Stonehenge – Sunday 8th July
The rain stops mid morning so we get in the truck and head off to Stonehenge. Madness! The car park is so rammed it’s closed to all newcomers. The byway next to the car park is also rammed with parked cars and coaches. More cars turn in to join them since they’ve been denied access a few metres earlier and try to negotiate the ever-decreasing space.
The walkway around the stones is a solid block of people. The EH Staff have mentioned that this time of year it gets a bit mad busy on the weekends, and this is our first experience of it. All these people getting their once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Stonehenge are not going to leave just because it looks a bit busy.
But we can come tomorrow and decide to head back home.
Approaching the car park we can see that there are new installations around the stones. Lots of them. New uprights and some large skeletal balls competing with the sarsens in scale. As we get nearer it seems that Stonehenge has been turned into a junkyard type sculpture park. Rusty metal frames and bucket forms decorate the outskirts of the stone circle. Tall rusty metal poles stand just feet away from the rocks.
The car park is chaotic. The overspill field is waterlogged because of all the rain and can’t be used and a good proportion of the regular car park is fenced off for use by the company installing the Fire Garden. Drivers are cruising for a space in restricted pathways. People are getting frustrated. A car leaves along our path and conveniently lets us in. They’ve left a bag with a dirty nappy on the ground there. Nice!
It isn’t raining, yet. The sky is very low today and it seems inevitable at some point it will be wet again. On the slope leading to the stones I hear a tour guide say to a couple of young girls, “This is one of the hundred sights to see in your lifetime”…”Well, yes, but I think it’s more impressive than Kings Cross”…”You see Harry Potter for your generation…” and then he’s out of earshot.
In the monument field, a sizable crew are erecting more equipment for the Fire Garden event. One guy, beefy tattooed calves, is not wearing a hi-viz vest to distinguish him from visitors which is stressing out the EH Staff. Apparently tourists have been drifting across the rope barriers to get a closer look. It’s been difficult trying to explain the situation to them.
The ‘Australian Precision Team’ is here for the ‘Big Dance’. I know this because it’s written on their t-shirts, white on black. One of the young women hits the ground in the splits for a photo against the stone backdrop. Impressive! Opposite the Heel Stone a group of people, obviously here for their own spiritual reasons are lined up facing the stones, performing warm-up movements and deep breathing exercises. One of them, a large bespectacled woman in a long floral dress is wearing a flower garland and a long white veil. I walk by then hear a drum. It’s a flat bodhran type drum being hit slowly and rhythmically by a man in loose white trousers and top. A woman in a see-through plastic poncho stops and takes a photo of them. The low beat of the drum drifts on the wind.
The rope guide across the mown grass is way back today. We’re a long way from the stones. Mark has settled to draw but I don’t know how he’s going to cope with all this other stuff. There isn’t one clear view of the stone circle as you walk round it. Something else is in your eye line at every pace. Young men with shiny buckets walk to and fro across the restricted area. One is throwing his bucket in the air, spinning it and catching it or dropping it. I’m guessing some of this crew are performers. It’s hard to read the site as anything of religious significance. I wonder how the group doing their ritual feels about all this activity?
Visitors do look slightly confused today, less engaged. There’s another barrier between the tourists and the stones. I’m glad I didn’t have to pay £7.80 to get in. I’d want my money back. It starts to spit. The rain gear comes out. Two little’uns march past wearing yellow ‘Legoland’ plastic ponchos. I know where they’ve been then. And now, the rain just stops. A couple of slight Japanese girls hurtle round dragging sizable wheelie cases behind them.
A man stops to encourage Mark and says he hopes it stays dry for him to finish his picture.
A helicopter flies over, it’s flashing tail-light bright against the grey sky. The A303 is really busy today. A long endless line of traffic creeps down the hill. I realise the queue is slow because the average speed decreases significantly as cars pass by Stonehenge. I expect a few are taking photos out of their car window.
As Mark’s drawing progresses, he draws a bigger crowd.
The pyrotechnic crew leave the inner circle and once again people start posing for photos along the rope line. It’s interesting. Maybe people don’t want a photo with workmen in. They want themselves and Stonehenge, as though it’s a private experience. Which in a photograph, it can be. I’ve taken loads of photos of Mark in between passers by. It’s possible to frame a picture that gives the lie you are there alone – just you and the person with the camera.
A man asks Mark if he can take a photo of his drawing then tells him, “Well done”. Then another with a super duper lens stands at a distance and focuses in. He’s attracted quite a crowd all pointing cameras and phones at him.
The sound of ‘Baa’-ing fills the air. A huge blue truck, double decked with sheep, slowly grinds its way along the 303. Poor things. It sounds like cries of help. Prisoners shouting to prisoners.
As I return to the car park, the parking arrangements have taken a new direction. The waterlogged field has obviously been judged dry enough to use. It’s pretty full. A man with an American accent shouts excitedly to someone that he’s got, “some great sheep pictures”.
It’s not raining and we drive up to Stonehenge to see the Fire Garden, part of the Cultural Olympiad programme for 2012. We park in the same field used for the Solstice and then walk to stand in a queue in the mown field next to the monument field. It’s a big queue and we stand there for a considerable amount of time. Children occupy the time by running and turning cartwheels around the field, but we, the grown ups, just queue.
At 9pm as dusk falls, we’re let in. Flaming flowerpots form a snaking avenue up to the stones and continue in a chain of lights inside the Henge ditch. Everyone heads for the stones.
Inside the circle the valiant EH staff are trying to persuade people not to climb on the stones. It’s the photo opportunity everybody wants. And just about everyone is photographing, with phones, little compact cameras, bigger cameras and massive cameras on tripods.
Lanterns made of white vests stretched over metal hangers, dangle from tall rusty iron stands.
As the sky darkens, more and more flames appear. There are loads of press here. BBC filming in one bit of the field, SKY in another and photojournalists wearing the hi-viz ‘MEDIA’ tabard mingling with the crowds. Smoke wafts around us. The big skeletal balls are home to a cascade of hanging flowerpots, all flaming in the wind. The curly iron pergola hosts a rather fabulous musician – guitar and synth – playing atmospheric jazz based themes.
It’s a lot more low-tech than I was expecting but for all that it has much more charm. There’s none of the mad hedonism of Solstice but proper delight from all the visitors – drifting through the darkness illuminated by fire. The tall cigar shaped pillars start to light up through the slashes of hieroglyphs in the rusty metal. Small explosions of flame guff out from their tops.
There is an element of circus here. The firelighters of the French Company ‘Carabosse’ dressed in black tail coats and fedora hats. It feels slightly retro to me, and I get a wave of nostalgia of something I attended in the 1980s. Post-punk warehouse parties in the days when London actually had empty spaces and artists moved in to create happenings. This reminds me of the Mutoid Waste Company parties. Brilliant! I’m really enjoying the lack of health and safety remits that scupper so many big events these days. There were notices on the way in reminding people that the installations are hot so don’t touch them, but kids are leaping over the low flaming flower pots, clearly thrilled by that small frisson of danger. People stand close up to the flaming buckets and columns and huddle round the flaming pots in the ditch. We’re not being patronized by the event.
On the walk back to the truck, a bright red/pink flare explodes in the far landscape over the Plain. The clouds are suddenly and surprisingly under-lit and then the flare falls, slowly glowing, and is gone. The MoD is on manoeuvres.
It’s cloudy and showery but at the moment there is a gap in the rain so we’re up by Stonehenge. The car park is mud soup and the Fire Garden company are busy loading pallets and iron ware into a huge, long based haulage truck.
Up by the monument, debris from the event litters the field. People in hi-viz vests are gradually cleaning up black plastic sheeting and sand bags and collecting up the small divots of earth that lay under the flaming flowerpots. Small scars in the grass remain. A testimonial to the event that probably took years in the planning and is already history. In a week or so the grass will have fully recovered.
The people trail around the stones. A helicopter flies by. In the distance, beyond the Cursus, a red smoke trail appears in the sky. A flare, snaking high then falling. No idea what it is. Some other tourists notice and take photos.
Mark sits and draws on the walkway near to the chain-link fence. A family stop to talk to him. The young boy comments that it must be difficult to make fine lines when the sun is at full brightness. They stand and chat. Mark gives them his web site address and explains that most of his work is not like this; they might be shocked. The mother replies that they won’t be. They’re not English. They’re Danish!
Through the fence, people take photos of the stones and of Mark.
A small boy walks round with his father, fastidiously checking each of the slender metal supports for the guide rope. He doesn’t look at the stones. An American student says, “I thought it would be bigger”. I assume she’s talking about Stonehenge.
There’s a flash of sun, then the greyest clouds drift over. It’s very dramatic, but it’s strangely laid back here today. Perhaps the endless rain s sapping everyone’s energy.