On the face of it, paying a large sum of money to stand in the open air (more often than not in the cold and wet) looking at a prehistoric monument is not an appealing proposition: there are plenty of visitor attractions that will give you a lot more for your money than a distant view of 70 ancient and artfully arranged stones in a Wiltshire field. It says something about the strange, numinous beauty of the cluster of stones that make up Stonehenge that a million paying visitors were not deterred last year from visiting the site, even in its ‘disgraceful’ condition, so strong is its appeal to the imagination.
Fast money and slow tourism
English Heritage must be hoping that many more will now flock once word gets out that there is much more to see and do at Stonehenge thanks to the opening on 18 December 2013 of a new visitor centre, with much improved café, shop, toilets, and exhibition centre. With a combined income from entrance charges and shop turnover in excess of £10 million, Stonehenge is the jewel in the crown of the English Heritage property portfolio, accounting for about 20% of its revenue. Once English Heritage becomes a self-funding charity in 2015, persuading more people to visit Stonehenge and encouraging them to spend more while they are there will be critical to the organisation’s sustainability.
It is thus a bold move, albeit one that is fully justified in conservation terms, to build the visitor centre so far from the stones themselves. One wonders whether the coach tours that used to make brief stops will continue to do so, now that even a quick visit could easily take five times as long (see ‘Last Word’ on p.48). But quick visits are not what English Heritage has in mind: the investment of £27 million in the visitor centre and the closure of the A344 road running right past the monument is intended to give visitors an experience that takes them out of their 21st-century mindset. We already have the slow food movement (as a reaction to fast food): the Stonehenge Visitor Centre surely marks the birth of slow tourism, a place where you leave behind the car or the coach and living at 70 miles an hour for a more humane pace, or a pace perhaps that is dictated by the seasonal cycle of the sun, the moon, and the stars.
It used to be the case that a visit to Stonehenge was always a little bit of an anti-climax because it lacked one fundamental ingredient: that wonderful moment when the summer solstice sun rises at dawn behind the Heel Stone – even if you join the thousands who come to Stonehenge to witness this moment on 21 June, you rarely see the sunrise because ‘mid-summer’ so often gets off to a cloudy and wet start.
Now everyone can see the summer and winter sunrise in full colour in the warm and dry, any day of the week, thanks to the 360° panorama that greets visitors to the new exhibition centre. Here, a three-minute film, based on laser-scanned images of the stone circle, is projected onto the walls so that you get some sense of what it is like to stand in the middle of the stones. That sunrise is an awe-inspiring moment that comes towards the end of the film, and English Heritage has sensibly avoided over-dramatising it – there is no slow build-up, no portentous 2001: A Space Odyssey slow-motion sunburst with a Thus Spoke Zarathustra soundtrack – in fact, blink and you will miss it, but then it all comes round again three minutes later.
The design of the visitor centre
In essence, the building consists of two pods, one of which contains the exhibition centre and toilets, while the other contains the shop, café, and learning centre. Both are sheltered by a steel canopy, whose gentle curves echo the rolling chalkland landscape in which the building is set. Designed by the architectural practice Denton Corker Marshall, this is a delicate building that sits politely and deferentially in its landscape; it is not shouting for attention. At its highest point, the sweeping roof is 8m from the ground, which is exactly the height of the tallest of the Stonehenge trilithons: stand Stonehenge alongside and the two structures would be comparable in scale – a fact that magnifies one’s admiration for the Neolithic builders of Stonehenge, and their ability to construct such a large and enduring monument using only human muscle-power.
On the whole, the building avoids overt references to Stonehenge. No sarsens or bluestones were used in its construction – instead the main materials are steel and glass and naturally aged sweet chestnut, with floors made of beautiful Chilmark limestone which is full of fossils that will no doubt appeal to younger visitors. If anything, the building most closely resembles reconstructions of Woodhenge, with a forest of slender uprights supporting the roof: there are 211 of these piloti, but that is not a significant number – indeed, there are 50 fewer in the final building than in the original plan.
Glass walls, extending from floor to ceiling, are an important part of the design, as are the open-air spaces between the pods. They ensure that your eye is constantly drawn to the landscape, to the wide sky, to the fields that rise on all sides of the hollow in which the visitor centre sits, and to the barrows that top the surrounding ridges. The orientation of the visitor centre makes the most of views of the setting sun: those who visit at the end of the day (the visitor centre is open until 8pm in summer) are rewarded by glorious skies when the weather is right.
Old stones, new knowledge
Beyond the theatre lie two further exhibition areas. One is used for a permanent display on the essential Stonehenge story: how the monument grew and evolved over time, what else was going on in the world when Stonehenge was being constructed, how it was built, where the stones came from, the connections between Stonehenge and other monuments in the surrounding landscape. It is astonishing to realise that if such a display had been mounted 20 years ago, fresh on the heels of the visitor centre’s condemnation as a national disgrace, it would have told a completely different story. So much of what is on display reflects discoveries made in the last decade, concerning a monument that some might have thought had little left to give us by way of new knowledge.
Essentially we are offered the two most plausible, and not remotely contradictory, explanations for Stonehenge, both of which are familiar to readers of this magazine: Tim Darvill, via flat-screen displays, argues for Stonehenge as a pilgrimage and healing centre, a Neolithic Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela. It is a case that he and Geoff Wainwright elegantly laid out in the preceding issue of CA. Mike Parker Pearson, however, links Stonehenge, the Avenue, the River Avon, Woodhenge, and Durrington Walls into one big ceremonial landscape associated with the cycles of life and death (see CA 270). This was built to commemorate the coming together of two different ‘polities’, using stone that has significance because of its association with ancestral lands.
Nobody is required to accept either explanation (or any other): the second display area is used for special exhibitions, which will change every 12 months or so. The 2014 exhibition uses books and objects to emphasise that no one theory is set in stone, that ideas about Stonehenge are constantly changing or being enriched by new discoveries. For Inigo Jones, Stonehenge was a Roman temple; for John Aubrey and William Stukeley, it was the Druids who built it; others have envisaged it as a place of human sacrifice, or a sophisticated astronomical observatory. In the words of the late John Michell, ‘one might almost suppose that it was specially designed to accommodate every notion that could possibly be projected onto it’.
Gold from the time of Stonehenge
The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes has just opened four new rooms devoted to prehistoric Wessex, from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age. The star exhibits are those that bridge the period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, when metals were first beginning to be made, and when the conversion of rock to gold or copper or bronze was seen as a form of magic, a gift from the gods. The gold objects on display in the museum (and the precious stones, including amber beads from the Baltic and polished jadeite axes from the Italian Alps) derive from an era when they had not yet become the commonplace utilitarian objects and jewellery of everyday life. Rather, they were still used for ritual, status, and display: not least the stunning assemblage of gold breastplate, stone-headed sceptre, and bronze dagger with wooden handle covered in patterns made from hundreds of tiny gold pins, found in Bush Barrow, on Normanton Down, located on a low ridge overlooking Stonehenge.
Opening in July 2014 is another brand-new Stonehenge-related gallery, this time at Salisbury Museum. The new Wessex Gallery will place the story of Stonehenge within its wider chronological and regional context, with a particular focus on the people of the past and the stories they tell, including the Amesbury Archer and the Bowscombe Bowman. The gallery will also explore the stories of archaeologists who uncovered the past – among them William Stukeley, who firmly believed in a druidic origin for Stonehenge, and Professor Richard Atkinson who, in 1953, was the first to study the dagger and axe carvings that are a feature of some of the Stonehenge sarsen stones.
Stonehenge, Devizes, and Salisbury are part of a triangular partnership designed to share the Stonehenge story, but if you really want to travel slowly and immerse yourself in all that the Stonehenge area has to offer by way of stunning archaeology, there are several more must-see sites, including Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, Windmill Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill and Avebury.
A human story
The decision to include human remains among the archaeological materials on display in the new visitor centre has proved controversial. A group called the Loyal Arthurian Warband, led by Arthur Pendragon, is campaigning for the bones to be reburied. They were granted permission by English Heritage to hold a protest on 18 December 2013, the same day that the centre opened to the public, so that they could get their message across.
Arthur Pendragon believes that the ancient dead ‘should have as much respect as the recent dead… the way I see it, it is not just a druid or pagan issue. It is just one of common decency and respect – let those at rest stay at rest.’
The particular display that Pendragon finds unacceptable includes the very rare skeleton of a Neolithic male, alongside a reconstitution of his facial features, carried out by Oscar Nilsson, a leading expert in the field. The skeleton comes not from Stonehenge, but from a long barrow at Winterbourne Stoke, Wiltshire. Excavated in 1863, the bones and teeth have since been subject to a range of analytical tests which show that they belonged to a middle-aged male, who spent his childhood perhaps in west Wales or south-west Britain, only moving to the chalk-based geology that Wiltshire is famous for later in life. He lived sometime between 3630 and 3360 BC (about 500 years before the first earthwork enclosure was begun at Stonehenge).
English Heritage argues that Stonehenge has been rather an impersonal place in the past, with such interpretation as there was rather scientific in tone and content. The new exhibition seeks to humanise and personalise the story of Stonehenge, especially now that excavations carried out at Durrington Walls have told us so much that we did not previously know about the houses, the food, and the rituals of the Neolithic builders of the monument (reconstructions of those houses will form part of the outside displays at the visitor centre from 2014).
Archaeologist Julian Richards, presenter of the BBC series Meet the Ancestors, strongly supports the English Heritage decision to bring visitors ‘face to face, or face to skull’ with an ancient Briton. ‘Given that the past is about understanding people, then those physical remains of those people, especially if they can be used to illustrate something about the life of someone, are a very powerful thing’, he says.
A walk back through time
An assiduous visitor could easily spend an hour taking in the displays in the exhibition centre. The land train will then take you the 2.5km along the former A344 road to the monument that you have come to see. Ideally, though, you should walk, having armed yourself with the English Heritage footpath guide or the newly published 1:10,000 scale English Heritage Map of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Sites.
The reward for walking, if you are fit and have the time, is the opportunity to become more familiar with the rich monumental landscape in which Stonehenge is but one component: new paths and signage will tempt you off the main track to see the astonishing cursus, more than 100m in width and 2.7km long. Still defined by shallow ditches and banks, it was built centuries before the Stonehenge circle. Nearby are the impressive bowl- and bell-shaped mounds of the Cursus Barrows, placed on the crest of a low ridge so as to be visible from Stonehenge and vice versa.
The slow tourist approaching Stonehenge on foot may well discover something else that land-train travellers will likely miss: by and large, this is a peaceful landscape, relatively free of unnatural sounds and sights. Stonehenge itself is more peaceful now than it has been for many a year: the harsh intrusion of the A344 has gone. In the vicinity of the monument the asphalt has been removed and the road’s former course grassed over so effectively that – were it not for a solitary milestone – you would never guess it had ever been there. By the middle of 2014, the car park and visitor centre should have been returned to nature too. Already the Heel Stone and the Avenue feel intrinsic to the whole monument, rather than standing in isolation or cut off by the road.
A work in progress
We are not there yet: the sight and sound of traffic on the A303 is hard to escape, even though the road has been resurfaced with a noise-reduction coating. It is rumoured that the 2007 plans for a Stonehenge road tunnel are being dusted down, and there is talk once again of completing this ‘missing link’ in the dualling of the A303. English Heritage can be proud of what they have achieved this year at Stonehenge: we now have a triumphant – but partial – solution to the ‘national disgrace’. Perhaps 20 years hence we might see the completion of the process.
Admission: £14.90 adult; £8.90 child (5-15); £13.40 concessions. Entrance to Stonehenge is managed by timed tickets, so advanced booking is required. Opening hours vary through the year. For more details, and directions, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/stonehenge
Comments on Stonehenge and its visitor centre
It is a deep mystery, one we may never fully understand. How and why a society more sophisticated than many assume poured vast resources and astonishing effort and ingenuity into works of no apparent use. Some say it was a ritual of cyclical renewal, some a statement of status by the elders and wise men of this society. For the most part we can only wonder. I refer to the three-decade, multimillion-pound struggle to build (or rather, not build) a visitor centre at Stonehenge… If the mysterious Neolithic wizards who built it had had the modern genius for forming committees and machineries of indecision, they would still be in the Preseli hills in Wales, chipping away at the bluestones of which the monument is partly made… The good news is that the agony is at last over…Rowan Moore, The Guardian (15 December 2013)
Instead of just a stopover or a quick photo opportunity, we want our visitors to step back in time and into the shoes of those who created and used this extraordinary place, to marvel at the original everyday objects they used, to walk the surrounding landscape as they did…Simon Thurley, EH Chief Executive (2013)
Pile of Stone-henge! So proud to hint yet keepWilliam Wordsworth (1794)
Thy secrets, thou lov’st to stand and hear
The plain resounding to the whirlwind’s sweep
Inmate of lonesome Nature’s endless year.
It is a work or art and science, of poetry, astronomy, and literature that reflects back to us the centuries that have passed over it.Rosemary Hill, Stonehenge (2009)
Visited just after the new visitor centre had opened, was not at all impressed. Impossible to get anywhere near the stones, the land train is slow and as it was cold and wet outside, the windows steamed up…Emma F, TripAdvisor (January 2014)
All images: English Heritage, unless otherwise stated.