Stonehenge – Monday 25th June
The sun is out and the car park is incredibly full. We’ve already passed a couple of coaches leaving the site and it’s not yet the middle of the morning. The walkway around Stonehenge looks busy.
Up by the stones, on the mown grass walkway opposite the heel stone, sit four people deep in meditation. They wear that wonderfully blissed out expression. Two large brass gongs lay on the grass next to them. I’m guessing from their dress that they’re South American, but what is regional and what is fashion, who knows?
I don’t want to seem rude and stare so walk past. After I’ve gone a few yards, one of them blows a horn. Then the gongs are struck and a low vibration carries across the landscape, accompanied this morning by MoD helicopter activity. I have yet to learn the different types of helicopter used by the MoD at Salisbury Plain. I do know this one wasn’t a Chinook. I know those. They bass through your body like a club’s sound system. This one is persistent but lacks the low notes.
There’s a younger tourist here today, mid-teenage groups of girls and boys. And as they pose for photos, lying on the ground, or jumping into air-borne shapes, they flirt and check each other out.
Mark sits and draws. I hear someone say, “I should have brought a sketch pad”, slightly regretfully.
I sit on a bench and am joined by a middle-aged couple with Northern accents. “It’s a lot more impressive close up,” she says, “They certainly knew how to keep things up.”
I’m amazed at the fun people have taking photos. There’s an element of performance in the rituals and each photographed pose is looked back on in the camera’s digital display or phone’s screen. A school-teacher passes by telling his young charges, “They’re about 25 tons. That’s about two and half times the weight of our bus.”
A flame-haired woman in a purple coat and long white dress with a fantastic goats headed staff walks clockwise against the flow of the tourists. Every few yards she stops, holds the staff loosely by the carved head and waits for it to find it’s own centre point before placing it gently on the ground. She stands perfectly still and looks outwards towards the traffic and the distant landscape.
School kids gather around Mark and show him their drawings of the stones. Other people strain to take pictures of his drawing surreptitiously then huddle with glee as they view the playback.
We arrive at 9.30. It’s not too busy yet but a large party of German teenagers is already here.
Sitting on a bench on the walkway the only language I can hear is German. It’s strangely comforting. I’m a tourist at one of the iconic sites of Albion, and yet it feels properly international. The sky is bright behind the cloud cover. The light on Stonehenge is dramatic. It looks particularly majestic.
Contemplating the stones lying half buried in the circle, it’s possible to start seeing them as human forms. Like Henry Moore’s figures on the underground platforms. What is this urge to anthropomorphise? I see how possible it is to create myths and tell stories around this particular monument. The raggedy crows are absent today. I guess they’ll arrive at some point.
Mark draws and a band of students gather round to peer over his shoulder. The younger tourists are far less self-conscious about having a look at his work. The older folk sneak glances and take secret squirrel photos.
Battery fire echoes across the plain. The crows fly in to the monument field, ready for their photo op.
A coach of Japanese tourists arrives. I’m amazed and delighted by the agility of the older Japanese women. They don’t hesitate to sit on the ground for a low shot of the stones, either as photographer or to pose for a photo. And they just bounce up and keep walking round. No other group of women do this, not at this age.
A couple start playing Frisbee while a friend tries to capture exactly the right moment the disc whizzes past Stonehenge. A Japanese woman in a bright yellow waterproof becomes slightly obsessed with Mark and his drawing and spends several minutes capturing him or his work or both from every angle possible. I sense her frustration that she can’t step over the rope to get a full frontal. Three American women walk by, “ How old was that stone house? By that monastery?” “I don’t know. Twelve to thirteen hundred?” “Yeh. It was unbelievably old!”
The traffic builds, a helicopter flies overhead. The constant stream of tourists is endless.
Overcast today and the crowds aren’t so dense. Yet. Parked up is a tour bus for a rock band. German. Large tattooed men in torn denim and leather hang around the pic-nic tables on the edge of the car park. A couple with fold up chairs and rucksacks march determinedly toward the field of stones.
The skylarks are particularly vocal today. It’s them you hear above the traffic on the A303. The crows are absent. Mark settles to draw. Gradually other people arrive, dotting themselves along the rope barrier and setting up folding easels and chairs, unpacking their sketchbooks. It’s all very busy. Mark has company. One man comes to Mark and tells him that his drawing is coming on nicely and continues on by saying he does like to see colour in a picture. Mark is drawing in black ink.
It turns out this chap is the teacher of an adult leisure learning art class and today his group is painting Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. The tourists look at the art work as much as the stones. There’s a whole exhibition here today. And they photograph it all. It’s all part of the attraction. Art is in the air. Two American teenagers stand and compare their own sketches.
A couple of young boys sit with their mother and draw the stones as she points out the details to them. They sit with such concentration, patiently outlining the jumble of uprights in pencil.
I ask if I can take a photo of them.
And here are the wonderful drawings from Pietro, 9, and Guido, 7.
They are visitors from Italy. I say it’s a shame the weather isn’t better for them, their mother tells me that where they live it’s 40 degrees right now and impossible to work. The gloomy British weather suits them well!
Today it’s incredibly warm but overcast. I start my day at the monument being asked to take a photo by a nice young man travelling by himself up to London. He’s past here often and today he’s decided to stop and have a look. I take a photo of him on his phone. Then a German family ask me to take a family portrait in front of Stonehenge on their well-used DSLR. Then a party of Spanish college kids ask me to take a photo on an iPad. I feel like the official photographer.
The ever-steady stream of tourists circle the stones. A couple from North America sit next to me on a bench and he comments that the audio guide claiming ‘no-one knows what it was for’ is rubbish. He says it’s stuff they use to excite the tourists. They know very well what it was for. It was a religious site with a resident priest. He’s very sure of his facts.
The wind is getting up but it isn’t raining. Yet. I listen to a bit of the audio guide I picked up on my way in. A bit dealing with some of the myths and legends surrounding the bringing of the great stones to this place. It involves a fair bit of flying. Stones being flown or carried to the site and such characters as Merlin, Giants, the Devil and Aliens. Another bit of the guide tells of the Station Stone. And yes, the commentary does say they don’t know what it was for, followed up by loads of different hypotheses of what it might have been for. Obviously, English Heritage is not going to commit.
As Mark sits and draws, he becomes more and more a part of the whole attraction. A father poses his young daughter near to Mark and his picture to get the perfect shot of the stones, the artist and his work, and most importantly, his pretty little girl. And she is adorable!
The woman with the goat head staff is here again today. She’s wearing a flower garland and a long green velvet coat that shimmers and waves in the breeze. She looks fabulous. I can hear her talking to a young woman about aspects of reality. Words drift over to me on the wind and then away again. A hassled tour-guide marches clockwise around the circular walkway pleading with her posse to make their way back to the coach. They’re supposed to be leaving by 12 o’clock. It’s all rush, rush, rush. Not the ideal way to experience this site but I guess it’s most people’s reality of being here. A party of Japanese tourists zoom past not listening to the audio, merely glancing at the stones. They’re deliberately heading round and out. To the gift shop perhaps?
People are stopping the woman in the long green coat on her walk round. She’s happy to engage with them. Someone is holding her goat headed staff and they’re laughing. It’s infectious. As I leave, a young couple are walking across the field from the byway towards the stones. One of the English Heritage staff apprehends them as they step over the rope and onto the walkway. No ticket no entry. I don’t wait to see if they have EH Membership.
It’s raining really seriously when we awake. The radio news is full of landslides and terrible flooding across the country. I decide not to go to the stones today but there’s no stopping Mark Anstee.
Half an hour after Mark has gone and the rain has stopped. Ah well. He comes home after a few hours covered in ink. The wind caught his tin and it’s emptied its contents liberally across his drawing, his coat and his trousers. Especially the crutch. I believe it’s permanent.
When the wind whips up at Stonehenge it becomes a personal battle. You vs nature. The noise of it rattles your eardrums, but remarkably, between the wind and the traffic, the skylarks still shine through. There’s a light show on Stonehenge today as the clouds race across the face of the sun. Deep shadow, flat grey, then a vivid brightness. No idea how Mark’s going to cope with that today. The forms stand still but the sculpting light? It’s very dramatic.
A group of young Americans walk by. “Nothing can beat the bird at the Tower of London. That thing was this big!” says one, her arms outstretched to indicate the size of the catch. The jackdaws are around the outside of the walkway. They’re quite the photo opportunity today. As is Mark. Another photo for the holiday album. People vary between the unabashed over the shoulder-ers and the distant voyeurs. But the cameras point and click. Now and again someone actually asks Mark if they can take a photo. Polite!
It’s busy. It’s Saturday. The car park is rammed with coaches; the overspill car park has extended to a second field. But it seems a smooth operation and people are clearly delighted to be here. There’s something about the stones and the outside-ness of it all. You see traffic streaming along the roads here, but the only other things in view are the landscapes. Fields stretch in every direction; Bronze Age barrows dot the horizons, clumps of trees cluster gently on the curving contours of the surrounding countryside. There are the odd distant pylons but no real sign of human settlements, apart from the car park and visitor facilities. I suppose for a lot of tourists, most of their UK tour involves cities. London, Windsor, Bath. This place must be pretty unique on their itinerary. And it is unique.
Back by Mark’s truck, the extended car park has alerted people to the presence of sheep in the landscape. People trot with their cameras towards the sheep and their lambs. The sheep scatter further over the field and away.