Stonehenge – Monday 18th March
Sitting at one of the round picnic tables in the car park is a group of young people. I’d put them at late teens, slightly punky, slightly Goth, fabulously confident, but it’s an aesthetic that doesn’t feel entirely familiar, mostly because they’re smoking. Getting out of the truck I can hear them talking and they’re French. But of course. They laugh and joke with each other all the while dragging heavily on slender tubes of tobacco. The scene is very ‘Nouvelle Vague’ – in a very 2013 sort of way.
A red and white tape strung across the path prevents us walking down one of the slipways to the ticket booth and the smell of wet paint fills our nostrils.
It’s the afternoon and Stonehenge has increased its opening hours. Today it will close at 6pm and afternoon light is perfect for Mark Anstee to continue work on his new silverpoint drawing.
A woman in bright red trousers, a bright orange jumper and dyed orange hair stands on the tarmac path and simply contemplates the ancient circle.
A family walks by and a little girl says loudly, “ Look, Mummy, that lady has orange hair. Why?”
The grass walkway is closed. Yesterday it snowed here and I’m guessing the rapid melt has made everything soggy again.
“To be perfectly honest, it’s not very mystical, not anymore,” says a woman to her companion as she sits on the end of my bench. I eavesdrop on their conversation and it turns out she came when she was about five years old and could walk around amongst the stones as she liked. Apparently, there was also no traffic on the A303 back then. So somewhere in between then and now, Stonehenge has lost its mystical properties.
Another couple of visitors comes to the end of the path and stand by the sandwich board denying them further exploration and say, “Oh that’s such a shame. It would have been nice to go round. It’s quite something though.” And they stand and enjoy the monument as it glows in the afternoon light.
Mark sits and concentrates and is largely being ignored. At the moment there is only the faintest tracing of a drawing on the prepared paper. It’ll take many more hours before people get properly excited about it, before they try secret surveillance tactics to get a photo.
A couple with Australian accents stand by the ‘closed’ notice and say they’re confused. The audio guide tells them to move on to the next marker, but the walkway is closed! Another group arrives, “It tells you to keep going. I don’t know why it’s closed off,” says a girl with an American accent. Then they see the sheep. All eyes to the meadow and away from the sarsens.
The jackdaws continue their courtships, flitting about around the stones.
It’s turned into such a lovely day, everyone who comes to the end of the tarmac path seems perplexed that they can’t go any further I’m amazed that people do actually do as the notice says. On the whole, it appears that the world’s tourists are terribly well behaved.
As I sit on the bench, people come and hover with their audio guides playing. I’m having a strange moment where English and Italian are playing simultaneously; the jackdaw calls echo amongst the stones and the constant drone of traffic plays in the background. It’s all slightly unreal.
Over on the byway the campervans and trucks are gathering ready for the equinox celebrations.
Mark is surrounded by a group of French school children. If this lot smoke, it won’t be in public. Not yet anyhow. A boy with a number two and dark sunglasses stands guard over the artist making sure that his school mates, busily goofing for photos don’t barge into him. He stays for quite some time watching over Mark’s shoulder, protecting him. It’s a mad half hour then they leave the path and head back through the tunnel.
The last dribble of tourists comes up to look at this ancient wonder as the sun starts to sink.
When we climb back into the truck to head home, the horizon is ablaze with deep red as a fiery orb meets the edge of the earth.