Stonehenge project launched to repair deep lintel cracks

Climate crisis and unsympathetic 1950s repairs have taken a toll on prehistoric structure

The great circle of Stonehenge has stood for 4,500 years and it is tempting to imagine that it is bound to remain just as it is – stolid, unchanging – for thousands more. But even that ancient monument, it turns out, needs some tender loving care now and again.

A conservation project, billed as the most significant at Stonehenge for more than 60 years, was launched on Monday by English Heritage to make sure that the structure continues to thrill and amaze for generations to come.

Erosion, the impact of extreme weather caused by the climate emergency and some unsympathetic repairs in the 1950s have taken a toll on the lintels, the hefty horizontal stones that give the circle its iconic shape.

Scaffolding has been erected to allow engineers and craftspeople to fix deep cracks and holes and dig out the hard concrete used for repairs in 1958, which will be replaced with more forgiving, breathable lime mortar.

Heather Sebire, English Heritage’s senior curator for Stonehenge, said: “The stones look as if they will stand forever but like just about everything they are vulnerable. This vital work will protect the features which make Stonehenge so distinctive.”

Of particular concern is stone number 122, which fell and cracked in 1900. In 1958 it was stuck back together with concrete and hauled back into place.

Engineers and craftspeople will dig out concrete used for repairs in 1958 and replace it with more forgiving, breathable lime mortar.
Engineers and craftspeople will dig out concrete used for repairs in 1958 and replace it with more forgiving, breathable lime mortar. Photograph: The Historic England Archive, Historic England

During a project in 2018 that pinpointed the origin of the sarsen stones – they came from West Woods in Wiltshire – experts flagged up concerns about the state of stone 122. “The concrete mortar was cracking with bits falling out. It was a bit of a mess up there, to be honest,” said Sebire.

Laser scans of all the stones have highlighted other problems. “The sarsen stones are full of natural holes, some of them really deep,” said Sebire. The climate emergency threatens to make their condition worse. “The weather is changing. We’re getting more extremes – the stones dry out in the hot weather and puddles form in the torrential rain.”

Sebire said English Heritage was not meddling with Stonehenge. After all, it is a human-built structure honed by its makers and successive generations have worked on it and repaired it when needed.

English Heritage has talked to some of the people who were involved in the last conservation project in 1958. It was a different time. Lovely old photographs of the work show people smoking pipes and wearing trilbies as they stand on top of stones inspecting them. There is no sign of ropes or safety harnesses.

Among those English Heritage has spoken to is Richard Woodman-Bailey, 71, the son of the chief architect for ancient monuments, TA Bailey, who oversaw the work.

Then an eight-year-old boy with a pudding-bowl haircut, who sported a tie even for his visits to Salisbury Plain, Woodman-Bailey hit a 1958 coin beneath one of the sarsens, and has been invited to place a specially-struck 2021 £2 coin featuring an image of Britannia under a restored lintels.

Photographs from the 1958 restoration project show people smoking pipes and wearing trilbies as they stand on top of stones.
Photographs from the 1958 restoration project show people smoking pipes and wearing trilbies as they stand on top of stones – with little sign of health and safety measures. Photograph: The Historic England Archive, Historic England

Sebire said: “It’s been a privilege to talk to some of those people involved in the last major restoration works at Stonehenge 60 years ago – their memories and their special bond with the place really breathe life into the story of its conservation.”

The conservation work will be carried out by Strachey Conservation, specialist conservators contracted by English Heritage, and will take up to two weeks. Visitors will be able to see the conservation work in action but the restorers will work from a tower that can be moved rather than cloaking the site with scaffolding.

Sebire accepted that the project was nerve-racking. “God forbid that one of the stones falls down,’ she said. “But we hope we’re doing the best job possible with the most up-to-date technology.”

With luck, it will be the final restoration job of this generation. Sebire said: “The stones should be able to stand the test of time – and the Salisbury Plain weather – and be standing for many more hundred years.”


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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