Why the future of Stonehenge must live up to its past

25 04 2011

Interesting article by Steve Kemp of Amesbury, Wiltshire in This is Devon.

Western Daily Press reader Steve Kemp, of Amesbury, Wiltshire, met foreign tourists as they marvelled at the Stonehenge World Heritage site – and asked them for their impressions. Many shared his view that more could be done to present the stones more helpfully and favourably when the world comes visiting. The nearby A303 is a major distraction for many visitors, Steve found. Pictured right are some of the visitors he met, and some famous images of Stonehenge over the years

 A303 Stonehenge

It’s around 5,000 years old, a World Heritage site since 1986 and as well known throughout the universe as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall. It’s in Wiltshire. It has to be Stonehenge.

Cared for by English Heritage, the ‘stones’ are visited by just over a million people each year. That’s a few less than the Roman Baths and Spa but more than the Eden Project. Well over half that number come from abroad. Having paid an entrance fee of up to £7.50, selected one of the audio headsets available in ten different languages from Japanese to Russian, Mandarin to French, what do our guests really think of the Stonehenge experience? Living within walking distance of the stones, and having a free pass (courtesy of the previous owner, Sir Cecil Chubb) I thought I’d try and find out.

Four young men from Singapore approached me with a request to take their picture in front of the monument. They had hired a car for a week, done Bath yesterday and next up was Portsmouth.

One of them, George Tong, who spoke excellent English, said: “I thought there might have been more to see. Been here a quarter of an hour and that’s it really. There’s an awful lot of people here, is it always this busy?” The site was indeed heaving, perhaps due to the fact that everybody has to stay on the roped path.

Rohak and Anchal Singh and their three-year-old son had travelled from India. Rohak was on his third trip to Stonehenge. “This time I’ve brought my wife and son. Otherwise two visits were more than enough. What do I think? Well it’s cold and dreary, but a duty to take my family here.” Mrs. Singh was clearly unimpressed; perhaps she just wanted to see her relatives in Birmingham.

A group of Americans from Michigan listened intensely as their guide explained to them they had one hour before the coach left for Salisbury Cathedral, the rest rooms were over there and you were not allowed to touch the “ruins” as she called them.

 Kathleen Barbour asked me when the fog would disappear so they could see something, whilst Mike Guinn was just astounded at “how old everything was here”. “It’s incredible people could have put this together all those thousands of years ago, but I have to tell you it’s not as impressive as our Grand Canyon.” With that they headed back to the coach.

Many of us will remember visiting the stones in our childhood, cars parked on the field, walking up to and touching the monument. In British archaeologist Christopher Chippendale’s book, Stonehenge Complete, he traced the first tourist back to 1562.

A Swiss chap, by the name of Hermon, escaping religious persecution, took refuge at the Bishop of Salisbury’s residence. With time on his hands he asked the bishop to take him to “something that will astound me”. The bishop duly obliged with a day out at Stonehenge, at that time owned by Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. What an experience he must have had.

About 20 French students were listening to their audio sets, and I asked their tutor, Claude Thierry, for his views. “Very honoured to be here, much interest and questions from my pupils. This visit will be high on a list for our practical work. Have you noticed how well behaved the group is?” Yes, I had, and how several of them had chosen the English language audio sets. Again I was asked to take a picture of a couple, this time from Hong Kong. They were so polite, and obviously enjoying the experience. Chen Qingi said that back home the stones were very well known and had been on their wish list for years. “What an amazing place, it was so mysterious early on with the mist surrounding. Glad we came.”

There were at least two dozen Japanese tourists there, one young couple dressed up against the chill in reindeer and rabbit hats. They said they had bought them in London. Sadakazu Nogami told me: “It is 6,000 miles from our home. We had been planning this journey for many months, and despite the tsunami, our parents wanted us to go ahead. “We’re very pleased with what we see here. Stonehenge deserves our respect.

The birds nesting in the cracks are from the past, that’s what we believe.” Coaches and different languages were piling up all over the place. There was Polish, Russian, Danish and Dutch, plus Australian and New Zealand accents. I didn’t ask who was who, as from previous experience I know how our Antipodean cousins can get upset if you get it wrong. Perhaps something to do with rugby and cricket. There was no mistaking the Germans though. Herr Schroder said he had all the time in the world to give his views. He and his wife had travelled over in their own car from Munich, calling in at Avebury before here. “This is fascinating, what skill to have put these stones up, and get them here in the first place. You do know we Germans were involved,” he said. No, I did not, but please go on. “A long time ago, when there was no sea separating us, people moved around. Remember there was no borders then. “If I had my way that road (A303) wouldn’t be there. In Germany we would have solved problems like that years ago. We could still solve it for you, but you haven’t got the money now,” he concluded. You can’t help but notice, and indeed feel, how both roads completely throw the whole experience for visitors.

Even English Heritage staff whom I spoke to now find the whole situation an “embarrassment”. “These people, who have travelled in many cases thousands of miles to see the stones, are being let down. A proper Stonehenge Experience would be a world beater,” said one staff member. With a fair wind, work on a new visitor centre, one and a half miles away at Airman’s Corner, could start in April 2012, plus low noise surfacing for the main road, at a total cost of £30 million.

So there is the prospect of a proper experience and existence for Stonehenge. The people who built Stonehenge, wherever they came from, must have felt proud when the work was finished, I think the least we can do is put the pride back into the Stonehenge Experience.

Merlin @ Stonehnenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website

Sponsored by ‘The Stonehenge Tour Company’ – www.SonehengeTours.com



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