by Simon Wells
Simon Wells looks at the future of this most beloved sacred site and meets some of those who care for it and about it.
While “fantastic” and “awe-inspiring” appear overused adjectives these days, it’s undeniable that Stonehenge remains one of Earth’s most iconic constructions. Although it is known that the monument was erected some 5000 years ago – and that it took around 400 years to complete – determining Stonehenge’s exact purpose has baffled minds through the ages; megalithic observatory, sun temple, sacred burial ground: new theories emerge as each generation falls for its enigma. Nonetheless, Stonehenge’s popular assignation as a site of immense spiritual significance is beyond doubt
Predictably, for many of the million-plus tourists who visit each year, Stonehenge remains little more than a notch on a holiday itinerary. Coughing up an £8 admission fee, seemingly less than an hour is required to wander around the stones, shepherded by a perimeter fence. Probably of little surprise, two-thirds of the day visitors are from abroad; Britons presumably content to acknowledge the monument from collective armchairs. Nonetheless, many who come are on a spiritual quest – while others leave profoundly moved by what they’ve witnessed.
These hectic tourist statistics masks a small but vocal community who demonstrate a far greater connection with Stonehenge than just a day out. For some, it’s about turning up four times a year to celebrate the equinoxes and solstices from inside the stones – a rare chance to officially breach the tourist trail. While the guardians of the monument honour this ancient tradition, between 1985 and 1999 Stonehenge was at the centre of a bitter war as druids, pagans, travellers and free-festival goers attempted to gain access to the site for the summer solstice celebrations. Believers pitted against pragmatists, for several years the area resembled a war-zone.
Thankfully, the millennium saw a return to open access on summer solstice and albeit heavily stewarded, these gatherings have been largely joyous affairs. In keeping with this new era of spiritual glasnost, staff at Stonehenge appear largely in tune with the multitude of interests that are placed upon the monument.
‘People come for a variety of reasons,’ says Simon Banton, an English Heritage Historic Property Steward. ‘Stonehenge is a very interesting place. People come to it with their own thoughts and beliefs. The monument in itself doesn’t judge – it’s kind of all things to all people.’
Like many of Stonehenge’s staff, Banton has become largely inured to the unusual and surprising events that often occur. In 2012, a party of German ladies appeared carrying crystal skulls. ‘They were on a global odyssey,’ recalls Simon. ‘They were visiting sacred sites around the world; the Pyramids, Machu Picchu etc. Their intention was to open stargates in time for the end of the Mayan calendar.’
The curtain of darkness often prompts unusual activity around the stones – some decidedly more earthly than celestial. ‘People tend to like to take their clothes off at Stonehenge,’ reports Banton. ‘For some reason, they like to do it during winter time.’ Recently, a person or persons managed to smuggle a full-size polystyrene stone onto the site under the noses of the security guards.
Less definable are the lights that occasionally dance over Salisbury Plain at night – some hovering over the monument itself. While there’s some debate whether they are satellites or Ministry of Defence contraptions, no-one has any answers as regards the overwhelming aroma of roses that often envelops the otherwise barren area.
Nonetheless, many are wholly in tune with the unseen mystery of the site. A frequent visitor is Siobhan Peal, Stonehenge’s Honorary Shaman; her headdress and ornate staff prompting interest and curiosity among the tourist population.
‘It’s a universal frame of reference for time,’ says Siobhan. ‘It’s to do with the magnetic field structure here. It’s a place of life, death and balance and always has been as far I can determine. The stones act as a marker; they are an observer of reality. The Australian Aboriginals have known of the existence of this site for 12,000 years. They call Stonehenge, “The heart of time for the whole world.” Basically, all spiritual sites on the planet feed into here, and this place clears the dark. That’s what it’s for.’
Nearby, there’s a small party of dedicated aficionados whose affinity to Stonehenge requires a more sustained presence. Based on a drove a few hundred metres away from the stones, you’ll often find a van or two in situ. During the equinox and solstices, the drove’s population swells considerably. Despite the transient appearance of many of the vehicles, their occupants possess an intimate and erudite knowledge concerning Stonehenge – their respect for the monument evident from the moment you meet them.
Merlin is one such engaging personality who has studied Stonehenge and its intimate relation to the solar year. In addition to producing a Five Season calendar, he’s produced a DVD on his findings.
‘Stonehenge means so many things to so many people,’ Merlin told me. ‘It is the centre of time and space for the entire northern hemisphere.’
Modern Stonehenge Worship
Another frequent visitor to the drove is Dean Phillips. He maintains a website on the modern day history of Stonehenge, a large part of which chronicles the lively history of the free festival of the 1970s and 80s.
‘I got married in the stones,’ says Dean. ‘It’s the only place that I consider worthy.’
Phillips shares the opinion of many on Stonehenge’s front-line that its temple status should, by association, allow free access. ‘We’re still fighting for our rights,’ says Dean. ‘I want everyone to able to walk in there and not have to pay an admission fee. I want it to be a free place’
Undoubtedly, the most high profile sword waver for restoring Stonehenge to its unadulterated majesty is King Arthur Uther Pendragon. Formerly, John Timothy Rothwell, Arthur is someone many credit with helping facilitate many of the changes that have occurred in recent years.
‘A lot of people who visit Stonehenge are there on a pilgrimage,’ reports Arthur. ‘It is a living, working temple. It’s basically the centre of British culture. Stonehenge is important as it is the oldest temple, cathedral whatever you wish to call it. It is one of the earliest places of continued worship in these isles. It has a special place in the psyche of English people.’
During the years the monument was closed for the summer solstice, Arthur maintained an often solitary picket at Stonehenge’s gates to restore worship on the Druid calendar’s most important date. With that right reinstated in 2000, Arthur focused his attention on other issues at Stonehenge – such as the need for a more appropriate visitors’ centre and a more pastoral backdrop for the monument. A mood of reconciliation in the air, English Heritage was happy to engage in Round Table negotiations with spiritual groups in an attempt to resolve issues concerning Stonehenge.
But it wasn’t just pilgrims who were voicing disquiet. The unimaginative visitors’ centre had long been a source of derision, its prefab appearance a dismal, understated entrée to one of the world’s most significant monuments. Similarly, with two busy roads effectively cauterizing the site, many shared the views of a 1993 governmental committee who labelled Stonehenge’s presentation as ‘a national disgrace’.
Ultimately, such barbed comments prompted a major rethink towards Stonehenge’s credible future. While plans for a tunnel to mask the nearby A303 road were shelved some years back, work on returning the rest of the area to its original setting has already begun. In the summer of 2013, the road running directly alongside the monument – the A344 – was closed to traffic. Once grassed over, it will restore an ancient processional approach from nearby Woodhenge, as well as offering a largely uninterrupted view of Stonehenge from most points on Salisbury Plain.
Furthermore, this revival will remove all traces of the current reception area, replacing it with a more appropriate visitors’ centre based 1.5 miles away. Visitors can then either walk to the stones or take a 10-minute shuttle bus ride. With a lottery cash injection of £27 million, the plans go a long way to restoring Stonehenge’s dignity.
However, several issues between the authorities and pilgrims remain unresolved. An archaeological dig at the site in 2008 recovered several human remains, presumed to be either the original guardians or architects of Stonehenge. Initially designated to be reburied, plans to display them at the new visitor’s centre has provoked outrage in the Druid and Pagan community, many arguing that they should be returned to their original resting place. The fate of the remains currently dividing those on both sides of the Stonehenge fence, it only serves to highlight the depth of feeling towards Britain’s most revered monument.
While Stonehenge’s past has been heavily documented, few have seriously assessed its relevance to the present and ultimately, its future. Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes offered one of the most pertinent observations for the journal Antiquity in 1967, proclaiming, ‘Every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves – and desires.’
While we may well get the Stonehenge we’re due, the 21st century King Arthur has a far grander vision for the monument’s future,’What better legacy for the modern pagan and druid movement to leave for future generations than to rebuild it. To actually rebuild it as it was in all its glory. That’s what I want to see.’