO: I think especially viewed from the position of now—where we have a cost-of-living crisis in the U.K., lots of people choosing between whether to heat their houses or feed their kids or whatever—the idea of spending nearly two billion pounds on a road when there’s a road already there, and a climate crisis happening and all of that stuff, it does seem … it does seem offensive.
STRAUSS: It feels like there should be something like—I don’t know. Can they say that anyone going there who isn’t in a truck has to be on a bus or something?
STRAUSS: Like, I know they’ve thought of everything, I’m sure.
ZOO: Well, I was thinking if it really was just about the traffic, why not build just a little roof over the road so that people can’t actually see Stonehenge from the road? ’Cause then at least people wouldn’t be slowing down to look at it.
STRAUSS: Yeah! Right.
ZOO: That I feel like would be much cheaper, and it would solve one of the problems, which is that the traffic would improve. I mean, that feels like something, but obviously I don’t think English Heritage would be very pleased. I think that a tunnel over the top would be even more ugly probably than just cars.
STRAUSS: What about like a hedge?
ZOO: Hmm, yeah.
STRAUSS: In 2020, Grant Shapps–transportation secretary for the United Kingdom–green-lit the tunnel project, even though the Planning Inspectorate, a government body that oversees land-use decisions, recommended against approval, warning it could cause, quote, “permanent and irreversible harm” to Stonehenge.
A group of activists, organized under the name Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site, challenged the decision and eventually was granted a judicial review.
That’s how Alice ended up at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on a summer day in June 2021. Inside, the court was arguing over whether or not to keep moving forward with the plan. Outside, activists protested.
ZOO: Somebody had come with a drum kit, and somebody had come in dressed as an owl break-dancing. And there was some—there were two young guys there dressed as soldiers, and there was like a model Stonehenge, and lots of different banners and things. So I think the idea was to create a little bit of a spectacle.
STRAUSS: Alice wove through the crowd, talking to the protesters.
“OWL”: I’m here bringing a bit of chaos magic. And I’m just lending support and, uh, vibrancy to the occasion so that it’s not just another solemn affair that gets reported about on TV and no one seems to bat an eyelid.
STRAUSS: That’s the break-dancing owl.
“OWL”: So I’m bringing a bit of theater to make people look twice, maybe. And then maybe listen to the mad ramblings of a metaphysical poet.
STRAUSS: A few days later, the decision came in: The judge declared that the Department of Transport’s decision was unlawful, so the tunnel plan was stopped—or rather, put on hold, since it’s still undergoing review. Nonetheless, I like to think it was the metaphysical poetry.
ZOO: I don’t think it’s the end of the story, but this felt like, you know, one significant moment and a victory for that side.
And, you know, I think what I kept hearing was that in the U.K., we are responsible for one of the great historical monuments of the world, and it should be our responsibility to protect it. And instead, just in favor of, you know, some nebulous idea about progress, we were gonna allow it to be built through or under.
STRAUSS: Roff, for his part, points out that the people who built Stonehenge also put progress before preservation.
SMITH: They could be as bad as we are. To build these big palisades, they were chopping down 4,000 trees that are oak trees, two- or 300-year-old oak trees—chopping 4,000. To build Stonehenge, again, whole forests had to be felled to build timber for scaffolding and rails to move the stones.
STRAUSS: What would the people who made Stonehenge think about the tunnel?
SMITH: They were pretty aggressive themselves when it came to the environment. So part of me kind of chuckled at the idea of the tunnel and thinking these guys would probably have gone and grabbed their cow-scapula shovels and said, Where do we start digging? But hopefully we could be a little more sensitive. Hopefully, you know, humanity has learned a bit more sensitivity in 5,000 years.
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Alice and Reuben took some amazing photos of Stonehenge, and Roff wrote about it in depth: past, present, and future. All that’s coming out in the August issue of the magazine.
And if you really want to dive into photography, good news! Alice and Reuben both have websites. Take a look at Alicezoo.com and ReubenWu.com.
Believe it or not, this incredibly older monument may have come from something even older. To learn about the pieces of Stonehenge that might have come from even older artifacts, check out our article on the subject.
That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
This week’s episode of Overheard is produced by me, Ilana Strauss.
Overheard’s producers include Khari Douglas.
Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Carla Wills is our manager of audio.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and sound-designed and engineered this episode.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Ilana Strauss. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
Did you know that some pieces of Stonehenge may have come from even older artifacts? Take a look at our article on the subject.
We only scraped the surface when it comes to Stonehenge. Roff wrote a piece that digs into the ancient past of the site as well as its modern issues, and both Alice and Reuben took some amazing photos. All that’s coming out in the August issue of the magazine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of the episode’s title incorrectly described the location of the proposed Stonehenge road tunnel in relation to the monument.