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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.

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.”

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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.

Back in January of this year, I was witness to unthinking desecration by a family group at Men an Tol. I recently returned to the scene, or rather, I attempted to return to the scene. On this occasion, my path was blocked by cows grazing on the approaches to the monument. The surface damage done by the grazing cattle was much worse than that caused by the family earlier in the year.

Indeed, I’m not alone in thinking that the damage caused could have easily been avoided, were it not for poor advice from certain government departments, coupled with the greed of the owners on whose land the monument lies.  Save Penwith Moors, (SPM) a local pressure group acting to campaign lawfully for the removal of all new stock proofing (fencing, gates and cattle grids) from a few selected areas of open access moorland popular for local and tourist recreation, have been keeping a daily eye on the situation at Men an Tol, and have recently issued the following Open Letter to English Heritage, Natural England, Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network (CASPN), as well as the local MP for the area:

“More potential trouble at Men-an-Tol!

As at Tregeseal Circle the cattle are gathering around the stones and using the two uprights as rubbing posts as well as covering the area with heaps of dung and ruining the public right of way – virtually impassable down towards the stream – by churning it up.

This is not an isolated out of the way site – and that would be no excuse anyway – but, probably, the most popular frequented ancient monument in the Peninsula and an iconic part of Cornish Heritage. It is high time remedial action was taken after this warning message – preferably by removing grazing stock from this Croft and undertaking manual maintenance.”

The Save Penwith Moors campaign web site and Facebook page includes photographic and video evidence of the damage being caused by the ill-conceived grazing policies as instigated by Natural England and (unjustifiably) supported by English Heritage who are ultimately legally responsible for the protection of the Scheduled Ancient Monument.  We would urge all our readers to visit the SPM pages and give them every support possible in their campaign against the current grazing policies.

English Heritage is to mobilise a volunteer Heritage Army – “the first crowd-sourcing project to tackle heritage at risk”. The idea is to get volunteers to carry out surveys of England’s 345,000 Grade II buildings “to enable thousands of passionate heritage fans to get more actively involved.”

Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: “Today we are announcing a win / win proposition. For English Heritage it means we will eventually get, for the first time, a complete picture of the condition of all England’s listed heritage. We can use this information to decide how best to deploy our national expertise to help owners and all those tackling heritage at risk on the ground. And we’ll have a grass-roots network to spread understanding and appreciation of local heritage so that less of it becomes at risk in the first place.”

It certainly fits with something we’ve been suggesting for years regarding prehistoric monuments – there is already a passionate, knowledgeable army of enthusiasts out there who regularly visit those, even ones in inaccessible places. Many of them keep EH informed of their condition but a more formalised system including phone apps would certainly improve protection at minimal cost.

However Rescue News made an important point (on Twitter) :

“Involving the volunteer public in assessing Heritage at Risk is a great idea. But they should NEVER replace qualified professionals!” And of course, doing that may well be in the Government’s mind. They also made a sharp retort to Planning Minister Nick Boles:

“not making it easier to demolish those beautiful places and heritage assets we all value would be a help too”!

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):

The look
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!

The function
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”.

The roof
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?

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Kidderminster isn’t Winchester when it comes to heritage. It can boast about the carpet industry and penny black inventor Rowland Hill and 17th Century churchman Richard Baxter and superstar Robert Plant and the biggest church in Worcestershire but the list isn’t endless. So when a building that may have been associated with the Saxon minster that gave the town its name has been located and is being investigated as a community project in the churchyard of that church (see the blog here) it’s a source of a lot more local pride than would arise in many other places. When I was there someone approached me brimming with it. It was the pride of someone who clearly felt he owned it. Which of course he does, it’s his heritage.

That’s why he took a dim view of this, holes dug all over the chuchyard the night before by someone that was stealing his heritage. (They were back 2 nights later, the chuchyard is peppered).

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I don’t want to tar all detectorists with the same brush” says the archaeologist in charge “but this opportunistic looting of sites is damaging and very frustrating.” Agreed, but on the other hand I do feel that not tarring most detectorists with exactly the same brush is unjustly whitewashing them. By which I mean this: the ONLY distinction that can be drawn between most detectorists (who don’t report all their finds) and the people that attacked this site (and didn’t report their finds) is “lack of permission”. The damage they do is the same. Same action. Same effect. Same loss of knowledge for the rest of society.  The damage inflicted on Kidderminster is identical to the damage inflicted on communities up and down the country thousands of times every week. Legally. People – especially landowners – should know.

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The people that sneaked past this notice with detectors were plain nasty….

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but please, please let’s not allow people to get the idea that such unpleasant, antisocial neanderdunces and their few hundred fellows do more damage than those thousands of perfectly legal non-reporters who get permission. That’s a damaging falsehood the public has been fed for 15 years. They do vastly less.

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More about what has just been revealed at this community dig shortly. (They have an Open Day next Saturday, all welcome). Will it be as exciting as the remarkably similar community dig currently going on at Polesworth, Warwickshire? Of course! Kidderminster has loads of heritage!

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More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting

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Calls for “Free Stonehenge” are legion, usually citing that the donor, Sir Cecil Chubb, stipulated that “the public shall have free access to the premises”. It’s a bit academic as his covenants are no longer enforceable but let’s pretend they are and consider if the campaigners have a moral case at least. Their wish for “free access” can mean one or both of the following:

1. Access for free
In other words, free of charge. But look what the Deed actually says: “the public shall have free access to the premises on the payment of such reasonable sum per head not exceeding one shilling for each visit.” So it wasn’t access for free, it was access for payment, up to a maximum of 1 shilling – at a time when the average weekly wage was 30 shillings. Nowadays, a thirtieth of average weekly earnings is about £16. People can continue to claim they have a right to be let in for zero shillings or that every generation for evermore must be tied down to a tiny entrance fee, but unless there’s a chance a Court would support them, which seems unlikely on either legal or practical grounds, it’s probably time that dead horse had a decent burial. (That’s not to say people are likely to be charged at summer solstice. There are many who would react badly so it will probably never happen, for that reason and that reason alone).

2. Free access
In other words, the claim that people have the right to go there at will, without restrictions. But again, Sir Cecil neither conferred nor meant to confer any such right: “the public shall have free access to the premises…subject to such conditions as the Commissioners for Works in the exercise and execution of their statutory powers and duties may from time to time impose”. Those duties, which now fall to English Heritage, include protection against harm so if anyone can persuade a Court that either giving 1.1 million people a year free range or allowing a limitless number to gather inside the stones in the dark are compatible with that statutory duty then fine. But if not then it’s time the second dead horse went off to meet Shergar.

Finally…
The cost of visiting will shortly go up sharply to £13 (justified by the added value of the new visitor centre presumably). There will be outrage. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that in comparative terms that’s a lot cheaper than Cecil Chubb specified. His status as the darling of the free Stonehenge campaigners might need some serious examination!

Sir Cecil "make 'em pay" Chubb

Sir Cecil “make ’em pay” Chubb

An interesting e-petition has just appeared on the Government website: Open Access to Stonehenge – Annual Midsummer Day Picnic.

Some bits of it are problematic from our viewpoint. For instance, what it says by way of justification is unlikely to be accepted nor is the principle of extending the access time ever going to find favour – see here. This bit is also a problem: “we now ask that there be a freely accessible, without charge, Annual Midsummer Day Picnic between the hours of Dawn to Dusk”. That implies people arriving in the dark so all the same cost, safety and conservation difficulties would remain and no way are the authorities going to agree to carrying on paying £200,000 a year to make it happen and  forego another £50,000 in lost visitor income and let the people who want them to do all that come in for free! It just won’t happen.

However, we like the general idea of a daytime celebration (providing there isn’t overcrowding inside the stones) and we’ve been saying for some time it would be a better option in terms of cost, safety, conservation and “authenticity”. So we’ll have to see if the petition gets changed. An afternoon/evening event, including the sunset would seem to be the obvious way forward and would be a nice compromise in which everyone gets their core wishes – which is the only sort of agreement that’s ever going to be possible. It’s actually reminiscent of one of the ways we suggested the place could be used, a sort of community carnival starring the people of Amesbury in particular, since they were specifically mentioned by Cecil Chubb when he handed the place over….

One other thing that appears on the petition that we would broadly support is this: “We also call for an independent review of the Managed Open Access at the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge, especially in relation to access at Summer Solstice.” Some sort of re-think is certainly needed – in the interests of the main stakeholders, the general public.

Ten years ago today, at the suggestion of our much-missed friend Rebecca van der Putt, a diverse group of ordinary people interested in prehistoric sites met at an extraordinary place for a picnic.

Site of original ritual gathering. 28 July 2003

Site of original ritual gathering, 26 July 2003

From that first meeting grew Heritage Action which subsequently morphed into The Heritage Journal which aims to promote awareness and therefore the welfare of ancient sites. It has perhaps filled a gap as it seems to have struck a chord with many people, both professional and amateur. 140 archaeologists have contributed articles to it and it is currently followed by more than 4,500 people on Twitter (including Nelson Mandela!).

We can’t claim the Journal always says things that everyone agrees with – that would be impossible bearing in mind how many individuals contribute content to it but we can claim two things – first, that everyone that puts it together or writes anything in it has their heart in the right place when it comes to ancient sites and second that anyone with an interest in prehistory who reads it regularly is likely to find at least something to pique their interest. At least, that’s the aim. The guiding principle is to try to make it like a magazine, updated nearly every day and with articles that are as diverse as possible. If you don’t like Stonehenge you could scroll down or use the search box to read about the last black bear on Salisbury Plainthe Hillfort Glow experiment,   the stony raindrops of Ketley Crag,   the policeman who spotted three aliens in Avebury  or indeed that the Uffington Horse may be a dog!

Now that we’ve reached this milestone (which coincides with this year’s Day of Archaeology – do please join in there too, if you can!) the question arises – where does the Journal go from here, and for how long? It’s a matter for conjecture for it depends entirely on the efforts of contributors and the wishes of readers.  A number of veterans from the original picnic are still involved and we’ve also been joined by a number of excellent new contributors but we’re always on the look out for still more. Please consider helping (an article, many articles or a simple news tip-offs and a photograph – whatever you like) as it’s a worthy cause that is only truly valid if it’s a communal entity with multiple public voices. In addition, any suggestions for future innovations or improvements will be gratefully received (brief ones in the Comments or longer ones at theheritagejournal@gmail.com).

Better still, we’ll shortly be holding a pow-wow and lunch (details to be announced) to discuss how the Journal should progress from now on. You’re more than welcome to come.

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Whilst wider interest is particularly welcome in the jewel in the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site crown, as many may be attracted to visit yet remain unaware there is no public access to this ancient mound the following reminder of Silbury Hill’s history is perhaps in order:

This largest prehistoric chalk built structure in the world was started 4,500 years ago, but it has been closed to the public since 1974 due to the erosion of prehistoric archaeology by climbers. Having been purchased by Sir John Lubbock in the 1870s in order to protect it, Silbury Hill is still privately owned by Lord Avebury and is in the guardianship of English Heritage. Silbury Hill is safeguarded by legislation under the Ancient Monument Preservation Act, having been one of the first monuments placed under its protection in 1882, it is also protected by SSSI status because of its extraordinary long record in relation to its flora and fauna.

On 29 May 2000 a collapse was noticed in the summit of Silbury Hill, after infill sunk within a top to bottom vertical shaft cut in 1776 that was undermined by tunnels cut in 1849 & 1968. Over £1.5M was spent on repairs and investigation completed in 2008. English Heritage are now instigating new notices, fences and other measures to deter climbers, because ruts are being worn through the surface, destroying highly vulnerable irreplaceable prehistoric archaeology. As tempting as it is therefore, let us all hope all the folk visiting Silbury Hill will resist trespassing and further damaging the mound.

[ See also the recent BBC report on the “spectacular damage” being caused by trespassers on the hill. ]

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