Christopher Hirst: New Buddha, New Britain, New Stonehenge

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The Independent Online

Two replicas hit the headlines this weekend. In Switzerland, a campaign has been launched to raise £1m in order to rebuild the world's biggest free-standing Buddhas, carved 1,800 years ago in central Afghanistan. In England, English Heritage is planning a replica of Stonehenge, built between 5,000 and 3,400 years ago in central Wiltshire.

The difference between the two monuments is that the original Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban earlier this year, while the original Stonehenge is still more or less intact.

The new Stonehenge will be part of a £25m visitor centre, paid for by those generous folk who do the lottery every week, to be built two miles away from the old Stonehenge. Another £130m from the Highways Agency will be spent on burying the the A303 for over a mile in order to prevent motorists from sneaking a free peep at the old Stonehenge.

The effect, according to English Heritage, will be to "return the monument to its natural landscape setting and create a new world-class gateway for visitors".

The mirror-image Stonehenge is, of course, an excellent idea. Just think how it would cut the crush in Westminster Abbey if a doppelgänger were to be constructed on a floating barge on the Thames.

I do, however, wonder just how far English Heritage intends going in recreating Stonehenge. Surely, this battalion of sticklers won't go for anything in distressed polystyrene like the diminutive stone circle constructed as a stage set for Spinal Tap in the spoof rockumentary? (Fans of the film will recall that the band's mystic stones lost something in verisimilitude when the addle-pated designer confused inches with feet in his scrawled plan.)

We are promised that English Heritage's grand scheme will take "a scholarly approach". Does this mean that the organisation intends dragging bluestone monoliths from West Wales, as many archaeologists believe the neolithic constructors of the original managed to do?

In a few years time, perhaps a further stretch of the dual carriageway will be buried at enormous expense to create a "natural landscape setting" for the faux monument.

According to English Heritage plans, visitors will be able to prowl round the repro henge, which can also be used to "stage solstice ceremonies". A fake monument would be quite appropriate for the Ancient Order of Druids. As Christopher Chippindale notes in his magisterial Stonehenge Complete, the ancient order is far from ancient. Its members visited Stonehenge for the first time on 24 August 1905, when they scoffed "tremendous piles of food and liquid refreshment", while wearing "white Father Christmas beards" and performing initiation ceremonies before "a mysterious blue flame fed by methylated spirits".

After their encounter with the fake Stonehenge, visitors will be ferried to the real Stonehenge, according to one report, "in theme-park-style buggies'. Though this conjures up visions of Fred and Wilma Flintstone zipping out for a brontoburger, I'm sure that English Heritage will come up with a means of blending the convoys of buggies, their occupants possibly blinking in amazement at the sudden profusion of Stonehenges, in a "natural landscape setting".

Some cynics may say that English Heritage has devised a plan that combines huge expense with gimcrack shoddiness with the sole aim of keeping people away from our greatest ancient monument. The irony is that our distant forebears would scarcely have put such thought and effort into building a structure that no one would see or come near.

Still, if English Heritage is really determined to ensure the public does not get near this ancient religious edifice, the most effective approach is the one already adopted by the Taliban.

chirst@globalnet.co.uk

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