My first memory of seeing Stonehenge, that most majestic of neolithic monuments that dominates the Salisbury Plain landscape just west of Amesbury in Wiltshire, was from the back seat of my parent’s white Rover as we sailed – or crawled – along the A303, the highway to the sun on our way to summer holidays in Cornwall.
I don’t remember visiting in my childhood years, but before we had children Denise and I explored many of the archaeological sites that remain dotted across southern England and had felt that Stonehenge, despite its significance and architectural stature, had lost its soul. There was no possibility, as there is at Wayland’s Smithy, Belas Knapp, Tregaseal or even Avebury, to find a quiet spot and absorb the sense of the place and connect with the history of the landscape that surrounds it. Instead, a visitor was funnelled from car park to ramshackle visitor centre, through some glass cases containing exhibits and then out to circle the circle from a distance of 50 metres on a carefully manicured asphalt path. The isolation of the monument was perhaps inevitable – a product of more recent social history that had seen contemporary culture clash with the establishment, beginning with the Stonehenge free festivals of the 1970s that culminated in the 1980s, when New Age Travellers attempted to camp close to the site and resulted in the infamous Battle of the Beanfield.
And so to the present day, or more accurately, the last few years. Opportunities have been spotted, investment found and a grand plan is afoot. First, the A344 was closed and grassed over and already four years on it is only a ghost of its former self. A new access road and visitor centre were constructed at Airman’s Cross that opened in December 2013, tucked well away to the west to provide educational context and the inevitable 21st Century shopping experience that a World Heritage Site now requires.
The final piece in the jigsaw though is yet to come. To put Stonehenge truly back into a landscape as devoid of modern life as possible, to nudge that visitor satisfaction score up another notch, the A303 must disappear. This will need magic of a powerful kind as the plan is to make it invisible, not vanish, by descending into the subterranean depths and tunnelling below the plain. Vast finances as well as tunnelling machines will be required but when finished, what a wonderful vista will have been created. The view to the south will be nothing but open fields that in summer will dance to the song of skylarks and the buzz of insects, the drone of traffic on tarmac polluting the visitors ears no more.
But even then, I doubt you’ll be able to walk between the stones.
That is a rare privilege, usually open only to TV presenters, English Heritage and National Trust staff or ex Presidents of the United Sates of America. For the last few years though, recognising the cultural and for some religious importance of the stones at mid-summer, access has been made possible for the general public for the night of the summer solstice. Restrictions on alcohol, the car-parking fee and the levels of security present might not be to everyone’s taste, but in the times we live in, these feel like the inevitable and sensible compromises that make the access possible.
The Pirate and I made our first visit last year. Blessed with hot weather we had travelled down by car and joined the queue of cars entering the site. After a picnic bathed in the setting sun, we made the long walk up across immense grassland fields and then down to the amphitheatre of the stones. Our first view, when breaking the ridge, was most surreal, reminded me of the discovery of the sentinel in Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – there was the stone circle, illuminated by a ring of flood-lights, hovering drones and flashing security vehicles – a message from a past civilisation bathed in the brash light and technology of the latest.
This year that first view left the same impression, but as before, once you approached the stones and joined the crowds of people, young and old, gathered from all over the world if languages and accents were an indication, the humanity of the gathering returned.
I’d taken a camera last year but for my 2017 visit I wanted to capture the atmosphere in another way. I had rigged up some tiny microphones in my hat brim, running to a recorder hanging from my neck and as the night drew on into the early hours I set it running and walked around and through the ancient site and bring you this recording………..between the stones.
2 x DPA 4060 to SD702