A huge monument known as the “Stonehenge of the North” has been gifted to the nation and opened to the public.
Historic England and English Heritage said they have secured the future of the Thornborough Henges complex, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, following an agreement with construction company Tarmac to cede part of the site to the nation.
The agreement dates back to 2016, when it was part of a broader planning agreement, forged after years of controversy over the company’s quarrying in the surrounding area.
On Friday, English Heritage will take control of the site and welcome the massive Neolithic monument to the public, a move welcomed by Prime Minister and local parliamentarian Rishi Sunak.
The entire site consists of three giant circular earthworks, or henges, which are over 200m in diameter and date from 3500 to 2500BC.
Historic England said the Thornborough Henges site is “probably the most important ancient site between Stonehenge and the Orkney Islands in Scotland”, describing it as the “Stonehenge of the North”.
The central and south henges have been donated by Tarmac to the legal estate of Historic England, the Government’s heritage adviser, as part of the National Heritage Collection which includes Stonehenge, Iron Bridge and Dover Castle.
They are being managed by English Heritage, which is encouraging the public to visit from Friday, with a new interpretation on the site.
Mr Sunak said: “The Thornborough Henges site has enormous potential to help tell the story of ancient Britain and I very much welcome this announcement about its future – its protection and preservation for the nation.
“Comparatively few people are aware of its importance, both locally and nationally. I hope many more come to appreciate this little-known gem of our history and in doing so provide a welcome boost to the local visitor economy.”
Historic England said the Thornborough Henges sit in an ancient ritualistic prehistoric landscape stretching from Ferrybridge to Catterick and are “unequaled in size, alignment and degree of preservation”.
Like Stonehenge, the vast amount of popular power channeled into their construction is believed to be an indication of their importance to the society that created them.
Evidence suggested they may have been covered in a mineral that would have made them glow white and visible for miles.
Archaeologists have suggested that the henges were probably built as ceremonial or ritual centers and may also have served as trading centers and meeting places.
Today the three henges are clearly visible as huge circular banks, up to four meters high, with surrounding ditches of various depths.
The central and southern henges have been actively cultivated and are therefore not as well preserved as the northern henge, which remains privately owned.
The two southernmost henges were added to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register in 2009 and Historic England have been working with Tarmac to secure their future.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: “Thornborough Henges and the surrounding landscape form part of the largest concentration of Neolithic monuments in the North of England.
“They are a link to our ancient ancestors, spanning thousands of years, inspiring a sense of wonder and mystery.
“We are delighted to have acquired this important site for the nation, ensuring that these magnificent monuments are safe and preserved for generations to come.”
Stuart Wykes, Tarmac’s director of land and natural resources, said: “Tarmac has had a longstanding commitment to securing the long-term future of the monuments and we are delighted to gift this incredibly important historic site to historic England. With your help, the heritage of Thornborough’s central and south henges will be protected and preserved for years to come.
“We hope the public will enjoy the impressive ancient site once it is made accessible for them to enjoy.”