We’ve just got back from a two-week break in the south of England, staying at various places in Sussex, Dorset and Wiltshire. The highlight was the Neolithic monument of Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, an upland area of grass and heathland the size of the Isle of Wight.
Now, Stonehenge is and always was a special place. I first went to it back in 1972, to celebrate the summer solstice sunrise, along with a whole load of fellow-hippies and a few bus-loads of Druids in white cloaks.
Me and a friend had hitch-hiked there. All young people travelled this way. None of us could afford a car, and it made the journey into an adventure. If my memory serves me correctly, which cannot be taken for granted these days, that particular trip involved being locked inside a delivery van for much of the way. It never crossed our minds that this was actually dangerous. It was just part of the story we would tell when we got home.
We camped on the verge by the side of the road. Everyone camped by the side of the road. It was like the valley of the Little Big Horn.
The tent was a heavy blue cotton thing with no flysheet, bought from the Army and Navy Store in Beeston. We had been offered a separate flysheet, but, as it cost extra and we had no idea what it was for, we declined the offer.
We would try to camp without it.
There is a saying, said by a wise man somewhere at some time, that goes something like, “Trying is the first step on the road to failure.”
We soon found out that future trips would require the mysterious flysheet!
We lit a camp fire by the tent. No risk-assessment was required or carried out.
We entertained a passing army chaplain with a bottle of whisky while we both sat on each side of him, passing the joint over his head! He was a nice man. The stones do this to people.
Sunrise happened in a slight lifting of the greyness. It was cold and grey. Lines of bizarre figures trudged to the monument, wiping the sleep from their eyes. The smoke of dying camp fires drifted in the wind.
I don’t remember any stewards, let alone a police presence. One of the most important international treasures was left entirely to us!
This time it was different, and I was different, too. The 21st Century has happened to these stones that successfully saw off the Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, the Danes and the Normans. They have been unable to stem the tide of tourism, however.
The stones have been hemmed in by barbed wire, paved pathways, people in high-vis jackets. If you lit a campfire now you’d be tasered!
I’m not complaining about this. I can’t see that English Heritage had any choice. Stonhenge is an international site. We have a responsibility to the rest of the world to preserve it. It is as important as the Pyramids.
The visitors Centre is a bus ride away from the stones, and it cost money to look at them. There is a four-month waiting list to get clearance to go inside the stones. But managing the site would be impossible any other way. There are just too many visitors. Last summer solstice there were 36,000 people there. There could have been no wonder, no mystery, no spirit.
We owe this experience to the future.