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Submitted by a Correspondent:
THE SELFIE – A SHORT HISTORY
When in 1651, exactly 363 years ago yesterday, Charles II visited Stonehenge he didn’t do it to cross it off his “Bucket List”. Charles didn’t take advantage of any “photo opportunity” moment, indeed he would have shunned recognition. Nor did he arrive with a massive entourage, his servants preferred Salisbury Fair.
What changed between the visit of Charles and the visit of Barack Obama in 2014, is the selfie – everyone increasingly wanting to write themselves into the story. To borrow from one of the American President’s predecessors: it is not what the present can do for Stonehenge, but what the monument can do for the present. As well as the long past, it is surely time for visitors to be reminded to spare the monument’s future a thought…
Well OK it’s a false headline, she was actually fined €600 for stubbing out a cigarette on the pristine beach of Alghero in Sardinia but it reminded us that we hadn’t finished ranting about how we British allow Stonehenge to be disrespected. Compare and contrast her cigarette stub with this…..
How did we sleepwalk into a position where we tolerate treating our national icon in that way in full view of the rest of the world? On one day of the year only (no-one would dream of dropping a molecule of litter there on any of the other 364). There has to be a way to stop it and it’s clearly up to those who say they respect Stonehenge most to come up with a clear, practical proposal to achieve it. (Clue: numbers!)
Update 1 September 2014
EH has just announced the date for the next few Round Table meetings. Believe it or not there will be nine of them before next year’s summer solstice…..
Thu 2 October 2014
Thu 6 November 2014
Thu 4 December 2014
Thu 8 January 2015
Thu 5 February 2015
Thu 5 March 2015
Thu 2 April 2015
Thu 7 May 2015
Thu 4 June 2015
“Believe it or not” is an appropriate phrase because if they are like the ones held for the past decade they’ll only be concerned with minor matters or with endless, fruitless variations of “give us more access” followed by polite refusals (because agreeing to do so would conflict with EH’s statutory duty to protect). Not one of them, probably, will be concerned with the one thing that’s needed: restricting numbers so that adequate control can be maintained.
In answer to an enquiry from a user of The Modern Antiquarian forum English Heritage have made their position on climbing onto the stones at Stonehenge crystal clear. They point out they have no choice or discretion about not allowing people to touch the stones as they are “bound by the monument’s own government regulations under which the monument is protected” and that touching the stones is “a contravention of the regulations” and crucially, that the situation applies at all times without exception: “These regulations are still in place during the managed open access of the Solstices and Equinoxes”….“The law is clear: it is illegal to touch the stones and those who do so are committing a criminal offence”.
As everyone knows though, at summer solstice when tens of thousands are crowded inside the circle English Heritage is simply unable to prevent scores of people clambering on the stones, as is always shown the next day in the world’s press. Some argue that the law is an ass and that touching is no big deal. On the other hand we heard recently that damage had been done at every one of a run of ten successive summer solstice gatherings. No doubt EH will clarify if that’s wrong.
There is probably only one long term solution, which is to limit the number of people inside the circle (although in the meantime it might be good for EH to grumble about the stone-clamberers the next day rather than announce everything went very well!). It’s all about restricting the number of people inside the circle to a manageable (and also a financially affordable) amount, and allowing everyone else to celebrate near but outside the circle.
But that in itself is a problem. While a lot of those who are truly devoted to Stonehenge – some Druids, pagans and others – might well be persuaded to support such a move what about the less committed – the thousands of one-off, slightly tipsy party-goers? Would they behave or would they see it as a return of Mrs Thatcher and insist on their “right” to go inside the stones to see the sunrise?
Who knows? It’s rather up to the committed people, the Druids, pagans and others to take a lead in proposing a “limited access” solution rather than endlessly banging on about “free and open access” which is quite clearly an impractical notion. It would certainly beat endless bellyaching about how badly EH runs the place and how hard done by they all are – and those of us who have to foot the enormous annual bill for the current shindig would be grateful too!
Incidentally, this year’s event was a right old shambles – see the latest Round Table debrief – including 3 lots of damage:
Curator of stones reported that someone has used a resin to draw a couple of numbers on the stones which is proving very difficult to remove. We need to focus on people doing this. Also in the last hour or so,chalk drawings were made on the stones. Lots of candle-wax, but even more worrying that people were sticking chewing gum on the stones. Also excrement and effluence in the stones area.
The Government’s Autumn statement will take place in early December. It will contain the results of the current feasibility study into ways in which congestion on the A303, including the section around Stonehenge, can be eased. It appears that there is a real determination to resolve the issue – perhaps because it has been calculated that many votes will be lost by not doing so – and it can therefore be anticipated that unlike previous studies this one will be speedily acted upon.
Hence it’s likely that a tunnel is well and truly back on the agenda and could actually be built, not just talked about. So will it be the “short tunnel” rather than a long one? It’s a fair bet it will be for if the question was “will it be an expensive or less expensive one” no-one would be in any doubt about the answer. Yet no clues are being given. Indeed, English Heritage who are pushing for a tunnel “with all our strength” won’t tell us which tunnel they favour.
We’ve been repeatedly banging on about this for some time – see here – but at the risk of repeating ourselves ad nauseam and for the avoidance of all possible doubt, a short tunnel will be massively damaging – so said not us but almost every archaeological and heritage organisation the last time it was proposed. It would be nice if they all started banging on about it NOW, and didn’t wait until December when the die is cast and the chances of changing anything will have all but disappeared.
Oh, and just in case the subject should suddenly be on everyone’s lips in early December (as we have a sinking feeling it may be) a tunnel that is slightly longer than a short one is still a short one, and is still massively damaging…..!
English Heritage have just bought three buses to supplement the land trains at Stonehenge which have proved highly problematical and inadequate. Hopefully this will solve at a stroke many of the difficulties that have marred the opening six months of the new visitor experience. Like all human beings we really, really hate to say we told you so but we have to say – we told you so! Here’s the Heritage Journal, 25th April 2010, commenting on a Wiltshire Council Strategic Planning Department document on “a proposed land train between the new visitor centre and the stones”:
So why not just use buses? These days there are as many environment-friendly innovations applying to them as to land trains – electric, hybrid, low-impact, you name it. And in addition, they are arguably just as or more flexible, inexpensive, safe, weatherproof, robust, long-lasting, reliable and easy to load – and they have a pretty small turning circle (hence require only a small footprint near the stones). Half a dozen of those and the job could be done – with no expensive, exclusive maintenance agreements with manufacturers, no equally expensive “custom built” elements – and let’s face it, buses are rather well-tested technology so they’d definitely give a high degree of reliability.
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.
As you may have noticed, we’ve been trying to get to the bottom of what the Government’s renewed enthusiasm to sort out the A303 actually involves – and particularly whether it would mean a tunnel at Stonehenge – and very particularly whether it would be a “long tunnel” or a hugely damaging “short tunnel”.
The last time the latter was mooted just about every archaeological and heritage organisation except English Heritage opposed it yet it almost went ahead regardless and was only cancelled when the world plunged into a financial crisis. Now the economy has improved, the pressure to sort out the congestion has built up once again and, by various accounts, technology has made tunnelling much cheaper. The Government is giving out strong signals it’s going to do something major and English Heritage has been expressing enthusiasm for “a tunnel” but our attempts to get them to say which tunnel they were thinking of when they said they were fighting for one (including via a Freedom of Information request) have been unsuccessful.
It’s to be hoped that The National Trust, which was strongly opposed to the previous short tunnel would be equally opposed to any new proposal for one. Unfortunately they are yet to say so. Instead, there’s this:
“Like many we recognise there are real problems at Stonehenge and we have for many years supported the principle of improving the road network in order to improve the road and the quality of the environment across the Stonehenge Landscape. Some people are insisting change is needed to ease congestion levels no matter what the impact on the landscape. At the Trust we believe that the current round of road improvements might provide an opportunity to finally give Stonehenge the scheme it deserves and that means a world class solution for a world class place. We will be engaging very closely with the Government and our key partners over the next year to ensure we help to protect this very special place.”
Let’s hope they’ll say what they really think very soon, i.e. that their view hasn’t changed, and can’t: a short tunnel at Stonehenge is still unacceptable. The fact they say Stonehenge deserves “a world class solution” pretty much telegraphs what they think already. Hooray for them! You’d rather be in a position where you’re defending that assertion than be a hapless English Heritage press officer chewing their pencil over how to phrase “we support the Government’s wish to impose a damaging solution”!
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!”
It seems there is now the political will to finally sort out the congestion on the A303. Some “options” are now being considered. So far as the section near Stonehenge is concerned it looks very much as if the “solution” has already been decided upon. For what it’s worth, here’s our guess about what is going to happen pretty soon:
1. Whatever is done, the World Heritage status of Stonehenge will NOT be permanently removed. That threat has been used before to influence public opinion and it didn’t happen. Why would it? It would make no sense.
2. A bypass taking the A303 far away from the stones will NOT happen. The construction and compensation costs would be impossibly high.
3. The A303 close to the stones will NOT be made into a dual carriageway. The effect on the stones and the archaeology would be far too severe.
4. Building a tunnel WILL happen, on the convenient grounds that tunneling technology has become much cheaper since it was last rejected on cost grounds.
But WHICH tunnel? The long, non-damaging but expensive one or the short, very damaging but cheaper one that almost got built despite massive opposition from virtually every archaeological and heritage body except EH? No prizes for guessing. The new study will “look to initially build on work done to date on potential proposals” – so the long tunnel isn’t even being considered.
You’d think it would be pretty easy for EH to confirm which tunnel THEY support – especially as they have said they are fighting “with all our strength for a tunnel”. But no. We put in a Freedom of Information request asking them for “Clarification as to the most likely tunnel option English Heritage have a preference for and documentation supporting that decision as referred to in Simon Thurley’s statement in The Art Newspaper of 11 December 2013″ and we got this response ….
“It is not possible to comment on this, or provide documentation that supports a decision regarding which scheme English Heritage would support, for the simple reason that we have not yet been presented with scheme options to advise upon. When DfT presents us with their potential scheme options, then we will be able to advise upon their heritage impacts and relative merits.”
It’s pretty clear that presented with a series of impossible options plus the short tunnel our national heritage champion is going to reluctantly choose the short tunnel, as favoured by the Government – and all those archaeological and heritage bodies that previously called for a long tunnel and the avoidance of damage to the setting of our national icon will have been effectively sidestepped. We’ll be happy to be proved totally wrong though.
Mr Graham Hancock has launched a bitter attack on the new Stonehenge arrangements. He’s entitled to of course but it loses it’s potency in the absence of any explanation of how HE would do things better, given the practical difficulties. As such it’s reminiscent of some of the output from the more loopy wing of the Free Stonehenge movement. How would they – and he – improve the quality of a visit to Stonehenge while still meeting a global demand currently running at more than a million people a year?
It’s hard not to have sympathy for some things he says ( “officials who have imposed their control on the site” – a lighter, less proprietorial touch would be welcome from those who are currently paid by the taxpayers) but one wonders what evidence he has for saying “People are still able to walk in the surrounding fields half a mile or so away nearby the Neolithic long barrows and round barrows in the vicinity of Stonehenge but I have no doubt that this freedom, too, will soon be removed.” Dare we say none?
Here are some more of his criticisms that may initially evoke sympathy but not when it turns out he offers no solution:
“This weekend I took friends visiting from Peru to see Stonehenge, Britain’s most renowned ancient monument, which they were naturally very keen to see. We were stunned and horrified by what we found there. This world heritage site is managed on behalf of humanity by “English Heritage” who are clearly gripped by a bureaucratic, unimaginative mindset and who are in the process of turning the megalithic circle and its surroundings into something with about as much charm and mystery as Disneyland. Anyone who has been to Stonehenge within the last year will know that things were bad before, but they are a thousand times worse now. One must go first to the newly built visitor centre about a mile from the henge, and then be taken by shuttle bus or on a little supposedly ecologically friendly “train” drawn by Land Rover to the site where you are of course not allowed to approach the stones themselves but are kept at a distance by ropes and barriers. The theme park atmosphere induced by the shuttle bus and/or “train” ride completely destroys the mystery and creates an atmosphere in which the megaliths appear to be held captive, tamed, forced into obedience by the narrow-minded officials who have imposed their control on the site. No longer does it feel in any way that this is an English heritage or a British heritage or a world heritage monument of great mystery and spiritual power but rather that we are confronted by a beaten, destroyed, subjugated, enslaved monument castrated by the dead hand of bureaucracy.”
All good exciting stuff but the one thing that’s missing is an account of precisely how Mr Hancock or those of the Free Stonehenge persuasion would retain the unspoilt mystery of the monument and free it from “control” AND still let a million people a year experience it? No Visitor Centre? No transport system? No ropes? No rules? Everyone allowed inside and indeed many claiming they shouldn’t be constrained at all and jumping ON the stones – like at Summer Solstice, but every day?! Is that what’s being called for? Or do they have a cunning plan that’s yet to be announced? If it’s “anarchy” we vote no!