Mixed feelings about the “Highway to the Sun”

WHEN Tom Fort wrote his book about the main road to the West Country and called it “Highway to the sun” he created a romantic image of a road which is pretty much hated by most people who have to drive much of its length. The A303, which passes through north Hampshire, Wiltshire (over Salisbury Plain, and past Stonehenge), along the northern edge of Dorset and the south and west of Somerset and into Devon (where it meets the A30) and on into Cornwall, is notorious for traffic jams. Indeed for much of its length, west of Amesbury, it includes such serious bottlenecks that repeated government ministers have considered schemes to improve it.

Tom Fort wrote eloquently about the scenery and history through which you pass on the “highway to the sun” – landscapes shaped by man over millennia, from the dawn of prehistory, past neolithic barrows, Iron Age hillforts, medieval field systems, towns and villages with centuries old churches and houses, and across countryside which shows the hand and plough of man, interspersed with occasional glimpses of the wildwood and ancient lands where our Stone Age ancestors hunted.

But for holidaymakers gritting their teeth as they crawl along the A303 from Amesbury to the Stonehenge roundabout and on through the valley village of Winterbourne Stoke, along the Charnage Hill (formerly known as Carnage Hill because of its accident record) towards Mere, from the Sparkford roundabout to Podimore and through the Blackdown Hills, the A303 is the road they have to use (even drivers willing to use maps find few alternatives) which puts many hours on their drive to their holiday hotel, campsite or cottage.

For business, the A303 is an essential link from the M3 to the west and to the M5, but the delays are costly, not only on the A303 but also on the A358 from the Ilminster roundabout to the motorway at Taunton.

So the pressure is on for improvements, as it has been for at least 20 years. Little tweaks and duallings have happened – a narrow curving stretch straightened here, a new bypass there, but each so-called improvement has just pushed the problem further along the road.

Like the M25 – the infamous “longest car park in the world” – the A303 is a disaster of road planning. The M25 was already out of date, despite the 15 year “modelling” on which it was designed, by the time it was opened. The A303 is not “designed” at all – it follows ancient droves, Roman roads and historic coaching routes, through medieval towns and over farmland and prehistoric landscapes. The road engineers responded to the complaints of residents, businesses and holidaymakers and endeavoured to “relieve” the congestion in towns like Mere and Wincanton by providing dual-carriageway bypassess. But they were apparently blissfully unaware that the drivers who would merrily speed along the new two-lane highways would grind wearily to a halt as they were shoehorned into the single carriageway a few miles further on. The congestion and pollution of the towns was passed to the open country.

There have been repeated calls for the road blight to be removed from Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage site that stands a few hundred yards from a constant ribbon of traffic. The most desirable for those who want to return this world-famous prehistoric monument to its rightful place at the heart of a ritual landscape, is a tunnel. That is also the most costly and has been rejected in the past.

But now David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have announced that the money will be found to improve the A303 on Salisbury Plain, including tunneling past Stonehenge, and to provide a proper 21st century link from the Ilminster roundabout to the M5. Much cheering in the shires.

Tom Fort, speaking on BBC Radio 4 after the announcement, mourned the replacement of his “highway to the sun” by a superhighway on which speeding cars and hurtling lorries will thunder en route to or from Devon, Cornwall, London and the Midlands.

Yet history has a way of repeating itself, and it is all too easy to imagine that this news, so welcome to everyone from tired tourists and frustrated lorry drivers to the residents of Winterborne Stoke and the people whose lives are constantly disrupted by the traffic jams, may yet prove to be another well-intentioned promise that will founder on the rock of economic reality.

I am not holding my breath about the chances of a fast Friday afternoon drive over Salisbury Plain any time soon!

Fanny Charles