2016 will see not only the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, but another anniversary connected with an important tourist attraction and symbol of British Culture – Stonehenge. No, that doesn’t mean that archaeologists have finally found exact dates for the construction of this ancient landmark; this year simply marks the thirtieth anniversary of Stonehenge being officially recognised as a World Heritage Site. Today, it’s a national legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument, owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage, while the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust.
The oldest part of Stonehenge is estimated to be around 3000 years old, and the stones which give it its name have been on the site for around 2500 years. How this was achieved is one of the many mysteries of Stonehenge, as the huge stones had to be transported considerable distances (some originate from the Preseli Hills in Wales, 150 miles away), requiring technologies which are now forgotten, or a huge amount of manpower, or both. What is known is that the site is aligned to the sunset of the winter solstice and the opposing sunrise of the summer solstice; this is marked by annual celebrations which draw large crowds.
Stonehenge has been attracting a steady stream of antiquarians, archaeologists, artists andpilgrims since the revival of interest in Britain’s ancient past, which accompanied the growth of British imperialism. The site became associated with Arthurian legend after Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in his twelfth century Historia Regum Britanniae, included a “fanciful” story claiming that Stonehenge had been constructed by Merlin. The painters John Constable and J.M.W. Turner both portrayed the stones (not always accurately), yet the monument and the surrounding land remained in private ownership until the late 1920s, when a nationwide appeal was launched to save Stonehenge from “the encroachment of modern developments”. The land around the monument was purchased with the appeal donations, and given to the National Trust to preserve. Nearby buildings were removed, although the roads were not, and the land was returned to agricultural use, before becoming part of a grassland reversion scheme, returning the fields to their previous state, as native chalk grassland.
Despite the constant flow of traffic from the main road beside the monument, and huge numbers of casual visitors, Stonehenge still attracted those drawn by its mystical atmosphere. Adherents of Neopaganism and New Age beliefs, particularly the Neodruids, viewed Stonehenge as a sacred place, and although the Druids were ridiculed in the press for their odd costumes and false beards, numbers grew when the site became important to Britain’s hippy movement. Among them were an anarchist element who staged open-air festivals in defiance of the law; Stonehenge hosted free festivals from 1972 to 1984 and during this period, serious erosion to the stones led to them being roped off. More seriously, 1985 saw what was called the “Battle of the Beanfield”, which led to one of the largest mass arrests in British legal history. The police prevented The Peace Convoy, a convoy of several hundred New Age travellers, from setting up the 1985 Stonehenge Free Festival. A High Court injunction was obtained by the authorities to prohibit the festival from taking place. Around 1300 police officers took part in the operation against approximately 600 travellers. Television reports showed the police smashing up the travellers’ vehicles and using considerable violence, even against women and children. More than 500 people were arrested. A local landowner, the Earl of Cardigan, was so disgusted by what he saw that he refused to allow the police on his land. Even though the New Age travellers themselves were a ragged, alienated and unruly group who didn’t always behave like gentle, peace-loving hippies, they gained some public sympathy, as the police had behaved in a similar way towards striking miners earlier that year.
But Stonehenge became closed off during the summer solstice, and there continued to be stand-offs between solstice-goers and police in the late 1980s and the 1990s. In 1993 a government minister described the state of Stonehenge, now surrounded by a barbedwire fence, as “a national disgrace”, but slowly, things began to improve. A Visitor Centre was planned and, after some delays, opened in 2013. Access to the stones is still restricted, traffic noise from the adjacent roads is still a problem, but English Heritage restored open access to Stonehenge during the summer solstice in 2000, and since then there have been no major problems at solstice gatherings. But lots of mysteries remain. Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed that Stonehenge is part of a larger system of prehistoric monuments in the area, yet it seems that we are still no closer to understanding why it was constructed.
A Wikipedia article examines the various theories at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theories_about_Stonehenge.
You can read about the Battle of the Beanfield at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_ the_Beanfield
If you’re planning visiting Stonehenge check out http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/plan-your-visit/