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As this series has shown, we like the idea of Stonehenge as a gathering place, but the form of such gatherings remains a matter for debate, particularly with regard to winter solstice gatherings as their nature has been changing. Until recently just a few hundred people would attend and they’d all be highly respectful, but numbers are rising – over five thousand attended this year – and significantly, for the first time, a number of people were seen blatantly climbing on the stones (see the video below). It suggests the obvious – that like in the summer, more people means less control of misbehaviour. Winter solstice used to be a refreshing contrast to the summer event, now it is starting to resemble it.
No-one is against fun but year after year in the summer people disrespect the stones, EH forget to mention it to the press and others deny it happens or say that if only they were in control it wouldn’t. But patently it does always happen, no amount of Round Table talking has ever stopped it and no-one will so long as too many people, some boozy and some far from spiritual, crowd into too small a space. In our view the rest of the population is entitled to expect that an embarrassing image of Britain’s treatment of the monument isn’t transmitted to the rest of the world every year – and now, it seems, twice a year. So here are 3 core questions that suggest how the winter celebration at least, despite growing in size, could be kept respectful and spared from being infected by the embarrassing summer behaviour:
• Since the overwhelming evidence is that Stonehenge was built for viewing the winter solstice sunset from The Avenue not the sunrise from inside the stones, shouldn’t English Heritage make that fact crystal clear and switch the access timing to sunset and the venue to the outside? At present aren’t they silently presiding over the gradual growth of a potentially damaging and expensive-to-regulate tradition, one for which the monument wasn’t even intended?
• Bearing in mind there is no realistic chance that ancient people would have known the precise scientific moment when the solstice occurs, should English Heritage take steps to ensure that letting people inside the stones for a second time at a time other than sunset to mark the precise solstice moment (as happened this year) doesn’t become an on-going (and faintly ridiculous) tradition or one claimed as a “right”? Who benefits from that – people who want to use the monument in the way they want rather than the way it’s builders intended?
• Shouldn’t the Lantern Procession, if focused on The Avenue and the winter solstice sunset, be recognised and promoted as the most valid use of the monument of all – and shouldn’t the whole Winter celebration be built around that, outside the stones and at sunset rather than inside the stones at sunrise? Shouldn’t those who revere the monument as their temple be firmly requested to use it in the way intended?
Here is the winter solstice sunrise viewed from inside the stones…..
……. or is it the winter solstice sunset, viewed from the end of The Avenue? Few people will know the answer because the two spectacles are virtually identical and separated by only a few hours. Why then do people gather in the wrong place at the wrong time to view the wrong spectacle? Shouldn’t EH simply switch the event next Winter, secure in the knowledge no-one who respects Stonehenge could put up any realistic objections?
PS, 11th Feb 2013
Here’s a video in which Susan Greaney, Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage (we like her) makes it crystal clear the place was built for viewing from The Avenue.
(Shame about the people climbing on the stones. Anyone that has done that or not stopped them doing it and still calls for Free and Open access is walking proof they shouldn’t get it!)
(For more Stonehenge ideas put New Ways in the search box)