Druids rally for battle of Seahenge

Cole Moreton
Saturday 26 June 1999 23:02 BST

THE TALKING is over. Chanting and holding hands failed to bring peace. So, at low tide tomorrow a lonely Norfolk beach will host the latest confrontation between druids, eco-warriors and the law.

Fortified with drums, poems, and a didgeridoo, the barefoot protesters will attempt to stop archaeologists removing what they call Seahenge, a 4,000-year-old tree circle half-buried in the sand a mile from the village of Holme-next-the-sea.

They have already managed to halt the work once, by braving the rising North Sea and chill winds to occupy the Bronze Age relic on 15 June. A week later there were secret talks with officials, conducted under druidic rules. But the compromise agreed then has now been rejected by some of the protesters. Continuing with their direct action, they have formed an alliance with local businesses and residents, who accuse English Heritage of riding roughshod over public opinion.

The fight is over a ring of 54 split oak timbers, each a metre high, encircling an upturned oak trunk with roots that fan out like fingers. It is thought to have been an altar where the dead were helped on their way to the afterlife. At only 20ft across, Seahenge is far smaller than its stone namesake. It was spotted late last year by a man walking on the beach at low tide. Mark Brennand of Norfolk County Council's archaeological unit, who went to inspect it, found the sight "eerie and profoundly moving".

The handful of people who trekked out along the beach for the summer solstice last week found it less inspiring. The excavation had been abandoned with half the circle missing and nylon sandbags piled around the outside.

But Philip Walker, inspector of ancient monuments for English Heritage, said the find was "unparalleled in Britain, and as far as I know anywhere else in the world". The peat beds that had preserved the circle for four millennia had eroded, he said, and it would soon be claimed by the sea. The timbers would be preserved and analysed for invaluable information on Bronze Age life, before being returned to a safer site on land.

Unfortunately, archaeologists sliced through the central trunk with a chainsaw to take a sample - a public relations disaster that made it difficult to persuade protesters not to climb on the timbers and damage them. English Heritage also failed to consult with local people. "We didn't speak to the parish council as such," said Mr Walker. "Archaeologists don't tend to get involved in discussions with parish councils ... we were surprised to find so much passion aroused by the circle."

There was talk of little else this week in the White Horse pub at Holme. Only about 200 people live in the village, but more than 12,500 have visited since Seahenge became public knowledge in January.

The long beach a mile from the pub is a nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest. Large flocks of shore birds from the Arctic visit every year, feeding on the mud flats and shingle bars, and it is a nesting place for ringed plovers and oystercatchers. Gary Hibberd, the warden, is worried about the environmental effects of the human invasion. "The only way to save the site is to rid us of the circle," he said.

But his opinion was not shared by most of the 100 or so people at a public meeting in early June. Geoff Needham, a former coastguard who chairs the parish council, said: "The sand would have covered it up again. It belonged where it was, now the magic has gone."

Mr Needham denied wanting to make money out of the circle, although his name was linked to a scheme to run tours there from the nearby holiday town of Hunstanton. William Searles, who takes tourists out in a Second World War landing craft, said he had planned to run four trips a day to see the circle at low tide, carrying 50 people at a time, charging them pounds 5 a head. Mr Needham would have been the guide - although the parish councillor insisted that was news to him.

Mr Needham did not attend the meeting at the Le Strange Arms hotel last Tuesday, during which council officers, scientists and druids chanted, and everyone used the "talking stick", a symbol of the right to talk without interruption. The meeting lasted five hours and led to a joint statement which said a compromise had been reached. It even suggested this might be the way to resolve conflict over other sensitive sites.

Apparently, the druids had been offered the chance to build a replica of Seahenge on the same spot, to "plug up the energy source" under the upturned trunk. This would require the consent of English Nature and the Le Strange Estate, which owned the land. And in the meantime, archaeologists could start dismantling the real thing.

Yet that development did not satisfy "Crow", a member of three druidic orders, who was at the meeting. "I can't give any blessing to any of those timbers being removed. We will continue with the campaign. There are druid orders across the country that are giving full practical, spiritual and magical support to this." Others not present included Buster Nolan, leader of those who had already occupied the circle once.

Mr Nolan stood as a Legalise Hemp candidate in the last general election, and described himself as "a forest druid, in that I aspire to learn the wisdom of the forest and the earth", although he was not affiliated to any druidic order.

His public appeal for help in launching a legal challenge to the excavation led to a pounds 2,000 donation from Mervin Lambert, owner of a plant hire company in Norfolk. Mr Lambert has received little in return for his generosity except the chance to appear on television, radio and in the newspapers as a defender of Norfolk's heritage.

Lawyers have told him there is less than a five per cent chance of success. "It's a waste of time," said the businessman, who made the donation because he was alarmed at how insensitively the archaeologists had behaved. "They have treated the people of Norfolk as simpletons, saying, `We know best'. But they proved they don't know best, by cutting a great big lump out of it with a chainsaw. If they don't watch out they will have hordes up there protesting."

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