What should we do with Stonehenge?
I have visited the place three times I think. The first time was with my parents in the mid-1960s. Then, as I remember, you parked your car just off the road, paid your money at a wooden booth and walked right over to the stones. You could touch them, sit on them. We had a picnic I seem to remember. The thrill came from the sheer proximity, from getting right up close to something built all those millennia ago.
By the time I went again, it was with my own children, some time in the mid-1990s I guess. By then, there was a ghastly visitor centre and you certainly couldn’t get close to the thing itself – but I don’t remember much more. (You don’t when you go with kids – you’re too busy tending to their every need and being upbeat about whatever dreary pile of antiquity you’re inflicting on them, to get much out of it yourself.)
The third time, five or six years ago, was a more reflective visit, with plenty of time to think about just how terrible the fate of the stones had been. In fact, there is not a single wonder of the world I know of that is more unpleasant and tacky to visit.
Radical solutions are, I am afraid, called for.
I went on that last trip with a learned little group: me, my publishers from Profile, and the excellent Rosemary “Pugin” Hill (she was then in the planning stages of a book on Stonehenge, that is coming out in my Wonders series next year).
We did it properly – by which I mean, followed all the recommended routes and dutifully used the audio-guide.
The problem, I remember thinking, is that Stonehenge is all about immediate impact, spectacle and proximity to the past. It’s a touchy-feely sort of monument. It’s no good keeping visitors 50 yards away and making them walk round it in serious touristic fashion. Because there is nothing to look AT apart from what first catches your eye. There is no detail at all that repays close examination, and there is no greater understanding to be had by looking harder at it. Even the audio-guide gave up, and started telling ghost stories in a fake west country accent.
So what should we do with it? Well, if it really is the case that we can’t just let people back on to wander at will (and I still need some convincing on that one), I’d give up the unequal struggle to construct a “proper” tourist experience. On my last visit, I decided that I would just build a vast Norman Foster restaurant, so designed that every table had a perfect view. After all, if you can’t get to get up close, better to admire it in the warm and dry over a nice meal and a glass or two, rather than wander round in the drizzle being talked at by the awful audio.
But now that the road avoidance schemes have come to nothing, I’m tempted to a more imaginative solution. Bite the bullet. Underpin the damn thing and put a large roundabout around it. Then everyone could have a great view from their cars (they could always go round twice if they were that interested) – and they wouldn’t be forced to pay the £6.30 per adult currently levied, to have a truly awful time (or £15.80 for the family ticket – to really ruin your children’s day).
Either that, or we should all become druids and demand access free on religious grounds.