Stonehenge, Big Roads and Heritage Process

Plans were announced by the UK Government in January 2017 to spend £1.4billion on building a large tunnel so that the major A303 trunk road can be put underneath the Stonehenge landscape. According to the National Trust and Historic England, the continuing presence of the road spoils the setting of the site, and so the tunnel will ‘improve our understanding and enjoyment’ of Stonehenge World Heritage landscape. Dan Hicks, of the Pitt Rivers Museum and School of Archaeology in Oxford has written an excellent commentary on the episode in the online Conversation (http:/theconversation.com), entitled “Archaeologist: the A303 is a crucial part of Stonehenge’s setting”. Although the title of Dan’s piece gives away his basic point of view(!), I feel it is worth reflecting upon and developing a little further here, since it strikes me that the episode chimes with so many crucial elements of present day heritage management – and identity politics in the UK.

stonehenge-tunnell-eh

Bouncing off Jacquetta Hawkes’ phrase that “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires”, Dan Hicks charts the conceit of seeking to ‘preserve’ Stonehenge as an ‘authentic ancient monument’ by tunneling a dual carriageway under it; the fabrication and management of the illusion of an unchanging Neolithic relic. Stonehenge has been built, re-built, viewed, ignored and/or engaged with for at least five millennia. Developing this idea of Stonehenge having an on-going biography – or life history – Dan Hicks likens the present attempt to conceal the ‘modernity’ of the big road to a revival of Georgian aesthetics, whereby landscapes are curated by the scraping away of present day ‘eyesores’, in order to allow cultured elites to stroll through an ‘authentic’ landscape of artful charade.

image-0065This line of thinking reminds me of the biography of nearby Avebury (within the same World Heritage Site). From the 1930s to the 1950s the wealthy amateur archaeologist and marmalade magnate, Alexander Keiller, oversaw the scraping away of much of the old village of Avebury, the wholesale remodeling of the landscape, and repositioning of the stones, in order to create an uncluttered ‘Neolithic’ landscape, fit for the nation – and fit to become, ultimately, a World Heritage Site. Medieval buildings were demolished and many stones were re-erected to create a fittingly ‘national’ monumental landscape.

Avebury and Stonehenge are thoroughly modern landscapes, reflecting the hopes, desires and dreams of the present day, and it would be a hypocritical confection to pretend otherwise. According to Hicks: “Today, it is Stonehenge’s modernity that is under threat from a narrow vision of the past” – and so we need to make space for the story of the A303, rather than airbrush it out of the picture. In his Conversation piece, however, Dan Hicks goes a little further than this, implying an important divergence from the situation at Avebury.

Alexander Keiller’s never-fully-realised plans at Avebury, certainly saw the remodeled monument as a carefully curated national landscape, but it was very much a ‘public space’ – albeit with lots of interpretation boards and signage to moderate and control pubic behavior. In many ways, the equivalent development at Stonehenge, akin to Keiller’s vision, was that of Cecil Chubb who, in the early 20th century bought it and presented it to the nation. The site was ‘cleaned up’, with several stones re-erected, to become a favourite picnic spot for motorists on the nearby A303. This was the Stonehenge that I first visited in the 1970s; thermos flask and cups of tea laid out on one of the stones. Cecil Chubb’s gifting of Stonehenge came with the demands that no other building ever be erected on/close to the site, and that the stones should be maintained as far as possible in their present condition – it all chimes with an ambition for the site to be understood as an unchanging monument set within the neatly cut grass sward of the specifically ‘English’ countryside. However, Chubb also stipulated that ‘the public shall have free access’, although Chubb did allow for a ‘reasonable sum, not exceeding one shilling’ to be charged, presumably to cover the costs of cutting all that grass.

The £15.50 entrance fee for visiting Stonehenge, together with the practice of sealing the actual stones off from the public, represents what Dan Hicks argues to be an increasing restriction of access at Stonehenge. This is no longer a ‘public space’. I get this point – that the momentary view of the stone through a car window, as you speed past on the A303, while not necessarily the aesthetic view that might be shown on a tasteful postcard is, nevertheless, a thoroughly democratic view. I haven’t actually ‘visited’ Stonehenge for 30 or more years, but I have ‘kept an eye on it’, during regular car journeys; I have maintained a direct relationship with the site without ever needing to pay an entrance fee.

On the one hand, these recent developments make you reflect on all the other public spaces that are being ‘privatised’; pedestrianized shopping centres that are now patrolled by private security firms, or World Heritage Sites such as St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, set amid a parkland that (according to an ivy-covered plaque) was ‘presented to the citizens of Canterbury’ as recently as 1977, but now only accessible through payment of £5:80. On the other hand, however, is a story of how singular (and often overtly ‘national’) ‘heritage management practices’, have themselves sidelined or obliterated alternative heritage narratives. The singularly most striking example that I can think of for this, is the Meadows at Runnymede, next to the River Thames just west of London.

As the site of the signing of the Magna Carta, Runnymede has a central place in any heritage narrative of democratic freedom. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as the ‘Birthplace of Democracy’, Runnymede has become a ‘monumental landscape’; a setting within which several monuments and memorial features can be visited; several monuments to the actual signing of the Magna Carta, as well as monuments to John F Kennedy, and the Air Forces Memorial, dedicated to dead RAF service personnel. It is – still – a ‘public space’, to be visited freely. But in laying out the national monumental landscape in the 1930s, the National Trust actively extinguished a whole range of local commoners’ rights. At Stonehenge, it is the every-day and slightly banal or mundane heritage of catching a glimpse of the stones from a passing car, which is removed from the public orbit. At Runnymede, there is a deep sense of irony, that it is the public rights of the Commons, which were over-ridden by the need to set out a suitably monumental national landscape! The public can still visit (and, unlike at Stonehenge, there is no £15:50 fee), but the terms on which the visit takes place is now that of the nation. The mundane and ever-day relationship between people and the landscape – the ‘right’ to be present – has been extinguished, as a relationship is re-forged and mediated through an official discourse related to a distinctly national story.

stone-runnymede2Back at Stonehenge, I am reminded of something I wrote back in 2006 (a chapter entitled ‘Landscape as Heritage’, in RJP Kain’s England’s Landscape the South West, published by English Heritage), when pondering the question of which landscape best represents the ‘essential landscape’ of the South West, I came up with the A30 trunk road (which is, essentially, the continuation of the A303, which passes Stonehenge, further up-country). “If we try to be honest about the aspects of the present-day landscape that the people of the future will remember us for, then the A30 would be a very good example. Today, the road provides an axis and backbone to the region, and is a symbol of the region …. [memories of sitting in traffic jams, and glimpsing the countryside as you go] is a far more meaningful memory to preserve than the typical picture-postcard images … the road network (love it or hate it) is surely among the most enduring symbols of early 21st century life”. I remember that, at the time, some of the bigwigs at English Heritage were quite angry that I had suggested this trunk road as the key item of heritage in the South West, but Roger Kain, the editor, stuck by me. Just as Dan Hicks has said that the A303 is a crucial part of Stonehenge’s setting, then the A303/A30 provides a crucial way in to understanding ongoing heritage processes, and will be a central part of what will become the future past.