Stonehenge 1984 and now
At nineteen, I was a punk activist living in a squatting community in the North of England. It was a vibrant radical community, of artists, healers, and musicians. Noteworthy is Chumbawamba, of ‘Tubthumping’ fame, they lived in a mansion-sized squat and were an integral part of our community. Our squats were the antithesis of the rats and squalor; some folks conjure when they hear the word. We were nationally organized and an intelligent solution to the housing crisis of the time. Our houses, gardens, and community well looked after.
Summer Solstice 1984
The year was 1984, true to the Orwellian vision; the UK government decided to ban the Stonehenge free festival. An annual Summer Solstice event that took place at the henge and surrounding land, which at the time allowed full public access.
A big group of our community attended the Glastonbury Festival nearby, to sell vegan food to the masses, we left early and joined the protests at Stonehenge. Was it a rumor that you couldn’t get on the stones? It was hard to know, and with no Facebook, Twitter or cellphones, you had to go there to find out.
The kindness of strangers
We drove in a convoy of trucks with ‘travelers’ and other folks living in their converted vehicles. The police had substantial roadblocks and were out in force. All access roads to Stonehenge were blocked. Helicopters circled above us ominously; the noise was deafening.
Eventually, the convoy we were traveling in got corralled onto a minor road. There were lines, and lines of vehicles, old school buses, post office vans, tiny cars, and motorcycles. It was a stalemate, the police were a threatening presence, and violence seemed imminent.
Then we got the news, passed down from vehicle to vehicle, that a friendly local farmer had opened up their land to us. We snaked slowly onto the asphalt and parked near cowsheds and barns. Stranded as we were, The Red Cross was sent in to feed us, they just missed the mark, by providing vegans with government cheese and spam.
It was the eve of the Summer Solstice, and as such, it became our night of celebration. The night was epic, although the threat of violence, just outside the gates, from the police, was always present. ( the following year the violence did erupt – in the now infamous “Battle of the Beanfield,” but that’s another story)
Free the stones!
Early the next morning after the Summer Solstice celebrations, a group of us left the farm and drove down to Stonehenge in a small van. I was amazed as we drove that the high police presence had vanished into thin air. All the roadblocks were gone, no loud helicopters circling above, it was like nothing had ever happened.
We parked in a small visitor parking lot and ran across the road, slipped under a fence, and casually walked up to the roped off stones. I still have a visceral memory of their power. I lay my hands on the smooth surface of the rocks, walked between them and lay down on them. The energetic vibration they emit is palpable.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see security guards coming towards us. I jump on to one of the flat stones and begin my protest, shouting at the top of my lungs “free the stones” And as my little shaved head, black booted, teenage self, gets escorted off the stones, I smile big, shouting, “these are our stones!”
Then and now – 2019
Jake, really wants to visit Stonehenge on our way to Devon. Our GPS, Doris the Sat Nav takes us directly to the Stonehenge visitor center. It’s enormous, and Stone henge is nowhere in sight. We don’t have phone service without WiFi, no way to google the exact location while we drive.
As I enter the parking lot of the visitor center, I can’t contain my anger. I’m livid. “Those bastards, what have they done with the stones.?” I scour the landscape for a glimpse of them. Have they built a wall around them? Buried them? Where are they? The commodification of this sacred site is upsetting. Big commerce is ugly.
The parking lot is busy with hundreds of people. I don’t want to stay, but we have come this far. We park and walk into this monolithic (pun intended) building. The entrance sign points to where to buy your £45 ticket to be bussed to the stones. Before we left the US I ranted about the lack of public access to the stones; my outburst is no surprise.
If you can’t beat them
On the plus side of this ugly commodification, there is WiFi!! I google the actual location of the stones; they are nearby, 10 min drive off the A303. I can’t tell if we can stop near them. I show my phone map to a guard, who to my surprise, is more than willing to point out the best parking spot off the A303. We partake a little more in the commodification, by using the facilities and stocking up on GF sandwiches.
The guard’s instructions are spot on, we park in a little lane, along with several cars. From this distance, about half a mile away, Stonehenge, looks simultaneously majestic and dull, sapped of its energy. Its a quick leap over a small barbed wire fence, and a five-minute walk across a field full of sheep before we reach the monument. I feel a little buzz of excitement as we get closer and then we’re right up with all the hoards of tourists, who are snapping pictures and taking selfies.
I stand in front of the extraordinary stones, leaving some distance between the crowds and me. Heat rises in my belly; my face flushed, I am overwhelmed with grief. I begin to sob.
Once through zoo glass, I witnessed a gorilla, sit in a deep depression. It was agonizing. I look at the stones; they are that gorilla, the life sucked out of them by the endless gaze of mind-numbing consumerism. It’s overwhelming to be so close and yet have no contact.
For a moment I contemplate it – stepping over the rope and running my hands over the smooth rock. In my mind’s eye, I see myself doing it, and almost immediately I see the hoard of tourists next to me, follow me over, monkey sees what monkey do. I stop the urge, and I don’t want to be responsible for that.
Jake notices I’m crying and comes over to comfort me, or maybe he saw me weighing up the distance between me and the stones. I pull myself out of my mood and take a few photos. Jake and I take a hypocritical selfie, (I’ve been so down on all the selfie-takers), walk the perimeter and then back to the car, dodging sheep poop along the way.
Writing this I feel that sadness and loss, I perceived at the stones. The sense of their energy being held deep in the core, shut down, not emanating out into the world. I hesitated to go back to the Stonehenge again; I’m glad I did. They are powerful; they are our heritage. It still makes me smile to think of my 19-year-old self escorted off the stones shouting “Free the stones! These are our stones!”