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The argument over Stonehenge solstice access seems endless. As one campaigner recently wrote: “It is so upsetting watching EH repeat themselves over & over again rejecting sound ideas , My opinion of them won’t change until they actually move forward on the access issues”. For “moving forward on access issues” we can perhaps read “give us what we want, increased access”. Against that is EH’s position, also recently on display – through the words of Peter Carson, their Head of Stonehenge (but you have to read them carefully): “To see the sun rise over the site on the longest day of the year in the same way our ancestors would have done is a very moving moment ….. people come to do their own thing within the landscape”.
That seems to be an effective acknowledgement people have a right to celebrate the solstice at Stonehenge, in line with the Court of Human Rights ruling (that members of any genuine religion have a right to worship in their own church). The campaigners can perhaps take it as good news for it suggests EH aren’t currently minded to seek a reversal of the ruling. However, they should also note that he also talks of seeing the sun “rise over the site”….. “in the same way our ancestors would have done” and people doing “their own thing within the landscape”. You can’t see the sun rise over the site from inside the stones, only from further back in the landscape, and he says doing that is moving specifically because that’s what our ancestors celebrated. The message seems to be: EH does not currently dispute a right to celebrate solstice at Stonehenge but it does feel the authentic way to do it is from outside the stones.
That view has recently been boosted by their 3D laser scanning which suggests midwinter sunset had special meaning for the builders and that they made deliberate efforts to create a dramatic spectacle for those approaching from the north east. As Susan Greaney, EH’s Senior Properties Historian said: “It has given further scientific basis to the theory of the solstitial alignment and the importance of the approach to the monument from the Avenue in mid winter”. Thus EH is in a difficult position: it faces constant demands for increased access to the interior of the circle at solstice sunrises while it’s own research is telling it “outside at sunset” not “inside at sunrise” is what mattered to the builders. It is being asked to expand a celebration whose time and place it increasingly sees as erroneous.
Would the Court of Human Rights have ruled differently if the laser scanning report had been published at that time? Who knows? However, while the current situation is that EH has no right to oppose the celebrations, it is less certain that opposing an expansion of the celebrations would be invalid. Article 11 of the Human Rights Act says: “No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights [of members of a religion to worship in their own church] other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” There has to come a point where the number of attendees inside the stones has health and safety or public order implications and EH might well suggest that the critical point has already been exceeded as evidenced by the fact they are biannually shown to be powerless to prevent many people climbing on the stones.
In essence then, EH’s “failure to move forward on the access issue” as the campaigners see it may well make perfect sense from EH’s perspective for it may see the celebrations as a false expression of the purpose of the monument and prejudicial to it’s statutory duty to safeguard the monument and the public – and indeed constantly damaging to it’s own reputation as a statutory guardian. If so it is highly unlikely to be sympathetic to calls to expand proceedings in either scale or duration. In addition it may consider it has a strong legal case to refuse such calls. For their part the campaigners are unlikely to win either the academic argument (that celebrating inside the circle is “authentic” – and it would be strange if they sought to) or the legal one (that a bigger celebration wouldn’t bring bigger health and safety risks) so their calls are unlikely to ever be successful. Better perhaps to engage with EH to change the celebrations to something more akin to what the builders intended? That at least might involve pushing at an open door rather than one that may always stay firmly locked.