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It just couldn’t be better – and is exactly as everyone would like it to be at Stonehenge!
Sadly though it must remain forever an unattainable ideal in Wiltshire – or at least, for so long as there’s an insistence on the “right” of many thousands of people to crowd inside the stone circle in unsustainable numbers thereby creating major Health & Safety and conservation issues.
The minutes of the Stonehenge Round Table meetings rarely disappoint. The latest contain this, under the heading “Special Access”: “A Forum member reported that he had seen a group in the stones during the hours of darkness on 22nd June 2013. He enquired as to who this group were and why they were allowed in the stones at this time. He expressed concerns over their form of worship. ACTION: LB to look into this with NB and report back to member.”
This seems to be about something we mentioned last August: “It is reported that a group that was let into Stonehenge to greet the sunrise a few Sundays back (on Midsummers Day, not at the main solstice gathering) was heard from some distance away loudly chanting “Hail Satan”. If so, should it be welcomed as an excellent manifestation of “inclusivity and multivocality”? Or is it just bonkers? Not the fact the Dark Lord was being greeted (or called to appear? who knows?) but the fact that they were let in for free. Does it mean anything at all gets you in gratis?”
It’s a puzzle why anyone should be raking over very hot coals after all this time. Is someone intending to ask EH to decide that Satan and all his hosts shouldn’t be let in to the stones for free at taxpayers’ expense? That would be an outrage as it would involve discriminating against them on religious grounds. What’s more, Satanists have precisely the same degree of proven connection with Stonehenge and the reason it was built as everyone else who attends the solstice event and indeed as every Round Table attendee, no more and no less. It’s their temple too if they say so. In fact, shouldn’t EH write to Satan and invite him to attend all future Round Table meetings?
Update…. Just noticed, EH’s official line is: “During Managed Open Access for Summer Solstice at Stonehenge, we support all individuals and groups conducting their own forms of ceremony and celebration providing that they are mutually respectful and tolerant of one another.” So all that remains to be decided is whether Satan is mutually respectful and tolerant.
Summer solstice will soon be here and Britain’s taxpayers are braced to pay out another £200,000 to provide “Free” access at Stonehenge, with some of the non-paying beneficiaries calling for it to be extended further to stretch over the whole of Midsummer’s Day. But last Friday in New York they paid homage to the sun in a simpler way …..
The “Manhattanhenge” display was easy to lay on as thousands of people didn’t insist on squeezing into a few highly sensitive square yards to view it. The Yanks have worked out an important truth - the further away from the monument you are the more stunning the spectacle is – see here! As a result, at a stroke, their whole event was rendered sensible as all danger of damage was removed along with all health & safety issues and the need for security staff and special infrastructure. No-one climbed on the buildings, no-one tried to gain attention or upstage the sun and the wider community didn’t have to pay out £200,000 to stage it.
“It was easy!” a spokesperson for the Mayor’s office might have said…. “People looked, and there it was! Why do you guys over-complicate it? I hear you try to run it with thousands of people all bunched up in one spot – and at night (duh!) because a few people claim that’s what their 200x Great Grandparents would have wanted. Yeah, right, like that’s a convincing argument!”
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 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.