May 13, 2009 / 1:16 PM / 10 years ago

Britain burnishes the image of Stonehenge

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britain has given the go-ahead for a new 25 million pound ($40 million) visitor center at Stonehenge and will shut a road that runs alongside the country’s most famous prehistoric monument.

Revellers play instruments during the annual summer solstice at ancient monument, Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, southern England June 21, 2008. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The circle of towering megaliths on Salisbury Plain in southwest England has been at the center of arguments for years over how to ease congestion and to improve facilities at the World Heritage Site for the thousands of visitors it attracts.

“Stonehenge is our most important and well recognized prehistoric site and as such is absolutely at the heart of our national history and heritage,” said Culture Minister Barbara Follett.

“Everyone agrees however that the way is it presented to visitors is far short of ideal.”

Built between 3,000 and 1,600 BC, the stone circle might have been a temple, burial ground, astronomical calendar or all three, scholars say.

Nobody knows for sure either how ancient people got the stones, the heaviest of which weighs about 45 tons, to stand upright.

Apart from tourists, the monument attracts thousands of revelers and druids who converge there on the summer solstice — the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere — to watch the sun rise.

Two years ago, plans to build a tunnel to protect the site from the regular flow of cars that pass each day on two busy nearby roads were ditched because of the cost, estimated at more than 500 million pounds.

The Stonehenge Program Board (SPB) has now given approval “in principle” for a new visitor center to be built at Airman’s Corner about 1.5 miles from the current site.

In addition, it has proposed closing the A344 road which takes traffic very close to the stones.

The project will now need planning approval and funding, which will come from both private and public sources.

Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Steve Addison

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