Stonehenge, by Rosemary Hill

A mystery tied in red tape
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The Independent Culture

When I visited Stonehenge in 1986, I had to climb a barbed-wire fence in the dead of night to get near the stones. I was caught by security and reported to the Wiltshire police. That was the year after the "Battle of the Beanfield", when the same force had donned riot-gear to arrest travellers planning a free festival to celebrate the summer solstice. By 1989, English Heritage had introduced an annual four-mile exclusion zone, razor wire and helicopters to "protect" the site.

Stonehenge has perpetually suffered physical and cultural violence. It is one of the most familiar landmarks in the world, and the most contested piece of architecture in the country. It is an archaeological site, a sacred monument, and a counter-cultural icon. It is also adjacent to a major road and a military firing range. Plans to renovate this Unesco World Heritage site by, for example, sinking the A303 into a tunnel, have been under discussion for over 20 years. The last set of proposals have just been comprehensively rejected. At almost the same time, Tesco unveiled its plans for a gigantic warehouse at Andover, whose main arterial route is of course the A303. A juggernaut will leave the warehouse every minute.

We still have a great deal to learn about Stonehenge and, crucially, its place in the surrounding landscape. It is currently being excavated again, the latest of 123 digs in the past century. But its Neolithic history is only one thread in this story. Stonehenge has also been an icon of Britishness and a Royalist emblem (Charles II hid there after the Battle of Worcester), the inspiration for the "sacred geometry" in the town planning of Georgian Bath, and the favourite picnic spot for Victorian daytrippers, who from 1857 could take a train direct from London.

The most astonishing thing about Rosemary Hill's engaging book is that she keeps her temper throughout, and presents a lucid and sophisticated history explaining how the meaning of Stonehenge is in perpetual flux, shifting across the centuries as it comes under the scrutiny of antiquarians and archaeologists, writers, painters, agitators and crackpots. Each age gets the Stonehenge it deserves; ours appears to be a Stonehenge defined by red tape and bureaucratic incompetence.

By the end of the book, I was incandescent with rage at the breathtaking mismanagement by successive governments responsible for this unique site. In four years time, London will host the Olympics. Many tourists will take the opportunity to visit Stonehenge. I wonder, will they be forced to agree with the parliamentary commission that in 1997 declared it a "national disgrace"?

Nick Groom's 'The Union Jack' is published by Atlantic