LONDON (Reuters) - The prehistoric stone circle of Stonehenge in southwest England will be freed from the sight, sound and smell of traffic under plans announced on Tuesday to bury a busy road that has long blighted the World Heritage Site.
Stonehenge draws over a million tourists a year as well as hippies, druids and pagan worshippers who flock to its stones to celebrate the summer and winter solstices.
The standing stones are aligned in such a way that they perfectly frame the sunrise at midsummer and sunset at midwinter, contributing to the site’s mystique.
But the area has been marred for decades by the nearby A303, a perpetually congested road that is part of the main route linking London to the counties of Devon and Cornwall.
After years of debate and consultation, the government published plans on Tuesday to dig a tunnel at least 1.8 miles (2.9 km) long to bury the section of the A303 that passes closest to Stonehenge.
The issue of the solstice alignment was taken into account: a tunnel entrance which under earlier plans would have intruded on the view of the setting sun from Stonehenge at midwinter has been moved.
Critics have long objected that digging a tunnel could damage some of the Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites that dot the landscape around Stonehenge.
The government said the proposed tunnel would closely follow the existing A303 route, but a further 50 meters away from the monument to avoid any such damage.
The disappearance of the road from the landscape will complete years of efforts to restore dignity to a site that generations of visitors felt was tarnished by ugly infrastructure.
In the past, a smaller road ran even closer to the monument, allowing visitors to park their cars nearby. They would then walk through a dank pedestrian tunnel that passed under the road to reach the stone circle.
In a major improvement that came to fruition in 2013, that road was grassed over and a new visitor center and car parks were opened further away.
The newly announced tunnel is part of a broader 1.6-billion-pound ($2.1-billion) upgrade of the A303 aimed at boosting the economies of Devon and Cornwall, scenic rural counties which suffer from poor transport links to the rest of Britain.
Editing by Stephen Addison