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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.
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.
A Winter Solstice celebration is to be held at which “The Ancestor will be receiving his new winter crown and decorations for the festive period….” Could it be the start of something significant?
Few would disagree that when he was set up at Stonehenge for the summer solstice The Ancestor was a marvelously apt symbol, a powerful expression of everyone’s feelings towards sunrise, particularly at the solstices. But clearly he can’t be shipped to Stonehenge twice a year so is there not an opportunity here?
Everyone knows that vast gatherings at Stonehenge, particularly at summer solstices, pose major logistical, conservation and financial problems for English Heritage, ones that they will be finding increasingly difficult to cope with in the face of the cuts. The pagan community are acutely aware of this and also that the difficulties aren’t caused by them but by others attracted to the event without adequate appreciation of the need to respect the monument.
So here’s a possible solution:
Suppose the main summer solstice celebration centred not on Stonehenge but elsewhere, around The Ancestor? Could this not take much of the pressure off Stonehenge and perhaps allow a smaller-scale, more seemly gathering at the stones, to the advantage of both pagans and the authorities?
Not that the alternative celebration need be any less valid. As well as The Ancestor there might be the opportunity to erect heel stones at the venue so more people could see the symbolism of the sunrise more accurately – after all, modern pagans are Neo Pagans are they not? Why shouldn’t they (and all of us) have a way to celebrate modern sunrises properly, not long-gone ones inaccurately?
Who would pay? Well, presumably no-one would mind paying a pound or two at the gate since it wouldn’t be at Stonehenge and would be easily approached without a long cold hike. And the start-up costs? How about asking English Heritage if they’d mind paying that out of the savings they’d make out of not having to run the event at Stonehenge!? Seems like it would be a very good deal for them, the taxpayer, Stonehenge and all pagans.
So there’s the suggestion. Discuss! Could the Solstice be better celebrated by everyone? And could The Ancestor be made into the permanent and universally admired face of modern paganism?
The solstice celebrations at Stonehenge this year looked like good fun, especially thanks to the great weather, but without wishing to sound like spoilsports we think some worrying things arose. See this, 22 seconds in. How many people are climbing on the fallen stones? A lot more than the inevitable odd few one might expect at any large gathering.
Bear in mind English Heritage had done what it could: issuing warnings (about not standing on the stones and the fact that drunken, disorderly and anti-social behaviour would not be tolerated) and making sure there were no less than four main levels of officials on hand: EH employees, security personnel, police and even “peace stewards”. But the video clip clearly shows a large number of people clambering on the stones – despite English Heritage’s well-publicised rules (not to mention the law under the Stonehenge regulations). It can hardly be denied the numbers involved in doing this suggest EH was not in control of what was happening at that moment - and bear in mind there were 16,000 fewer people there than there are sometimes! We have to feel sympathy for EH since the situation is extremely difficult for it - though we do think it made things worse by publishing a picture of it next day without explaining how wrong it was.
But this year is not our main concern. This is: it’s an explosive mixture, a vulnerable site with huge numbers packed in, 43 drugs arrests, lots of alcohol (Round Table discussions from previous years speak of everyone’s great worries over “unacceptable levels of anti social behaviour” which we presume means drunkenness) and, the biggest problem of all, numbers so large that no-one can realistically claim that everything was or would always remain under full control. Who can say what might have happened if the police had gone in a bit too strongly – arrested the wrong person, pushed someone over, tried to eject someone against the wishes of other people? There’s not much doubt there were enough people there with half-remembered resentments about the Battle of the Beanfield for things to go very wrong. Who wants a mass scuffle inside the actual monument – but who can say there isn’t a genuine risk of it?
Is this place big enough to squeeze 20,000 random partygoers into?
We’re not known as fans of giving English Heritage unbridled license to do whatever it wants but on the other hand it does seem as if the reins have been pulled out of its hands at Stonehenge and that can’t be good for Stonehenge. So what should be done?
We wish we knew, but a few things that perhaps need discussing might include placing “keep off” style signs actually on the fallen stones, stationing the four levels of officials right next to those stones and perhaps considering limiting numbers to a level where control can be better maintained.
The latter is not such an outrageous suggestion – if fifty thousand turned up, that’s what would have to be decided. On the evidence of this latest solstice, twenty thousand is far too many to control in such a place and the fact something pretty bad hasn’t happened is down to pure luck. How that could be done is a puzzle. A system of drawing lots? A ban on ANY alcohol (thereby discouraging the pure party animals)? An entrance fee (except for the proven poor or genuine pagans)? Restricting the numbers actually inside the circle (by lots or by waiting list from amongst those with a genuine spiritual or other interest)?
All these ideas could be criticised but we’re sure there are viable solutions within them, certainly ones that are better than what is happening at present, which does seem to rely on trusting to luck that nothing will go wrong. The Stonehenge circle is simply too small and too precious for vast numbers to safely gather inside (how on earth did the idea arise that it was viable, on one occasion per year and no other?!) and it would be better to acknowledge it now than after something had gone badly wrong. If we don’t have decent visitor facilities by next year let us at least have a more appropriate arrangement for solstice.
Photo courtesy PDPhoto.org
A few days ago this exciting solstice event was mentioned in English Heritage’s news
Trouble is, months ago the OTHER joint organisers, the Royal Astronomical Society, made sure astronomy buffs knew all about it so they were all well aware of the joint website about it and the need to book a place early. You can still go to the exhibition but the bit that needed booking was this:
“On each of the four evenings, a maximum of 48 people will have the opportunity to visit the interior of the stone circle after sunset, which is not normally allowed. Guided by astronomers and archaeologists, you will enter the site at 16:30, as the sky is darkening, and be able to remain until 17:30.”
Pre-booking was stressed as essential and guess what? Tickets got snapped up. And now the joint website says (unsurprisingly) “We regret that bookings are now closed.”
We wonder how many of the 4×48 lucky ticket holders are astronomy buffs and how many are megaraks? And have the megaraks been well served? After all, arguably, this is the best event that has been held at Stonehenge for millenia! Is the view of the stars from inside Stonehenge more significant to astronomy enthusiasts than to prehistory enthusiasts? Are YOU going? Did you even get the chance?