At last – the Stonehenge Tunnel

As reported last year, the new visitor centre at Stonehenge opened and after some teething troubles with the shuttle buses, it’s working well. Now for the next move – the road tunnel which will remove traffic from the A303 has just been given the go ahead. The historic monument will emerge as close to its original setting as possible, no hum of traffic, no fumes and no line of cars slowing down to get a glimpse of the Stones. Of course it will take years to construct the 1.8 mile long tunnel and many solstices will pass. The next one, the shortest day is on 22 December. But this is not just about Stonehenge, it’s about improving one of the worst holiday routes in the South West and making it dual carriage all the way to Cornwall. So there will be many winners from the £2billion investment But don’t expect it to go smoothly – there will be many arguments, discussions and diversions on the way.

So now for Christmas cheer …

Plenty of choice for the culture vulture this Christmas and New Year. Once the madness of shopping and eating has abated, it’s time to go for a long walk, and then absorb some culture. My top shows in London range widely. Try these: Ming at the British Museum – this is so well presented in the new exhibition space with plenty of space between the showcases, soft lighting, quiet and peaceful (not one for the children). Take your time, read, listen and enjoy the beauty of some stunning objects. Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London on the other hand is full of movement, noise and some artefacts. You would not expect an imaginary character to leave much behind but they have done their best with pipes, costumes, poisons and stimulants, and of course manuscripts. And the clips from different portrayals of the great detective are wonderful for Sherlock fans.

Next up, Rembrandt at the National Gallery, but perhaps only at a special viewing (pay extra) or early in the day for anyone under 6ft. It’s a crush but the paintings are wonderful. Veronese fans, such as your blogger, went twice round the small but exquisite exhibition of works by unknown artist Giovanni Battista Moroni at the Royal Academy. Not surprisingly one of his portraits was for many years attributed to Veronese. Then head to Birmingham for the Staffordshire Hoard, a new permanent gallery at the Museum and Art Gallery. Hundreds of cleaned and conserved finds from this Anglo Saxon grave site and lots of hands on activities – so this is the one for the children.

The Downton Abbey effect …
Most country houses are now closed for the season, although some such as Chatsworth do spectacular Christmas events. This year the theme is Alice in Wonderland. At the recent Country House debate at the V&A organised jointly with SAVE Britain’s heritage there was some doom and gloom but also good news. Downton Abbey may be reaching another climax this Christmas but the effect will go on not just with the British but also Americans and, as I know, of Swedes and German visitors. Not surprisingly, Highclere Castle nr Newbury where the series is filmed is already fully booked for its Easter and Spring opening next year.

So these well-established country houses with professional management and innovative marketing continue to thrive even in a competitive climate. Others off the beaten track (in the Scottish Borders or up a country lane in the West Country or Wales) and with less to offer are struggling with rising costs and fewer visitors. To counteract this, Christopher Ridgway of Castle Howard outlined the success of the Yorkshire Country House Partnership – 12 houses and York University. This is not just a commercial exercise but also about academic scholarship, he said. So far several exhibitions have been staged on joint themes researched in their archives and analysed at joint seminars. Others are following the path forged by Yorkshire, in Scotland, and in Thames Valley.

Ylva French is a Fellow of the Tourism Society, a trustee of the Museum Prize Trust and author of Finding Veronese: Memoir of a Painting, available as an E-book on Amazon.

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