Stonehenge, mystery shopping and an over-excited lemur

31 01 2011

There’s an old gag that goes like this….

An American tourist arrives with his family at Stonehenge and asks one of the junior staff how old the monument is. “That’s easy” replies the young man, “Five thousand years, four months and three weeks.” “That’s amazing” says the American, “How the heck can you be so precise?” “Well” he proudly declares, “next week I’ll have been working here for five months, and I remember them telling me on my first day that it was 5,000 years old, so….”

Now, before the estimable Simon Thurley gets on the phone to assure me that such a thing could never have happened, what with English Heritage’s superb staff training programmes for new staff, I must stress that it’s a joke about the uncertainty of prehistoric dating, not a critique of EH’s induction procedures. I am also, of course, not in any way disparaging American tourists. Perhaps I should have simply said ‘A tourist arrives etc’ with nationality unspecified. Hard to say, to be honest. Levity’s a tricky thing, as I discovered when The Daily Telegraph’s Mandrake column cast its rheumy eye over one of my earlier efforts.

And some fell on stony ground, as they say…

Ancient standing stones of Stonehenge, near Salisbury in Wilthsire, England UK. © Britainonview / Martin Brent

‘Toy town with dinky electric vehicles’?


Anyway, the good news about Stonehenge is that the Heritage Lottery Fund have agreed to put forward £10 million, and the prospects of getting to some kind of resolution for the issue of how to present the stones to the public becomes significantly brighter. For some, though, the glass remains very much half empty. Indeed for Marcus Binney (writing in The Times at the weekend), the glass should have been left in the kitchen cabinet and the liquid used for something else altogether. I’d pop a link in at this point but, as you probably know, that paper operates what’s called a ‘pay-wall’ so you’ll have to make your own arrangements if you want to call up the article.

The gist of his argument, however, runs like this. The proposed visitor centre, he believes, will ‘turn Stonehenge into a toy-town with visitors approaching in dinky electric vehicles’. And in any event, he continues, they’ve chosen the wrong site for it. They should, in fact, focus all their resources on repairs and restoration rather than interpretation (by which he means visitor centres, and so on) or, better still, be stripped of their grant-giving powers and pass all the Lottery money to the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and other bodies that will spend it on ‘front-line rescue of natural and man-made heritage, and not on frills and embellishments.’


The point here surely is that, yes, there will always be a long line of hard cases, where buildings and monuments – each with their own wonderful story, and each with a really strong case for support – are overlooked; while other things – less deserving in the eyes of the chap making the case – get the nod. That’s the nature of democracy and professional judgement. For my part, I believe that our heritage buck must go on more than simply renovation, important though that is, because history is a narrative (to use, without apology, a word that has become almost meaningless through over-use in public life recently) as well as a selection of beautifully preserved artefacts and buildings. English Heritage understands this, and they put it into practice with enormous skill and imagination. Audio tours, computer visualisations, historic re-enactments and all the other things they do are, largely thanks to the calibre of the people they employ, so much more than ‘frills and embellishments’.

Personally I’m absolutely delighted that the HLF have stepped in and I believe that grants like this are exactly what Lottery players would want the good cause money to go towards. And, if Marcus Binney slips a quid across the counter of his local news agent every Wednesday and Saturday for a crafty Lucky Dip, then I can only remind him that, as I said last week, rather more of his good cause contribution will very shortly be going towards heritage projects, and that can’t be bad, can it?

John Penrose blog:

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website

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