“What is happening to Stonehenge does not reflect the increasing accord that is supposed to come from progress and rationality.”Christopher Chippindale, Stonehenge Complete, 1985
Last month, £10 million of lottery money was awarded for the building of new visitor facilities for Stonehenge, to be sited a mile and half west at Airman’s Corner, with a transit system to a drop-off point near the stones, enabling the current car park to be removed. “We want to get rid of the traffic and modern clutter,” said an English Heritage spokesman. “At the moment we are not doing it justice.” EH still has to find a third of the £27.5 million total cost of the project, which received planning permission in June despite high-level criticism of how it will integrate into the landscape.
Marcus Binney, architecture correspondent of The Times (a London newspaper), produced a thundering response to the EH plan to “turn Stonehenge into a toy-town with visitors approaching in dinky electric vehicles”. “Will the Heritage Lottery never learn?” he wrote. “While Britain’s heritage crumbles it fiddlefaddles with daft and hideously expensive interpretation and exhibition centres, doing increasingly more harm than good with its politically correct schemes which have no place in an era when money should be concentrated on essentials and emergencies”, on “front-line rescue of natural and man-made heritage, and not on frills and embellishments.”
Quite so. Once it’s gone, it’s gone and no amount of replicas and substitutes will make up for that. The Ministry’s management of Stonehenge has never inspired confidence. After the stones were gifted to the nation an archæological dig was carried out in the 1920’s. It was carried out so incompetently that it amounted to the destruction of one half of the site while recovering hardly any useful data. Conservation interests have battled ever since for attention against the insatiable demands of the tourist industry. When the Antrobus family owned the stones, access was eventually controlled for the first time with fencing and a gate, but as much for the site’s protection as for private profit. Under public ownership, ostensibly in the public interest, the locusts must go where they will. Numbers are now so huge – three times what they were 50 years ago – that since 1978 the stones themselves have been roped off and the trippers have to traipse past and gawp from a distance. The average visitor spends just 20 minutes at the site. Official reports have seriously attempted to argue that a loss of real archæology can be offset against new access arrangements to produce a net positive outcome for the nation’s cultural heritage. Or at least for the EH bank balance. This is the organisation, remember, whose past chairman suggested letting out the catering to McDonalds.
Stonehenge is pivotal in more ways than the purely geographical. It marks the point where all the escalating agendas of destructive transformation in Wessex converge. The road lobby is one of the most persistent arguers, demanding the dualling of the A303, its diversion or undergrounding, all so that Londoners are not held up by bottlenecks in their mad dash down to the weekend cottage in Cornwall. It finds a ready ally in EH, incensed by the fact that drivers can get a great view of the stones without paying a penny. That, rather than air pollution, is what the talk of removing the roads on Stonehenge Down is really about. Having been there for generations they are arguably part of the history EH was supposedly set up to defend. To remove them is as unhistorical as the ‘restorations’ of ancient Athens and Rome that erased mediæval structures whose story seemingly got in the way of the official line. Our Ministry of Works did much the same in the 60’s with its heavy-handed stripping back of the friary sites in Gloucester to their bland mediæval skeletons.
That is the problem with interpretation. It tells us far more about ourselves – our own pre-occupations and prejudices – than it ever can about the past. Archæology can only rarely hint at the sounds and the organic colours of prehistoric life. Those of Amerindian cultures often get pressed into service to fill the sensory gap. Handled with care, that can be an imaginative improvisation but otherwise it can subvert the reality that we simply don’t know. Professional interpretation can be very dismissive of the wishful thinking displayed by New Age pagans when it comes to re-creating the past. Rightly so, where devoid of reasonable foundation. But its own efforts are not necessarily categorically different. The ideological pressure to make the Stonehenge experience the multi-media ‘Stonehenge Experience’ becomes overpowering.
EH is a badly designed organisation. Its role as touristic showman inevitably compromises its other role as independent adviser on heritage priorities. The Coalition’s plans to streamline the quangos, throwing still more responsibilities into the mix, will only add to the muddle. EH’s presentation of properties in Cornwall has been condemned for its cultural insensitivity on another nation’s territory. Scotland and Wales have their own heritage bodies and we look forward to Wessex too taking control of its own past. A Wessex equivalent of EH will need to take property management out of the hands of policy makers and fund distributors so that there is a level playing field for all.
It’s tempting to suggest offering the lot to the National Trust, but Mrs Thatcher tried that one early on in the 80’s, a time when several local councils were also having a clear-out in the Trust’s direction. The Trust realised soon enough what was afoot, looked the nation’s gift horse in the mouth, found it didn’t come with an endowment for maintenance in perpetuity and rightly turned it down. EH was Mrs T’s Plan B. The Trust used to be a heritage-conscious organisation but we honestly can’t say it is now, not since earlier this year when it abolished its Wessex region. In favour of a ‘South West’ one, aligned exactly with the Prescott zone of the same name. Independent of the Government? You must be joking. The control freaks have got inside and the Trust is doomed to become a satellite of Whitehall, dutifully rolling out whatever deracinating initiative comes with the money. A complete overhaul of the heritage sector is now needed to place our past back at the heart of the community and prevent it becoming increasingly the plaything of the London-centred chattering classes.
Changing structures will not change the future of Stonehenge without wider changes in our society. The frazzled language we use to describe it is degenerating fast, with must-see exciting world-class iconic heritage separating us further and further from any real understanding of what is before us. It cries out for a little boy to point to the nakedness of it all, that Stonehenge is a clever arrangement of rocks in a field, about which we know next to nothing, and that our attempts at greater knowledge are often counter-productive. If tourists are disappointed, then it was wrong to have promised them a prehistoric Disneyland.
Management of the site is becoming ever more complex because of the ever-increasing demands placed upon it. (Regulatory power always expands in proportion to the ecologically destabilising effects of economic and population growth, especially in high-density situations like cities and tourist hotspots.) When, in the early 1950’s, visitor numbers were one-seventh of what they are today, the grass wore away each summer but recovered in the off-season. Not any more. A sane policy has to put a stop to the philosophy that maximising the number of ‘quality visitor experiences’ is the name of the game and the devil take the hindmost. If EH is serious about wanting to protect Stonehenge, why does it market it so aggressively, while other properties with greater capacity to absorb visitors are neglected? As with growth generally and the pressures it places on all our resources, putting up the ‘Full’ sign would not be a bad move. Living within environmental limits means saying no sometimes. And really meaning it.