Calls for “Free Stonehenge” are legion, usually citing that the donor, Sir Cecil Chubb, stipulated that “the public shall have free access to the premises”. It’s a bit academic as his covenants are no longer enforceable but let’s pretend they are and consider if the campaigners have a moral case at least. Their wish for “free access” can mean one or both of the following:
1. Access for free
In other words, free of charge. But look what the Deed actually says: “the public shall have free access to the premises on the payment of such reasonable sum per head not exceeding one shilling for each visit.” So it wasn’t access for free, it was access for payment, up to a maximum of 1 shilling – at a time when the average weekly wage was 30 shillings. Nowadays, a thirtieth of average weekly earnings is about £16. People can continue to claim they have a right to be let in for zero shillings or that every generation for evermore must be tied down to a tiny entrance fee, but unless there’s a chance a Court would support them, which seems unlikely on either legal or practical grounds, it’s probably time that dead horse had a decent burial. (That’s not to say people are likely to be charged at summer solstice. There are many who would react badly so it will probably never happen, for that reason and that reason alone).
2. Free access
In other words, the claim that people have the right to go there at will, without restrictions. But again, Sir Cecil neither conferred nor meant to confer any such right: “the public shall have free access to the premises…subject to such conditions as the Commissioners for Works in the exercise and execution of their statutory powers and duties may from time to time impose”. Those duties, which now fall to English Heritage, include protection against harm so if anyone can persuade a Court that either giving 1.1 million people a year free range or allowing a limitless number to gather inside the stones in the dark are compatible with that statutory duty then fine. But if not then it’s time the second dead horse went off to meet Shergar.
The cost of visiting will shortly go up sharply to £13 (justified by the added value of the new visitor centre presumably). There will be outrage. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that in comparative terms that’s a lot cheaper than Cecil Chubb specified. His status as the darling of the free Stonehenge campaigners might need some serious examination!