Stonehenge – Sunday 15th July
It’s not raining. We get up to Stonehenge by 9.15am and everything is calm. The car park is a bit muddy but there are free spaces to park in. The attendants are setting out rows of traffic cones ready for the coaches.
On the monument field, everything looks as it should. I can see a few singed circles on the grass where the fire installations were, but otherwise there is no evidence of anything having happened here.
The word is, when Michael Johnson came to pose for the photo for the Olympic torch relay on Thursday morning, he was given a Stonehenge goody bag. I love the idea of Michael Johnson’s fridge decorated with Stonehenge fridge magnets.
Mark sits and draws. The jackdaws who’ve been absent the last few days we’ve been up here, fly in, in formation. They cluster on one of the lintels. A jackdaw crèche with a big crow keeping things in order.
A voice bounces out of the staff walkie-talkies, “A hundred and twenty three Italians on their way through”. It’s actually sunny, breezy but sunny. People are clearly delighted to be out in the open. A big party of Chinese tourists are busy taking photos of each other; a Spanish family ask me to take their photo; a Malaysian family pose for each other.
Word travels up from front of house that the car park is closed. Already? And here they come. The walkway is solid in no time. Every language I can think of mingles in the melee.
Mark is managing to do an ink drawing. He’s back by the chain link fence and the usual photos are being taken. There’s a queue of cars out on the road, and people are just getting out of their cars to take photos through the fence. Other drivers honk their horns impatiently.
As I walk back to the truck, the lines of people waiting to get past the ticket office are overwhelming. Coaches jostle with each other in the car park. Someone somewhere is reversing. Permanently. The high-pitched beep jumps from vehicle to vehicle. Parties of school children cluster on the pathway, their separate allegiances signalled by coloured rucksacks. So many people here. It’s mad.
Arthur Pendragon is here today in the top of the field right next to the entrance path. He’s setting up his campaign posters for the return of the ancestors’ bones. He has some supporters with him, a cool box and some fold up chairs.
The line of people waiting to get in grows even longer. A car alarm, an old one where the horn rhythmically honks, starts in the car park. No one is around to stop it. That’s going to get really annoying.
Not raining! We head up to Stonehenge and the car park is surprisingly empty. But it’s still early. A group of young men, tall, 20s, amble towards the entrance booth. Two of them are wearing what I can best describe as adult baby-grows – green dragons with yellow fabric triangles chasing up their spines. One has massive hairy yeti-feet shoes on. Another wears a union jack all in one. Their mates are just dressed normally for the time of year, long Bermuda shorts and hip t-shirts.
Up on the field we learn that yesterday was a day when people took their clothes off rather than fancy dress. There was a party of ‘Mooners’ during the day – bottoms in the open. Maybe it was a ritual with astronomical significance?
Mark chooses a spot just where the tarmac walkway opens up into the mown grass, opposite the Heel Stone and sits and draws. It’s warm. A few crows drift about inside the rope barrier. The crowds build.
The dragons have persuaded a party of girls to join them in a conga while someone films them. They hop and skip in a line around the guide rope. They look very funny. The wind builds and a flock of about 50 jackdaws flies over. They drift across to the open field away from the crowds.
A little boy stands and grizzles as his parents take photos of the stones. A student sits next to me on the grass and gets out a hefty paperback novel. ‘Heresy’, letters gold on red. There are loads of student parties here today. Mostly speaking English, though some have American accents. “No, Max”, shouts an agitated father.
A party of Chinese students come by. They cluster round Mark as he draws. They stand really close and take photos of him working. He just keeps drawing.
The dragons pose with strangers for photos. It’s busy now but quite relaxed. The weather makes such a difference to everyone’s mood here. It’s windy but that means the clouds are moving constantly and, every now and then, the sun has chance to shine through. When it does it’s actually quite hot. A couple of older men, retirement aged Chinese, stand and watch Mark work. He’s had quite a few comments over the past few weeks from Chinese visitors. It seems to be that because he’s working in ink it’s a technique they know and appreciate. I wonder if they have learnt it at school? One lady said to him that the sign of a master draughtsman was to create seven different tones from one single colour and she counted ten on his picture. It’s interesting when people can tell the difference. The Chinese, or the older Chinese visitors in particular, really know how to look at a drawing. It must have been part of their education system.
A large party of mixed aged gather on the grass and sit in a horseshoe around their group leader. He wears a sticky label bearing the words ‘Guatemala’ and ‘Education’. Another tour guide stands and informs his group that Stonehenge could be a place of sacrifice, a monument to worship or an astronomical calendar. I guess one could make anything up. It must be tempting, a captive audience each intent on your every word.
A siren blares and an ambulance drives past on the road.
Back in the car park, the crows and starlings busy themselves around the picnic tables and a car alarm shrills into action.
It’s wet. There’s a gap in the rain so we risk it and go. The overspill field in the car park is closed today. I guess they have to give it a break from churning tyres. Sheep hang around the tape marking parking areas and baa to each other.
It’s not too busy yet but it’s more like an autumn day than mid-summer. It’s grey, windy and quite chilly. A helicopter flies close by, the brightness of his taillight emphasising the darkness of the sky. The engine and propeller noise temporarily drowns out the song of the larks.
A young man visiting Stonehenge today is apparently part of the Canadian Olympic team, London 2012. Either that or he’s wearing someone else’s sweatshirt. He poses for photos in front of the stones. All of these people from all over the world with all sorts of special skills.
A crow sits on top of the crow perch, the large nobble on one of the single uprights. It’s starting to rain. A pretty Asian woman with very long straight black hair poses in a skimpy floral summer dress while her friend holds up her iPad to record the moment. I can see the screen. It’s heavily flecked with large raindrops.
Mark is attempting a silverpoint study today. He says he can cope with damp paper, just not wet paper. So we’ll see how the weather behaves. He’s on the tarmac walkway, due west of the circle and the closest to the stones you can get as a tourist.
A party of German students pass by, busily clustering under too few umbrellas and valiantly pursuing the photographic opportunity. Many of the boys are wearing flimsy cut off trousers and t-shirts. They look uncomfortable. The sky is a block of cloud, but I expect it’ll blow over.
The Asian girl fights with her umbrella to stop it turning inside out. A tall teenage boy walks round sneezing and wiping his nose with his hand. It could be hay fever, but in this weather I’m inclined to think he has a cold. Perhaps his whole coach party have colds?
The shower subsides, the breeze builds, and a Chinook appears, the low beat of its engine mingles with the traffic on the A303. A large truck advertising milk hoots rhythmically as he drives by. A little salute to the stones? Or maybe the people? A middle-aged group walk round, their transparent waterproof ponchos flapping about them. One man carries a duck-egg blue Fortnum and Mason’s carrier bag.
Another tour guide halts his group in front of me and points out the barrows in the landscape and explains they are bronze-age burial mounds. I hear him explaining about an ancient skeleton from the area having been analysed to reveal that he came from Austria or Germany. He had been found with golden artefacts and so was obviously someone of high ranking in his society and had certain injuries or deformities on his legs. The tour guide says because this person had travelled a few hundred miles to be here, this gives credibility to the idea of Stonehenge being a place of healing. Doesn’t sound as though it worked on this occasion. The plastic ponchos rustle loudly in the wind.
When I get back to the truck, the sheep have been wrangled off the overflow-parking field and cars are starting to line up in rows along lines of red and white tape.
Driving up to Stonehenge we pass by Airman’s Corner where the new visitor facilities will be housed. Today, the site is in operation in earnest. Diggers tear up the grass exposing brown earth beneath. A pile of giant rolls, extreme black gaffer tape awaits its turn. To do what? The landscape here is going to change quickly.
Up by the stones, on the verge next to the chain-link fence, a touring cyclist is having his breakfast. He pours milk into a bowl of cereal and turns his radio up.
Up on the monument field it’s very windy but there is blue in the sky and the clouds look softer. The sun, when it makes it through, is so bright it bleaches the stones. The light is incredible today, in stark contrast to our past few visits. An American man walks by explaining to his friend that the nobbly bit on the upright I call ‘crow perch’, is an early example of a bit of tongue and groove – the nobble is the tongue.
A Russian party, talkative and loud walk past. A man, 20 something, holds several audio guides in one hand and swings them about his head by their long cords. A man wearing an impressively hi-tech baby carrier walks slowly round, listening to his audio guide. The baby dressed in pink, happily bounces its arms and legs out of the side of its high perch.
Mark sits on the walkway east of the Heel Stone and after fighting to clip his paper down to his drawing board, gets out his ink kit. At the moment, the crow perch is empty. Perhaps it’s too windy. The English Heritage staff members are wearing their coats with hoods up, and still people walk round with bare legs and arms, flip-flops and open toed sandals. The starlings fly in and settle on the grass. Half of them are light brown youngsters. They’ve bred well this year. Now the jackdaws arrive and the crows take up position on the lintels.
I go to Mark with the flask of coffee I’ve brought up here today, and as I organise my bags and retrieve the flask, a small elderly Caucasian woman waves me out of the way. I don’t know what nationality she is but I’m sure she speaks English. I realise she wants to take a photo of Mark’s work and I’m in the way. I ask her directly if she wants to take a photo and she waves me away, a shoo-ing action. So now I’m irked. Big time. I hold my ground. I’m not a violent person but I have an urge to head-butt her. Where has that come from? Best not start a fight. We might be ejected. But I find this rudeness difficult. Mark says that earlier, a Chinese bloke stuck a camera so close to his face it was almost touching him. I guess I’m just not in the mood for this today so I retire to the sanctuary of the truck.
The car park is now jammed with coaches. It seems they’ve all just arrived and all the passengers are disembarking at the same time. It’s a very busy place. Crowds flow up to the ticket booth and a student walks down to his coach wearing a newly purchased sheep faced woolly hat. He looks well chuffed.