LONDON — PLANS to modernize visitor facilities at Stonehenge, the mysterious Bronze Age monument in the west of England, have run into fierce opposition.
The clash between developers and local residents is so severe that the government has decided to order a public inquiry to help decide the issue.
The point of contention is whether English Heritage - a semi-official body charged with conserving ancient and historical monuments - should be allowed to spend 10 million British pounds ($18 million) developing tourist facilities at an attraction visited by a million people every year and designated a "world heritage site" by UNESCO in 1984.
One English Heritage worker describes current conditions at Stonehenge as a "touristic slum." But the Salisbury district council is hostile to proposals that would involve building a half-mile-long access road to the double ring of stones, and the closure of a public highway that runs within yards of the site.
David Parker, a Salisbury councillor, accuses Heritage of wanting to turn Stonehenge into "a theme park." Roy Canham, architect for Wiltshire, the county in which Stonehenge is located, says the planned access road would threaten 9,000 square yards of archaeological remains used by builders of the monument between 2000 and 1000 BC.
But Roy Swanton, chairman of Heritage's Stonehenge steering group, insists that the opponents of the development plan have got it all wrong.
"We are determined to conserve the monument for future generations," Mr. Swanton says. "The present squalid conditions must be brought to an end and dignity restored to Britain's preeminent archaeological site."
That present tourist arrangements leave much to be desired is a massive understatement. Stonehenge stands on a tiny triangular plot of ground where two busy roads intersect. A rudimentary parking lot contains a ticket office, portable toilets, and an outdoor catering facility. To approach the monument from the parking lot, visitors must walk through a concrete underpass. They emerge onto a roped-off pathway, usually strewn with litter.
In summer, bus loads of tourists arrive and the site becomes heavily congested. There is little opportunity for leisurely enjoyment of the spectacle of the huge stones set against the flat expanse of Salisbury Plain. Meanwhile traffic, quite heavy in summer, whizzes by on the roads on either side of the monument.
English Heritage wants to build a full-fledged visitors center 900 yards to the north of the present parking lot, with an access road leading to it. From the center, visitors would approach Stonehenge by foot, much as prehistoric man did.
They would stroll at leisure past ancient burial mounds and the Cursus, an earthwork 100 yards wide along which processions are thought to have been held in ancient times.
By the time visitors reached Stonehenge itself, Swanton says, they would be able to appreciate that it is only part of "one of the world's richest archaeological landscapes."
But Amy Hall, leader of Salisbury council, says English Heritage has ignored local opposition to its plan. Like other councillors, she says, she was concerned that shutting off one of the public roads beside Stonehenge would lead to even worse traffic congestion on the highway that remained open.
According to Ms. Hall, the development plan would disturb prehistoric scatters of flint tool debris, broken pottery, and the remains of timber buildings, all discovered in 1985 and thousands of years old. Swanton replies that less than 1 percent of the site would be disturbed.
At one level, the clash between the local council and English Heritage is a classic disagreement between those who put the emphasis on conserving archaeological locations and others who seek to develop sites for the public.
The public inquiry, expected to begin later this year, is certain to expose other vested interests at work.
For the Heritage plan to go ahead, the Ministry of Defence, which uses Salisbury Plain for military maneuvers, would have to concede land and access for the visitor center. A Salisbury councillor concedes, too, that many residents in the area resent tourists in general, and are determined to resist a project that would probably encourage greater numbers of visitors to Stonehenge.
David Harris, project coordinator for the proposed English Heritage development of the site, says the activities in recent years of hippie and anarchist groups, who have flocked to Stonehenge in the summer, have antagonized local residents. Some people, he says, would prefer it if no tourists at all came to see Stonehenge. A few years ago a visitor to Stonehenge carved an anarchist symbol into one of the stones.
While plans are laid for the public inquiry into the site's long-term future, English Heritage has said that self-styled Druids, who turn up at Stonehenge to observe the summer solstice, will be kept out this summer.
In previous years their annual descent on Stonehenge has produced clashes between such groups and Wiltshire county police. In the run-up to this year's solstice - June 21, the longest day - the police have been given authority to impose a four-mile exclusion ground around Stonehenge, allowing in only bona fide visitors and tourists.