Saturday, June 21, 2014

Stonehenge

I'm still reading  Electric Eden, by Rob Young - it's a long book - and today I reached the beginning of the end of the Folky road: The Stonehenge Festival's growth and its subsequent short sharp death at the Battle of the Beanfield.  It's an appropriate thing to be reading at the solstice, even though it was simply an accident. 


Displaying a better sense of organization than I do, Will Self has a piece in today's Guardian about Stonehenge and its modern history, that is the history of people who looked at the history of Stonehenge, and British Heritage's recent guardianship of the stone circle. (No Grauniad pun intended.)  It's entitled, "Has British Heritage ruined Stonehenge" - and I suspect that "ruin" is a pun - and is worth a read.  Self mentions the festivals, the hippies and crusties as he calls them, and the Battle of  the Beanfield


The Stonehenge Free festival began in 1974, and during the following decade the numbers of celebrants and revellers descending on the stones to dance the shortest night of the year away grew and grew. The so-called Convoy – a cavalry of hippies, anarchists and crusties that moved around the country from festival to festival – became the focus of the secular authorities' displeasure. Goaded by local landowners, in June 1985 the then chairman of English Heritage, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, took measures to suppress the Free festival. Riot police with helicopter support were called in, and the Convoy was tracked down to a Wiltshire bean field on the border where many hairy heads were unceremoniously cracked. The following year, the Public Order Act was passed by parliament, in part to suppress events such as the solstice celebration.
I remember all that nonsense fairly well. Not only was I living in England at the time, but I'd been to a festival at Stonehenge, and although I was not part of the travellers' group (that was after my visit) a great time was had by all. I can't remember a thing about the music or the festival itself, except the part where just after dawn on the solstice, after the Druids had done their ritual, a large number of us crawled under the barbed wire and sat around inside the stone circle. It was a great deal of fun, mostly because we thumbing our noses at The Man, as one did in those days, but it was not particularly magical, or sacred or visionary.

 photo Will-Self-visits-Stonehen-011_zps5c94ba93.jpg
Will Self from the Guardian article.

In fact, I'd been once before as a small child, before English Heritage roped it off in 1977, and had wandered around inside the circle at that time. Like Will Self in the referenced article, I would recommend that a traveler looking to find The Old Weird England go to Avebury instead. Stonehenge is tiny. It's a marvel and all that, they dragged 11 stones 160 miles from Wales and so forth, but it is not that impressive to a modern person used to skyscrapers and even boats the size of palaces. The sheer size of Salisbury Plain dwarfs it. As flat and as closely cropped as a football pitch, the surrounding nothingness reminds one of the failure of Ozymandias to impress us with his works - all around the lone and level grass stretches far away. Avebury, by contrast, is enormous and the modern buildings in amongst the standing stones give you a sense of scale, and some sense of how important it must have been to the builders to put these things together. Why, we'll probably never know, but you are very impressed with their determination to do it.

As well as stone circles in the Cotswolds, Northern England, the Orkneys, there are more in Ireland and France, which I have not yet seen. Electric Eden is doing a good job of reconnecting me with the sheer age and gravity of Britain's landscape, but has not (at least yet) mentioned that the borders of this landscape don't match the modern borders of Britain.

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