My most recent visit to Stonehenge was quite different from my first one. Judging by their accents and license plates, thousands of tourists from all over Europe and North America were on hand the second time. Despite the mob, which did become a bit tedious after a while for this sometime studious archaeologist, I was able to look carefully at most of the artifacts and displays. The new museum had unfortunately been closed on my first pilgrimage to this important site, which is located in the rolling hills of Wiltshire in south-central England.
My feeling at the time was that the vast majority of tourists that afternoon were just checking something off their list. Most of them rushed through the museum, lingered much longer in the crammed gift shop, and then packed onto the buses to be driven over to the site itself. There a few were thoughtful, engaging in conversation about various aspects of the stone configuration. However, most were just posing for selfies and were soon on their way back to the buses that would take them to their cars (or back to the outrageously expensive gift shop).
My first pilgrimage to Stonehenge was quite different! A dear French friend and I left at midnight from where we were staying in the New Forest in order to arrive well before dawn, since we both wanted to experience the legendary summer solstice event involving a very different type of visitor – or perhaps communicant is the better word. As a picture is commonly supposed to be able to “paint a thousand words,” here is my painting of that visit.
I must draw attention to the wide contrast between the management of this World Heritage Site on the summer and winter solstices versus every other day of the year. Almost every imaginable kind of bacchanalian behavior is allowed on those two days, including but not limited to permitting crowds of more than 35,000 people (I was told about 10,000 of these packed themselves into the small space between the stones) to gather, party, chant, sing, dance, bellow, blow horns, etc. For these two days only, visitors are allowed to touch and even sit on the stones! By morning’s end some had clandestinely even drawn graffiti on some stones, and the scattered trash, rubbish, beer cans, cigarette butts, and paper and plastic bags left for others to clean up was both astounding and disgraceful. While there was a police presence, the general English attitude at present is not to intervene no matter how rowdy a crowd becomes unless someone is flagrantly breaking the law. This more enlightened view has evidently evolved since the 1985 Battle of the Beanfield, though(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Beanfield).
Comparing and contrasting my two visits, I must admit that I find it incongruous, and even somewhat illogical and self-defeating, for English Heritage to have such strict rules governing the behavior of Stonehenge’s visitors for all the rest of the year, but to allow virtually any behavior on the two solstices. For instance, on my second visit there was a rope encircling the entire site and preventing any of the tourists from getting within 50 yards of the stone circle. And next to the rope there were even signs saying “No Smoking” even though the site is in a giant open field in a rural area. I would imagine that generations of the Neolithic people who built and lived at Stonehenge could smoke pipes if they had them and wanted to, the same as generations of local English farmers and tourists must have done up until this non-sensical rule was created. But perhaps I am just annoyed that I was not allowed to join with them in spirit, and smoke mine!
As an archaeologist involved in the theory and practice of site preservation and interpretation, I must admit to having grave doubts that allowing such a massive, fun-loving but largely uncontrollable crowd to descend on the site twice a year, while forbidding anyone from touching or even approaching (much less smoking their pipe around) the stones for the other 360+ days a year is really the best way to allow for the fullest possible experience for visitors, or to preserve Stonehenge down through the wide vistas of the future. My understanding, from asking some of the veteran New Age revelers around me, and from discussing it later with some well-informed English archaeologists, is that the current situation is a temporary compromise come up with by English Heritage, the organization that runs the site. Most of those archaeologists have little sympathy for the neo-pagans who visit in such large numbers twice a year, and find them comically ignorant of the site’s actual nature. The “Druids,” on the other hand, are very proud of what they perceive as a partial victory in their struggle to gain access to the site, and remain defiant towards anyone or anything that would seek to limit their hard-fought gains. It is certainly in interesting situation, I warrant you!
I definitely enjoyed my visit to Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice, despite almost being crushed to death on a sarsen stone on several occasions by the sheer volume of human beings each time someone decided to push their way through the crowd. That would have made an interesting epitaph for an archaeologist! However, having survived, it was priceless on my second visit with a veritable English rose (see below) to see my sons so excited about visiting Stonehenge and learning about the prehistory of this part of England. Travelling of this kind, especially in a foreign country, is truly an education in and of itself, and nothing learned in any school, college, or university, however illustrious, can ever hope to equal it.