I recently stopped at the new Visitors’ Centre at Stonehenge. It is an unusual but distinctive building that sits low in the landscape. English Heritage has allowed the grass and wildflowers to grow about it untamed making a welcome change from mown lawns and landscaping. This provides a more natural feel and helps the building blend better with the surroundings.
Critics of the new Centre, which opened last December, have complained of queues, high prices and the problems with shuttle transport that takes visitors from the Centre to Stonehenge. Last week it was busy but no queues were evident and the transport shuttle buses were running back and forth. I do agree that £14.90 – the walk-up price for an adult – is steep, despite EH saying that it is proportionate to the charge for admission to other major historic sites. Have a look at the admission costs for other EH properties and see if you agree. www.english-heritage.org.uk
However, I think the overall effect is to return the setting of Stonehenge back to how I imagine it looked to visitors in the nineteenth century and earlier. There has been much change in ownership and access over the years and exactly one hundred years ago the threats to its existence were substantial.
Salisbury Plain has for a long time been an important military training area and in 1910 a new development appeared when the first military aerodrome opened at nearby Larkhill. Civilian flying had already been taking place but now the Army and subsequently the Royal Flying Corps ensured that aeroplanes were soon a common sight over Stonehenge.
The Boys’ Book of Aeroplanes, published in 1912, captures this time and is illustrated with many photographs, one of which shows Stonehenge with an aeroplane visible overhead. One of the authors, T. O’Brien Hubbard, was a member of the very first training course that the Royal Flying Corps conducted at its new Central Flying School at Upavon, a few miles to the northeast.
In 1917 an aerodrome was built at Stonehenge itself and there is a story, unproven but possible, that the War Office requested the stones be demolished as they posed a hazard to pilots and their craft!
The airfield covered a large area to the west of Stonehenge and straddled what is now the A303. It was demolished in the 1930s and there is no sign of its existence. Everything has gone now together with the light railway that brought ammunition and supplies from Larkhill.
There is one connection with the pioneering days of flying that is easily seen. On 5 July 1912 Captain Eustace Loraine and Sergeant Richard Wilson were killed when their aeroplane crashed during a routine practice flight from Larkhill. The accident occurred close by where the new Visitors’ Centre now stands. They were the first members of the Royal Flying Corps to lose their lives while on duty and a stone memorial, Airman’s Cross, was erected in their memory. It is now situated beside the footpath from the car park to the Visitors’ Centre and was rededicated in May this year.
It’s a rather different and unexpected part of the Stonehenge experience for most visitors – well for those that notice. When I was there a skylark was ascending and it was easy to imagine for a moment or two Loraine, Wilson and all those other pilots as they began man’s conquest of the air.