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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 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.
The Heritage Journal is about raising awareness of ancient sites and this article by sociologist Tom Shakespeare suggested a way. He says when he looks at other cultures he has “a strong sense of festival envy” - for instance Solstice is often widely celebrated abroad but far less so here and he thinks we’re the poorer for it.
Maybe it’s because solstice is portrayed in the British media (and the EH website!) as about Druids, pagans and other enthusiasts gathered at Stonehenge. They’re entitled to do their own thing but it may cause others to see it as someone else’s festival, not theirs. That’s quite wrong though, it’s everyone’s – it didn’t start with Stonehenge but far earlier, with Mankind!
So is there a case for promoting it as something for people in general to enjoy at their local ancient sites, far from Stonehenge? Such sites, often built with an eye to the heavens, make ideal venues but that doesn’t mean celebration must be in the form of speculative Bronze Age re-enactments. For most people spirituality, intonations and white robes are not part of their own appreciation of the ticking of the celestial clock. Last week 300 people celebrated winter solstice in Australia at a modern stone circle in a 21st century way. Shouldn’t lots of people have been doing that here? We’ve let our solstice slip, both physically and conceptually. Should we claim it back?
Not long till Solstice now. “We would love you to join us at the Henge” says the invitation. Not in Wilts but in Bywong, Australia. And not summer solstice but winter solstice – hence the invitation mentions warm blankets, mulled wine & marshmallows. Here’s a picture showing the sort of conditions that are likely….
Sounds like it’ll be a nice celebration. It will centre on sunset, not sunrise, which is both sensible and perhaps “authentic” – and far easier for all concerned. We’ll let you know how much security and infrastructure was needed, how many people climbed on the stones or misbehaved, the amount of litter that was left and what percentage of £200,000 it all cost the Australian taxpayer.
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.
It seems something highly unusual happened at the solstice. Although (surprise, surprise!) 1% of attendees were arrested or given warnings for misbehaviour (37 arrests, 100 warnings), there wasn’t the usual climbing all over the stones! How come? Education? Overbearing security? Lack of party atmosphere? No, something very simple: the weather gods decreed it should be extremely wet so numbers were right down – by 60% compared with some years.
Who’d have thought it? Reducing the numbers inside the stones to manageable numbers allows the stewards to control what goes on! (Well us actually, we’ve been saying it for many years.)
So can we hope that English Heritage will now finally learn the lesson and just manage the place on behalf of everyone – by declaring an attendance limit and entry by ticket? And stops mismanaging the event by tolerating gross overcrowding on the grounds that a few scruffy class warriors talk darkly of rioting if an infinite number isn’t allowed in? Doesn’t the very fact someone opposes any restriction on numbers disqualify them as a true friend of either Stonehenge or logic? Why should it be they who dictate policy?
There has been a worrying sign though that EH might not have learned the lesson. Their Head of Stonehenge went on the Chris Evans show enthusing about the summer solstice. To our minds he overdid it. EH are statutory guardians, simple as, so him saying the event is fantastic and “well worth a visit” for people coming to Britain isn’t being a guardian it’s being an impresario. No way is saying stuff that will increase the number of people crowded like boozy sardines inside the stones consistent with guardianship. Only reducing the number is consistent with that – as this year has surely proved beyond all argument.
No, he should keep in mind that actually, the vast majority of overseas visitors exhibit a preference for a quiet, reflective visit to the stones, just as the vast majority of British people do. If that wasn’t true then a lot more than a few tens of thousands would turn up at solstice, there’d be millions. And if EH didn’t know that was true they wouldn’t have ensured there was a quiet, respectful educational experience available for the other 364 days of the year nor would they be building an interpretation centre!
And here’s the bottom line: he should know that most foreigners must view the non-management that is normally evident at solstice with shock and incredulity. EH is very image conscious and that does more to tarnish its image as a world beacon of good conservation practice than anything else it is involved in. Yet it’s so easily solved.
MORI finds Stonehenge solstice feedback mostly positive!
It seems that MORI are employed to gather feedback from attendees at Stonehenge solstice events by conducting exit interviews. Evidently the feedback is mostly positive: “visitors appreciate the low-key security“.
You’d have to wonder though, would the feedback on the level of security be the same if Mori asked the millions that don’t attend but who see the pictures the next day?
Dover boat ships water!
It seems that the crew of a half-sized replica of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age boat had to abort the vessel’s maiden voyage after it started to ship water. Should be fixed soon though and hopefully the replica being created in Falmouth will have better luck!
Proud to be British!
The recent “Neolithic marathon” along the Sarsen Trail was a huge success, attracting over two thousand participants. People came from all over the world to take part and as one of them said: “There’s nothing like it in Australia. Where else can you run from Avebury to Stonehenge?” (Beats us!)
“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope”.
Happy New Year to all our supporters and readers.
(Original image courtesy of Stonehenge News and Information)
It’s no secret, the winter Solstice always goes well – because the numbers are small enough that the event is easily manageable. The summer one on the other hand doesn’t – and that’s down to numbers as well. So now is an appropriate moment to ask if there are plans to cope better next time. Each year we complain (e.g. see here) and each year the official line is always that things went well despite video evidence to the contrary. Two from June - here and here illustrate the point – lots of people on the stones and one man climbing right up one of the trilithons and being unmistakeably cheered as a hero by the crowd before falling horrifyingly – and no sign of stewards intervening – how could they – it was simply too crowded.
Worse, on another video, a steward is clearly shown not only not apprehending the trilithon climber but helping him to climb onto the top of an upright bluestone and giving him a friendly thumbs up when he had done so. We haven’t shown the link (but it’s not hard to find) as no doubt the steward was well meaning and mighty relieved that the young man hadn’t broken his neck so one can hardly criticise him. Clearly though, things simply couldn’t be fully controlled, people don’t keep off the stones and it was only a matter of pure luck that the young fellow wasn’t seriously hurt.
One day, someone will be. Beer and climbing don’t mix, and if it happens when the eyes of the world are on us because of the Olympics then so much the worse. The EH Chief Executive tweeted he was going there in June – did he see what the videos show? EH can “consult with stakeholders” until it is blue in the face but until the Health and Safety issue is resolved – “how can we reduce numbers such that this event is manageable?” then the interests and welfare of neither Stonehenge nor the visitors will be met.