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The English Heritage Commissioners have just joined the chorus of scepticism over the proposal to split up the organisation. They have said they can’t commit to supporting it until “unacceptable financial risk” is mitigated. The plan is for a one-off £85 million grant for a new organisation to both manage and improve the National Heritage Collection of more than 400 properties and then to become self-financing within eight years.
It is based on the Government’s projected figures of an 86% increase in membership and a 31% increase in visitor numbers. Nice growth if you can get it but clearly the Commissioners have doubts. They “welcomed the proposed model” (how polite!) but have warned that its success is “critically dependent” upon having “financial certainty” (or “enough money” as most people say!)
The Heritage Alliance have similar doubts: “Visitor figures are notoriously volatile as events such as the outbreak of foot and mouth disease have shown…..it would only take one or two significant events to derail this model” (like unprecedented bad weather and flooding for instance?). They also recommend the money is paid in one lump sum to avoid a change of heart by the Government! The National Trust has also suggested that after eight years when the money is gone the model may become “unsustainable”.
Harmless, simple, elegant and inclusive. It’s a shame that it won’t be going to Stonehenge this year. But next year it will. Surely?
(Incidentally, the Disabled ramblers’ Winter Solstice ramble at Stonehenge has also been called off – due to parking problems. That’s two highly worthy, harmless Stonehenge solstice events cancelled this year.)
Last Monday Amesbury Town Council said they were cancelling the event “due to problems with access to the planned starting point at Stonehenge, predicted traffic problems and rising costs.” Congratulations then to Councillor Fred Westmoreland and the Trustees on behalf of Amesbury Museum, for doggedly facing up to and overcoming a series of objections and obstacles.
The route has had to be changed but as Councillor Westmorland said: “It would be a different route and not involve Stonehenge but it is better than nothing. It would be cheap, cheerful and local. It is short notice but I’m sure that people would want to be part of it and it would be a shame not to have a lantern parade at all.” As big fans of the parade we totally agree. The precise nature of the “problems with access” at Stonehenge is unclear and it’s a real shame the Stones won’t be included this year but so far as we understand it EH are in favour of the parade in principle so the important thing is that there will be a parade, the tradition has been established, and hopefully it will include Stonehenge next year when the new access arrangements have bedded in.
It’s no secret why we are such fans of the parade. We think that public engagement with Stonehenge should involve a much wider spectrum of the public than at present. In addition, we think holding solstice celebrations in what may well be the authentic spot at the authentic time at minimal public cost is far preferable to holding them at the wrong spot at the wrong time at horrendous public cost. The fact that this year the former gathering will be absent and the latter one will be taking place is pretty hard to defend.
The above stunt, created nine years ago by The Real Countryside Alliance at the Uffington White Horse, caused no damage but because it was unauthorised by its National Trust guardians it was deemed a bad thing.
On the other hand, the one below (promoting Big Brother in 2003) was considered a “good stunt” to start with (presumably, since the Trust accepted £2,000 for allowing it). But then, after complaints about the lack of respect for monuments and the bad example it set, their spokesman announced “we might have got this wrong”.
Then in 2012 when Paddy Power did this at Uffington it was deemed a bad stunt but not for the Big Brother “lack of respect” reason but for the Countryside Alliance “lack of permission” reason. For their part, Paddy Power dealt with criticism by donating some penance money to charity whereupon they seem to have been forgiven.
Thus it seems the “respect for monuments” complaint is sometimes but not always recognised as valid by the Trust. The latest example of that uncertainty is that the Trust has recently allowed a moustache to be added to the Cerne Abbas Giant because it was in aid of charity.
Two important questions arise: do stunts carry a risk of damaging copycatting elsewhere and if so do “charitable purposes” justify taking such a risk? It would be good if the Trust clarified their policy.
Update 28 November:
This theoretical image produced by Paul Barford raises issues of principle that would need addressing if the Trust is to formulate and publish a clear policy:
No doubt (these days) a proposal to brandalise a hill figure by a pro-hunting group would be given short shrift and the same would apply to artefact hunters (bearing in mind the Trust doesn’t allow metal detecting on it’s land). But what if it was in order to advertise a metal detecting rally “in aid of charity” (as so many are these days) – maybe even the very charity the moustache stunt was in aid of? Do the means justify the ends? Our conviction is no, in the case of both detecting rallies and brandalising, but it seems it is a matter that is yet to be fully addressed by the Trust.
Now that millions of pounds worth of new infrastructure is in place at Stonehenge is it time to consider if the way it is used should be expanded? It’s going to remain a mass tick-box for the world’s tourists of course, plus it will host Solstice and Equinox gatherings, but is that it? Shouldn’t it now be used for a whole range of events and interactions?
We’ve previously suggested some new ways Stonehenge could be used. However, as Sarah May has pointed out there’s always a tension at heritage assets between the need for conservation and the perceptions and aspirations of the many groups that see them as theirs: “There is a process by which buildings, places and objects come to take this more distant role permanently. They are extracted from the lived landscape. No longer available for the kind of rough and tumble interactions they may have enjoyed, they become objects of veneration.“
However, if that tension can be resolved (and surely it can be by applying a test that few would criticise: does the event conform to the need for conservation and safety?) then isn’t there a strong case for expansion? If it’s everyone’s monument then isn’t everyone entitled to use it in a way they would like, not just some people? It’s hard to see a downside to that proposition (except that the monument needs to earn its keep, but that can no doubt be worked round by adjusting the where and the when of events). Also, it’s a proposition that has already been tested with great success: the lantern procession seems set fair to become an established part of the cultural calendar and the Fire Garden event last year was a great success (prompting Mike Pitts to write: “Like summer solstice but with gentility…. The stones close and personal and erratically wrapped in flames and paraffin smells in the growing darkness, thousands of people politely queuing, one man making gentle electronic music surrounded by a quiet crowd, a comfortable friendly gathering …. Soft, arty French eccentricity from La Compagnie Carabosse”).
This is not to say that anyone should be deprived of their current usage. They have a right (subject to the need for conservation)- but so does everyone else and at present the range of options is narrow – for no obvious reason other than the fact that that’s how it is.
The latest “Stonehenge Round Table” meeting has just been held. They’ve been held monthly for many years which is a lot of words and a lot of miles so we were interested to hear it was announced that a new forum for Stonehenge management is going to be set up, evidently so that people can “input their thoughts; ideas, experiences etc.”
The obvious question is: will that be “in addition to” or “instead of” the physical meetings? It’s hard to see how the latter would still serve any purpose – particularly since they have long been subject to complaints about expense, procedural shortcomings and general lack of effectiveness, all of which might be improved by an online facility. Also of course a tiny number of people turn up compared with how many may visit the forum. So it will be interesting to see what happens.
Also, if an online forum is to be launched it would be irrational for there to be facilities for public discussion of solstice celebrations without also allowing discussion of (for instance) the forthcoming admirable Amesbury lantern procession and any other possible gatherings involving completely different sets of stakeholders. A more catholic (with a small c !) approach to planning and designing celebrations or gatherings at Stonehenge might grow out of this simple decision to set up a forum and that could surely only be a very good thing? So again, it will be interesting to see what happens.
Back in January of this year, I was witness to unthinking desecration by a family group at Men an Tol. I recently returned to the scene, or rather, I attempted to return to the scene. On this occasion, my path was blocked by cows grazing on the approaches to the monument. The surface damage done by the grazing cattle was much worse than that caused by the family earlier in the year.
Indeed, I’m not alone in thinking that the damage caused could have easily been avoided, were it not for poor advice from certain government departments, coupled with the greed of the owners on whose land the monument lies. Save Penwith Moors, (SPM) a local pressure group acting to campaign lawfully for the removal of all new stock proofing (fencing, gates and cattle grids) from a few selected areas of open access moorland popular for local and tourist recreation, have been keeping a daily eye on the situation at Men an Tol, and have recently issued the following Open Letter to English Heritage, Natural England, Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network (CASPN), as well as the local MP for the area:
“More potential trouble at Men-an-Tol!
As at Tregeseal Circle the cattle are gathering around the stones and using the two uprights as rubbing posts as well as covering the area with heaps of dung and ruining the public right of way – virtually impassable down towards the stream – by churning it up.
This is not an isolated out of the way site – and that would be no excuse anyway – but, probably, the most popular frequented ancient monument in the Peninsula and an iconic part of Cornish Heritage. It is high time remedial action was taken after this warning message – preferably by removing grazing stock from this Croft and undertaking manual maintenance.”
The Save Penwith Moors campaign web site and Facebook page includes photographic and video evidence of the damage being caused by the ill-conceived grazing policies as instigated by Natural England and (unjustifiably) supported by English Heritage who are ultimately legally responsible for the protection of the Scheduled Ancient Monument. We would urge all our readers to visit the SPM pages and give them every support possible in their campaign against the current grazing policies.
English Heritage is to mobilise a volunteer Heritage Army – “the first crowd-sourcing project to tackle heritage at risk”. The idea is to get volunteers to carry out surveys of England’s 345,000 Grade II buildings “to enable thousands of passionate heritage fans to get more actively involved.”
Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: “Today we are announcing a win / win proposition. For English Heritage it means we will eventually get, for the first time, a complete picture of the condition of all England’s listed heritage. We can use this information to decide how best to deploy our national expertise to help owners and all those tackling heritage at risk on the ground. And we’ll have a grass-roots network to spread understanding and appreciation of local heritage so that less of it becomes at risk in the first place.”
It certainly fits with something we’ve been suggesting for years regarding prehistoric monuments – there is already a passionate, knowledgeable army of enthusiasts out there who regularly visit those, even ones in inaccessible places. Many of them keep EH informed of their condition but a more formalised system including phone apps would certainly improve protection at minimal cost.
However Rescue News made an important point (on Twitter) :
“Involving the volunteer public in assessing Heritage at Risk is a great idea. But they should NEVER replace qualified professionals!” And of course, doing that may well be in the Government’s mind. They also made a sharp retort to Planning Minister Nick Boles:
“not making it easier to demolish those beautiful places and heritage assets we all value would be a help too”!
The new Visitors Centre was shown off this week. It’s unfair to fully judge it yet but 3 things stood out for us (one good, one bad and one uncertain):
Early on there was bitter criticism (“like an immigration detention centre” said a former Mayor of Salisbury; “incongruous” said CABE, the Government’s design watchdog). Not being design experts we can’t say if those criticisms are valid or have been met but it comes down to personal taste and it looks OK to us. More to the point we strongly empathise with the architects when they say: “If once back at home, a visitor can remember their visit to the stones but can’t remember the visitor centre they passed through on the way, we will be happy”. We also think that the main advantage of how it looks is that it can’t be seen from the stones – which wasn’t always the plan!
Several years ago we noted that according to the plans “Retail, Catering and Back of House facilities” would comprise 1,380 sq m whereas “Interpretation and Education” would be only 600 sq m. It seems that ratio still broadly applies, so the amount of space within the building devoted to “interpreting the monument” (which was always said to be the main aim of spending the money building it) is just two and a bit tennis courts and a lot less than that devoted to providing meals, memorabilia and ”back of house ” facilities. That seems a shame, especially as the name seems to have expanded into “The Stonehenge Exhibition and Visitors Centre”.
It is still perforated – not just in the outer canopy but right inside. The architect previously commented that “it doesn’t protect you from the rain – if it’s raining when you visit Stonehenge you’re going to get wet anyway.” It’s hard to tell if better has now been thought of this and arrangements have been made to stop people getting wet – or not. Does anyone know?