A Slice of England’s Iconic A303 Road Shows How It Changed Over Thousands of Years

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A piece of England’s famous A303 road shows how it has changed over the years.

Recently, an interesting picture of England’s famous A303 road appeared on social media. This road has changed a lot over the years. This old road connects London to the southwest of England. It goes through some of the most beautiful and historically important areas of the country. A major part of the A303 goes close to Stonehenge, an old site that dates back 5,000 years.

However, how did this road, which started out as a simple chalk walk, turn into the modern asphalt highway we know today? What’s next for this famous route that combines the need for modern connection with the need to protect our history?

A slice from the iconic A303 road in England clearly showing the different layers built over millennia. Source

The A303 has its roots in prehistoric times, when people first lived in the area and used natural features like chalk hills and river valleys to get around. The area around Stonehenge was the center of ancient ceremonies and meetings that drew people from far away.

Over time, these early paths were given new life when they were added to the Roman road system. These roads, like the famous Fosse Way and Portway, connected important military bases and towns.

After the Roman age, these roads got worse, but they were fixed up again in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims, traders, and travelers made new routes. The A303 follows in the tracks of these old paths, which were often marked with crosses, inns, and milestones.

Along the way, the road goes by many important sites, such as Old Sarum, Salisbury Cathedral, Wardour Castle, and Montacute House.

As new forms of transportation like coaches, trains, and bicycles became more common in the Georgian and Victorian eras, the road network grew and got better. Famous writers like Jane Austen, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth often took the A303, which was an important part of the coach road between London and Exeter.

Cross-section of a Roman road. Source

Motor cars came out in the 20th century, which caused a lot of traffic and a need for better roads. The A303 has been a major road since 1933. It connects the M3 in Hampshire to the M5 in Somerset. Some parts changed to dual carriageways, but others stayed single carriageways, which caused traffic jams and bottlenecks.

The part near Stonehenge was notoriously bad because cars had to slow down or stop because they had to squeeze through a small space between the stones and a nearby hill.

The A303 near Stonehenge c.1930. Sign reads “Fork left for Exeter”. The houses and AA phone box have since been demolished. The road to the right was the A344. Image credit: Unknown

The A303 before 1930, close to Stonehenge. “Fork left for Exeter” is written on a sign. Since then, the houses and AA phone box have been torn down. The A344 was the road to the right. Image credit: No one known
Since the 1980s, there have been many ideas for making A303 better, but they have all run into problems because of environmental, historical, and financial issues.

The road is dangerously close to Stonehenge, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a lot of historical value. It is only 165 meters away. When the road is changed, it needs to be carefully balanced between transportation, tourists, heritage, and the environment.

The A303 road passing by Stonehenge. Image credit: Pam Brophy

The newest plan is to build a 3.3 km tunnel under Stonehenge. This would block traffic noise and sight from the landmark while keeping its natural setting.

The idea to build this tunnel is part of a bigger plan to turn the A303 into a South West expressway with two-way sections between Amesbury and Berwick Down, Sparkford and Ilchester, and Taunton and Southfields. The project’s goals are to shorten travel times, make roads safer, more reliable, and more resilient for road users, while also making it easier for people to get to cultural and natural sites along the route.

This picture was taken in 2009 from the A303. The A303 (in the center) is going to be changed. The A344 that went close to Stonehenge was taken away in 2013, leaving only a short road from Airman’s Corner to get to Stonehenge. Peter Trimming took the picture.

Stonehenge as seen from the A303 in 2009. The A303, in the foreground, is planned to be modified. The A344, which passed close to Stonehenge, was removed in 2013, leaving just a short access road from Airman’s Corner. Image credit: Peter Trimming

Historic England and the National Trust are in favor of the tunnel project. However, UNESCO and some archaeologists are against it because they say it could damage the World Heritage Site and its secret treasures in a way that can’t be fixed.

The project is currently consulting with the public and evaluating the impact on the environment. A final decision is expected in 2022. As long as the plans are approved, building could start in 2023 and end in 2028.

The A303 is more than just a road; it’s a history-filled fabric that shows how people have traveled this land for thousands of years. It has been through a lot of changes and difficulties, from being natural chalk paths to a modern highway. The future of the road depends on how well we can balance the need for connection with the need to protect this unique and valuable landscape.

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