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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.
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.
Yesterday in our article A bigger and better Stonehenge Round Table? we mused that the setting up of a new public forum to discuss the management of Stonehenge might mean a wider degree of involvement and interaction with the monument which could only be a very good thing. Today we noticed that writer and broadcaster Julian Richards will be giving the ICOMOS-UK Christmas lecture with the chosen subject of “Stonehenge – Whose Culture?”and will be making some salient observations:
“The imminent opening of the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre offers an opportunity to reflect on why this monument has become so important in our culture and history. Stonehenge is the most important and studied prehistoric site in Europe, yet still remains an archaeological enigma. But it is also an international cultural icon, its stones instantly recognizable, providing inspiration for medieval manuscript illuminators, artists such as Turner and Constable, among others, and generations of writers, photographers and craftsmen. It seems as if everyone has wanted a piece of Stonehenge, literally so in past centuries, and today the question of ‘Stonehenge – whose culture?’ is as passionately argued over as ever before. ‘Heritage’, tourist magnet or living temple?”
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.
As the opening of the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre approaches we’ve noticed quite a bit of criticism being levelled at it (some object to the display of human remains, others bitterly criticise it’s appearance and others (including us) feel the amount of space given to “interpretation” should have been greater).
However, it’s to be hoped the bigger picture won’t be lost – i.e. it is the start of a massive improvement over how things have been and the end of a true “national disgrace” so should be the cause for celebration. Indeed, for even more celebration than will be mentioned and we thought we’d print a couple of paragraphs from the Heritage Journal of six years ago to illustrate the fact. Sorry to rake over the coals but we thought we’d do it now and leave opening day as a matter for pure celebration, as it should be. Those who are minded to moan, please keep in mind what might have been…..
Heritage Journal 6 December 2007:
“We are delighted to join with many other concerned bodies such as the National Trust and the Stonehenge Alliance in welcoming the government’s announcement that not only have they cancelled the Stonehenge Project and any intention to construct new roads over the World Heritage Site but also that they now favour all the non-damaging improvements which we and many others have been calling for. We hope that all parties, including the government, can now work towards this common achievable aim and bring it about speedily.
As for the long and expensive saga that has preceded this satisfactory conclusion, we can do no better than to quote from the statement by “Save Stonehenge“: “It’s an absolute scandal that English Heritage has actively campaigned to bulldoze a dual carriageway through the Stonehenge World Heritage Site for almost a decade. With the Highways Agency, it has squandered millions of pounds of public money designing a wholly inappropriate road scheme that would have wrecked this iconic landscape forever. It’s good riddance to the road, but serious questions now have to be asked about why English Heritage was trying to destroy a sizeable chunk of England’s heritage.”
There, it’s said. The improvements have been put in their proper context, as they should be and plans for the bad stuff, hopefully, won’t be revived (will they?) Now let’s all celebrate a big step forward!
As can be seen, the Eastern portion of the A344 has been consigned to history, fulfilling the wishes of generations of visitors. As a result the map has been amended and now looks a lot less of a national disgrace.
In fact, the map is already out of date because the remaining portion of the road should be shown as “restricted” for as from last week ….
“vehicles travelling along the A344 to the car park near the Stones will need to display a permit. During Stonehenge opening hours, visitors will need to stop at the gated entry point on the A344 near Airman’s Corner roundabout to collect a permit before proceeding to the Stonehenge car park. Permits will be collected at the same place from visitors leaving the site after their visit. Outside of Stonehenge opening hours, the gate across the A344 will be closed. The road will remain accessible to non-motorised users (pedestrians, cyclists and horse-riders) at all times.”
As from December 18 the new visitor centre will be open and motorised access from there along the A344 to the stones will be confined to the “land train” and various authorised vehicles.
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?
When we read in the Telegraph this week that “English Heritage is continuing to push for the A303 [at Stonehenge] to go into a tunnel” many of us may have turned for a moment into a version of Dame Edith Evans !
Not that any of us would be against the idea of a tunnel at Stonehenge, who could be? But a couple of things need keeping in mind:
First, there’s no money for it and not likely to be for a long time. Or to be more precise, the Government doesn’t think it’s worth spending the money on it rather than other things.
Second, there are tunnels and tunnels. In the past the Government has consistently supported only “cheap and damaging” ones so before anyone starts celebrating because EH is pushing for a tunnel they should find out what sort of tunnel they have in mind. Originally the Government wanted a cheap “cut-and cover” one that would have involved excavating a massive trench across 2 miles of the World Heritage Site causing mind-blowing loss of archaeology – and EH supported them. Then more recently the Government wanted to build a “short tunnel” with associated massive damage due to the building of roads in massive cuttings each end – and EH supported them again in the teeth of opposition from nearly every archaeological and conservation organisation including the National Trust, the Council for British Archaeology, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Friends of the Earth.
So bravo if EH are quietly pushing for a Stonehenge tunnel – but only if it’s a long, deep-bored one that all the main archaeological and conservation organisations support.
Rather than needlessly upsetting a sizeable proportion of global visitors to the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre that will inevitably be offended by a display of human remains, let alone the spectacle being posed disrespectfully upright like a titillating prop in a fairground Ghost Train,….
…. wouldn’t it be simpler (and cheaper) to purchase Budget Bucky? for £182.75 ?
P. S. – Buying Bucky might have another advantage as well. The new “Stonehenge Social Media Content Executive” (part of whose job will be to help manage “the reputation of the English Heritage brand”) may find life a lot easier!
Wltshire Council has just published an advert for an Independent Chair of Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site Partnership. It’s because it has been agreed that both parts of the WHS should work more closely together with input from English Heritage, the National Trust and Wiltshire Council so co-ordination is needed. So “The post holder will champion Stonehenge and Avebury’s World Heritage status.”
Hurrah! What could be more justified or better timed? The combined WHS is a huge earner of foreign currency (which will soon rocket as the Stonehenge admission fee goes up to £13.90) and Avebury has recently been judged by “Which Magazine” as the second best World Heritage site in the whole world.
But the advert also says:
“It may on occasion be appropriate for them to attend the Stonehenge and Avebury local Steering Committees.”
“It is hard to set prescriptive time requirements but candidates should expect to be able to dedicate at least two days per month to the role.”
Shouldn’t the “champion” of Stonehenge and Avebury be full time and paid and attend all important committees? Why is he being asked to play such a diminished role and who will be making the decisions on the 29 days of each month when he’s absent? Let’s hope he proves more than a “token”. In fact, let’s have someone immensely strong minded whose expertise lies not in archaeology but in running a big company and promotion and marketing on a global scale – and who will absolutely insist on going to all the main meetings!