The battle to keep the barbarians at bay

History may be Britain's greatest asset, but the tourist industry has been too successful and Sir Jocelyn Stevens, the head of English Heritage, wants to keep the hordes away. The solution is to make our monuments part of the nation's everyday life, says Jonathan Glancey
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A few months ago, I flew the length of Hadrian's Wall and back again, marvelling as much at the surviving 22 miles of second-century Roman fortifications (the missing 51 are buried under fields, black-faced sheep and the A69) as at the vast tracts of essentially unspoilt pasture and farmland that characterise peerless Northumberland, Britain's most magnificent and, probably, least spoilt county. The only thing upsetting the peace of a scene Hadrian himself might have recognised was the Jovian roar of my sky chariot.

Had I made the same sortie last week, I would have spotted an upright, ruddy-faced and bespoke-suited military type parading up and down the splendid section of ancient wall at Cawfields like some visiting Imperial dignitary. If I had dived low enough to disturb the unimpressed sheep, I would have ruffled the immaculately groomed head of silver hair that crowns Sir Jocelyn Stevens, head of English Heritage, as he beamed at newspaper photographers, including our own Tom Pilston.

Sir Jocelyn was announcing a new decree from the vastness of his Heritage Empire to the effect that Hadrian's Wall must be more fastidiously preserved in future, and that visitors must be divided into groups along the wall rather than being allowed to cluster at major car parks along the way and trample the most popular sections of this, the finest preserved frontier of the Roman world, into the Northumberland soil.

Organising tourists at sites of special historic interest today is, Sir Jocelyn doubtless feels, much like ordering troops about. March them up to an ancient monument ("keep those nasty little hands off!"), explain it to them in simplistic terms ("mileforts, Roman legionnaires for the use of, c120AD. Got that?"), feed them (English cream tea, portion-controlled) and march them back again.

The trouble is that this year more than 600 million Britons will make a trip to what we call the "countryside", over 90 per cent of them by car, and many stopping off on the way to inspect a National Trust house or an English Heritage monument. There appear to be two ways of catering for them (cream teas aside): one is to over-restore the building or monument in question, providing a superstore-sized car and coach park, lavatories on a scale that makes the generous provision of Roman latrines at Housesteads (one of the forts along the wall) look mean, and an intrusive encyclopaedia of notices explaining and interpreting the site. These, plus a list of regulations (keep off the grass, no dogs, no laughing at the embarrassing historic recreations depicted on illustrated boards beside the tea-shop facility, no disparaging remarks about the twee and out-of-character but award-winning visitors' centre) and a sense that all traces of natural landscape, history and romance have been surgically amputated.

The other is, as Sir Jocelyn decreed last week, to make plans to divert tourists away from visitor pinch-points and to have them spread more thinly between individual monuments or else along the length of Hadrian's Wall. To do this, whole sections of the wall - such as Steel Rigg, which is among the most spectacular - have been excluded from certain tourist-information brochures, including English Heritage's own handsome 1996 visitors' guide.

In fact, there is growing opposition in Northumberland both to the greater quantities of visitors to the wall and to plans to sanitise the monument by making it increasingly a part of the spick-and-span Heritage Empire. Local farmers, who own three-quarters of the land on which the wall stands are, understandably, none too happy at having legions (or is it hordes?) of visitors each year, while academics at Newcastle University have attacked plans to create, by 2000, a Hadrian's Wall path for walkers, all the way from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway: they describe the well-intended project as a "pedestrian motorway" (half a million walkers are expected to tramp the 71 miles each year). A local councillor from Whittington, taking a gloriously Viking view, said recently: "What bothers me is that English Heritage is protecting Italian remains." Hadrian, of course, was Spanish, the wall was built and largely manned by British and Gallic troops, and the Italians sensibly kept to their centrally-heated villas on the Amalfi coast.

All this bother over heritage, visitors and numbers is a special kind of English nonsense (British, too, at times) which is threatening, in a potty way, to tip our obsession with heritage into a form of national lunacy.

The reason English Heritage is now treating would-be visitors to Hadrian's Wall like the barbarians the Romans were trying to keep at bay by building it in the first place, is that having encouraged hordes of people to want to get in their cars and drive to see a neatly themed, packaged and instantly digestible cream-tea slice of history, it now believes there are too many visitors and it wants to divert their attention to other heritage sites. To do so, of course, it must promote alternative sites with the same energy that has wooed day-trippers to the major sites like Hadrian's Wall and Stonehenge.

By building tweedy visitors' centres, souvenir shops (with their bizarre offering of locally made fudge, "Desiderata" tea-towels, over-scented candles and packets of pot-pourri) and cafeterias (more cream teas), and by investing in vast amounts of heritage kit - infra-red headsets crackling with cod history, embarrassing and unlikely tales relayed over loudspeakers by, for example, fictional survivors of the Battle of Hastings complete with vintage BBC Afternoon Play sound effects (clashing swords, horses neighing) and incontinent signs offering even more "interpretations" of buildings and events, heritage organisations encourage ever more tourists. And then they have the cheek not only to criticise visitors for turning up, but even - as in the latest plans for Hadrian's Wall - to discourage them altogether.

The trouble is that we want to have our cream tea and eat it. Heritage means money. In a country incapable of building a new main-line railway locomotive (1996 is the first year since 1830, when Stephenson's "Rocket" ran down George Huskisson MP at the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, that we have failed to build a railway engine, but we can still buy "Thomas the Tank Engine" books and train sets by the million), the heritage industry is a vital source of income. Heritage, put simply, is big business. But, now that it is so successful, it threatens the survival of the very monuments it sets out to protect yet milks like a prize Jersey.

If "heritage" were no longer treated as a business, as a part of the tourist industry, but simply as a way of conserving beautiful landscapes and special buildings, then Sir Jocelyn's conundrum - how to promote English Heritage while deterring visitors from storming Hadrian's Wall - would be solved. We need to promote our heritage less while making sure we look after it more.

As more adventurous visitors to poor, tourist-sated and horribly spoilt Stonehenge know, the village of Avebury up the road is much more curious and romantic and much less crowded. Up and down the country, there are exquisite chapels and houses that have, magically, been overlooked or spared by the forces of the Heritage Empire. Those of us who yearn to find a romantic ruin or a piece of unchanged and uninterpreted history without coach parks, ostentatious lavatories or shelves groaning with fudge are not being elitist; we simply want to enjoy things as they are, or were. By making a meal of our heritage, we encourage huge crowds of visitors looking for entertainment, diversion, a nice car park and cream teas, while denying those who seek untrammelled beauty a chance to escape these very things; and, of course, to escape the madding crowd.

If we were to see our heritage as a living thing, as part of our everyday experience, then this absurd division between heritage and real life would be broken. Travel to many places today and you will find local people occupying parts of ancient ruins, hanging their washing from lines stretched across antique cornices and crumbling Corinthian capitals.

The wonderful Greek temples at Paestum on the coast just south of Naples, are alive with trees and flowers; wild birds sing from inside their classical colonnades, while stray dogs snooze undisturbed by babbling infra-red head-sets or zealous wardens. In such a romantic setting, off-season, it is just possible, at the fag end of the 20th century, to imagine oneself visiting these temples as if on the Grand Tour, as opposed to a coach tour. At Paestum there are few annoying signs, "interpretations" or historical re-enactions using video and other electronic technology. If visitors want to find out more, they can always buy a guidebook from one of the cafes opposite and read it, feet up, over a cold beer or cappuccino. In England we insist on treating visitors as morons, needing to be spoonfed at every turn of their baseball-capped heads.

We all have our own favourite "heritage" sites which we have felt for a delicious afternoon to have been almost our very own. I remember being the only visitor some years ago to a Roman hot-bath, complete with its vaulted roof and still gushing with warm water from a natural spring in Andalucia. No sign. No interpretation. No cream tea. When I hitched into Cordoba, the nearest city, I trekked around the bookshops until I found one that could help me learn about "my" special ruin. Working hard for something by yourself is always more rewarding than baa-ing along with the crowd.

Luckily, although the most delightful marriages of ancient monuments and everyday life tend to be found in India or Egypt, Libya and Syria, Cuba and Mexico, Yemen and Guatemala, something of the same experience can be had much closer to home: the proud owners of a Thirties semi in Benwell, a suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne, have a Roman temple to the Celtic god Antenociticus in their back garden (the only one, it seems, to this mysterious deity). The temple makes a change from the fuchsias, gurning gnomes or set of white plastic chairs one might expect to encounter here. There is something especially delightful about this relationship between second-century temple and 20th-century semi. English Heritage pays the owners pounds 100 a year to let the occasional visitor (Jimmy Carter, the former US president, was one at the time he was unearthing his supposed Geordie roots) take a turn around the temple.

The moment we become less precious about our built heritage (the moment we decide to stop trying to make an economy reliant on past achievements) is the point when we might be able to relish the past while looking to a future in which we will create monuments for as yet unborn generations to admire, free from fudge, car parks, head-sets and cream teas. Hadrian's Wall, meanwhile, might be left to sheep and die-hard ramblers, while no one will mind if some Northumbrian farmer erects an animal shelter or two against the ancient forts of Vindolanda, Brocolitia and Birdoswald. In dismantling the excesses of the Heritage Empire, we have nothing to lose but our cream teas.