Many of our ancient sites are in plain view close to roads, others lie hidden in the depths of the countryside and require significant effort to visit. Those that are easy to reach often suffer from wear and tear. The erosion on the banks at Avebury come to mind, as do measures to prevent erosion such as the less than seemly fences and path at Stonehenge – which are a constant reminder of the cleft stick the authorities are in when sites get too popular. Should they be disfigured by footfall or disfigured by measures to prevent them being disfigured?
Some years ago, when working on a voluntary basis for the Pagan Federation I had an idea for a small booklet that could be used to raise some funds. The booklet was to be a collaborative effort called ‘A Guide to Ancient Sacred Sites’ and was to take the form of a gazetteer. The Pagan Federation is formed into Districts and Regions, and I contacted various people around the Districts to get some information about the sites in their areas.
To my astonishment, although many thought it was a good idea – several said it would be a good help to Pagans on their travels – most did not want their own local sites included, and said they could not support the project if such-and-such a site were listed. They were largely happy for the sites already overrun by tourists to be included, but not the ones they considered ‘special’. This was against my concept of the project, which thus never got off the ground, and the booklet outline lies unused, hidden in the depths of my hard drive backups.
Now leaving aside the lay view that our ancient heritage sites cannot be considered ‘sacred’ as in many cases we have no definitive proof of how they were used, the question arises of how much should the sites be advertised to the general public?
There is no doubt that one of our chief remits here at Heritage Action is to bring ancient sites to the attention of the public so that an awareness of our past heritage can enrich our lives. But there is a delicate balance for many sites between neglect and over-use. For instance, I was surprised to note on a recent visit to Boscawen-Un that tramlines are starting to appear around the circle, from the number of visitors permabulating both inside and outside the circle. I have noticed a similar problem at the nearby Merry Maidens. Many years ago, when I first visited Boscaswen Un circle, the stones were barely visible above the gorse:
Largely thanks to the ground clearance efforts of CASPN the picture is much different now, the circle is festooned with bluebells in the summer, but note the ‘tracking’ in the grass which is starting to appear:
I visit this circle several times a year, and it is now rare that I have the place to myself unless the weather is inclement – a major factor being that a signpost is now visible on the nearby A30, and paths have been cleared through the gorse and bracken to the north, making access that much easier.
Is this a good thing? In some ways yes, in that many more people can enjoy the genus loci of this wonderful circle, but the impending issue of erosion is a worrying one. The tenet “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints” is becoming a potentially damaging one, and maybe it’s time to come up with something new? “Visit, but leave as few footprints as possible“? Or do we just stop telling people that such places exist?
…but then society would be the loser, as a knowledge of our past affects us all in more ways than we can imagine – but that’s a topic for a future post.