Mystery of the stones decays and dies

Tourism has reduced Stonehenge to little more than a pile of rubble, writes Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
The summer solstice at Stonehenge this week was a remarkably restrained affair, given the fame of the monument and the notoriety of the event. In the past few years, latter-day druids, hippies and New Age travellers have clashed with the Wiltshire constabulary at the prehistoric site. This year, the contestants all but missed each other. The police enforced a "four-mile exclusion zone" around Stonehenge to keep pagans at bay and, with the exception of 50 or so druids and hippies who attempted to jump the fence that surrounds the stones, there was little drama.

Had the weather put a dampener on the event? Has interest in the site suddenly declined? Or was it a case of coming to terms with the fact that Stonehenge is now out of bounds on 21 June to the people to whom it means the most?

No one really knows why Stonehenge was built or what it was built for. Theories abound, from the rational and scientific to the romantic and barking; what we know is that it is the most famous prehistoric site in Europe and one of England's most prized and popular tourist attractions. It is also a rallying point for a catholic agglomeration of New Age folk who gather to worship the sun, as the ancient peoples of these islands did until the 11th century. It was only then that King Canute proclaimed: "We must earnestly forbid every heathenism," by which he meant the worship of the sun and stars. This was when Santan (Holy Fire) became St Anne, and Sinclair (Holy Light) became St Clare.

Nine hundred years on, heathen rites have been all but banned again. At the peak of the battle of police and pagans in June 1992, the Wiltshire constabulary claimed that the cost to the taxpayer of keeping order among the stones was pounds 247,000. The tabloid press used this figure as a baton with which to beat the long-haired faction it so despises.

And yet it is the pagans who are more sympathetic to Stonehenge than any number of coach-numbed tourists. Whatever it was built for, there seems little doubt that Stonehenge was intended as some sort of temple, or junction box, connecting us to the sun, stars and other sky gods. So why not allow it to be used for this purpose rather than confining its role to that of routine tourist attraction?

There is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people around the world - pagan, Christian, or just camcorder-crazy - are gripped by the mystery of Stonehenge. Yet, because so many come (672,000 paid to enter the site last year; a record), the place has been all but overrun. What might be a place of sublime mystery is, with each passing year, becoming little more than an ace car-park with quite an interesting pile of stones attached.

Stonehenge is to England what the pyramids are to Egypt, and like those great monuments is reduced in stature by its very popularity. Like the pyramids, it suffers from the interminable rush of modern traffic. A thousand lorries a day pass Stonehenge on the nearby A303, while the fast A334 cuts right across the once sacred site.

English Heritage, guardian of Stonehenge, wants more people to come here, as if there were not enough already. As it is, Stonehenge features in nearly every tourist guide to Britain; it is a part of the essential tourist itinerary and visited by holidaymakers in a rush to "do" England as quickly as possible. In an attempt to cater for them, English Heritage clucked over plans for a pounds 15m Stonehenge visitor centre for 10 years. The centre would have included an interpretation centre, cafe, restaurant, theatres, lavatories, a viewing platform and a car-park to "accommodate 10,000 vehicle movements a day". The plan was dropped shortly after it was announced in 1993, though English Heritage hopes to resurrect it and talks of creating a "prehistoric park" with Stonehenge attracting a million visitors a year.

But who needs a visitors' centre when Stonehenge can be seen for free from the side of the road? Even if you do pay the present pounds 2.80 entrance fee, you are not allowed to get near the stones. A fence was erected to keep visitors away from them in 1978. It does seem a little pointless to visit and not to touch the stones, not to engage with the primeval forces we imagine to be stored inside them.

Perhaps the best way to restore Stonehenge to a state of pagan magic would be to tear up the car park, disconnect the lavatories and board up the cafe. Sow grass and leave the stones to sheep, weather, ramblers, hippies and druids. And the tourists? What will they do without car-parks, cafes and lavatories? Not a lot, so let them disperse. Encourage them to go and see some of Britain's other 600 stone rings. Stonehenge, after all, is only the most famous link in a chain of pagan "temples" connected by ley lines and extending to Brittany and the great stone circle at Carnac.

Stones might fly. It is possibly too late to save Stonehenge. The tourist industry has isolated it. So too, since John Aubrey, who "discovered" Stonehenge in the 17th century, have archaeologists, John Constable, cartoonists and cranks, all of them homing in on the stones and adding nugatory fragments to our esoteric knowledge of them.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th-century historian, said the stones had been brought to Ireland from Africa by giants who were also magicians and then moved to Stonehenge by Merlin. In 1966 Professor G S Hawkins (in Stonehenge Decoded) found that the site worked as an accurate star calendar and could foretell eclipses of sun and moon. In 1969, John Michell (in The View over Atlantis) declared Stonehenge a solar temple and placed it, using Britain's ley lines (unearthed by Alfred Watkins in the1920s) on an intriguing map of an ancient and secret pre-Christian Britain. The key sites are set at distances that can be measured, and divided, by the "megalithic yard" (2.72 ft). There is, then, method in the madness enveloping Stonehenge.

Since then, theories have proliferated. The blue stones may have transmitting properties; they were moved here by telekinesis. Like Britain's other circles, ancient hills and figures cut into chalk downs, Stonehenge is a homing device for aliens.

The joy of these theories is that they are infinitely extendable and can neither be proved true or false. What they have done is make Stonehenge more alluring, while marginalising other sites. Perhaps, then, we should take consolation in the fact that so much energy is channelled into Stonehenge, leaving equally fascinating yet forgotten pagan shrines as places of beauty, quietude and solace. As for Stonehenge, those who have read so much into it, have, intentionally or not, condemned it to a lingering death by a thousand Box Brownies and Canon Sureshots.