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28 July 2006
Fight for Stonehenge takes to the air

A hot-air balloon flew over Salisbury Plain on a trip that marked one of the country's strangest scientific breakthroughs: the 100th anniversary of the first aerial photograph of Stonehenge. The 1906 flight was the first use of air reconnaissance for studying ancient monuments in Britain, and has been commemorated with a balloon flight of English Heritage officials and other VIPs. "Aerial photographs are our main method for finding new [archaeological] sites," said Martyn Barber, of English Heritage's aerial survey unit. "They are invaluable for studying the past."
     But the trip had another purpose. It was to form part of an unofficial campaign by English Heritage to maintain public awareness of the World Heritage site. They are anxious to press ministers who have promised they will decide in the next few months on what to do with the main roads that run near the 5,000-year-old stone circle. English Heritage is particularly worried because Unesco has warned it may remove the monument's World Heritage status unless Britain tackles the serious problem of traffic passing right beside Stonehenge.
     Earlier this month the government pledged it would announce later this summer whether or not it would back a scheme to carry the A303, which runs past Stonehenge, in a tunnel bored under the monument. The plan has already been given planning approval following a public inquiry. "This is a one-off chance to put right all that has gone wrong at Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape," said Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of English Heritage, "We cannot afford to miss it." English Heritage has planning permission for a new visitor centre, but this can only be built if the tunnel scheme goes ahead.
     As can be seen in the original photograph, only a few tracks crossed the henge 100 years ago, compared with the roads that sweep by on either side today. The photograph was taken by Lieutenant Philip Henry Sharpe, of the Royal Engineers' Balloon Section, the forerunner of the Royal Flying Corps, and ultimately, the RAF. His photographs also show that Stonehenge itself was in much worse condition 100 years ago. Larch poles prop up many of the outer stones, while several in the main inner ring have collapsed, and have been re-erected since then. "We have improved the monument, and revealed it in all its glory," a spokesman for English Heritage said. "All we need is a traffic scheme that is worthy of it."

Source: The Observer (23 July 2006)

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