It is 21 years this summer since the Battle of the Beanfield, the bloody confrontation at Cholderton in Wiltshire between police and a travellers’ convoy heading for Stonehenge, which resulted in 420 arrests and the end of the Stonehenge Free Festival. For more than a decade after that the authorities kept the public out at the solstice with a ferocity bordering on hysteria: razor wire, searchlights and a four-mile exclusion zone. All that has changed now. These days, ‘managed open access’ is the watchword. Special buses meet the London and Bristol trains at Salisbury and drop their passengers on the A303 into a sea of orange cones and traffic police. From there it is a half-mile walk across the fields to the stones, where for one night only there is no fence and no admission charge. People can wander among the circles, picnic, dance, play instruments and celebrate ‘as many of our ancestors may have done for thousands of years’. The Megalithic Portal website’s vagueness is justified. Nobody knows what rituals Stonehenge was built for, and the celebrations in their present form date back a mere seven years to a House of Lords ruling under the Criminal Justice Act. Overturning the convictions of Margaret Jones and Richard Lloyd, the Stonehenge Two, for ‘trespassory assembly’ at the site, Lord Irvine described the right of access as ‘an issue of fundamental constitutional importance’. The exclusion zone became illegal and on its website English Heritage now ‘wishes you a happy solstice’, through lightly gritted teeth.

Managed access has its advantages – no amplified music and nearly enough portaloos. Only the harshness of the ‘ambient lighting’ required by Health and Safety feels like an intrusion. The crowd, about thirty thousand last year and probably much the same this, is mostly too young to remember the troubles of 1985. The style is mainly bongos and baggy jumpers. There were some punks, a few ageing bikers, a group of girls with tiny handbags who looked as if they were on a hen night, druids of various orders and other members of what English Heritage calls ‘the pagan community’. There were several people in oak leaves and a man in robes drinking mead out of a horn, who explained in pained tones that he was not a druid but a Saxon. The druids, who have had a mixed relationship with the authorities and were the first to make a forced entry to the site in 1926, no longer attempt to hold a ceremony at the solstice. They come, according to the one I spoke to, who was standing on a mound holding a staff bound with holly and taking questions from a small but respectful crowd, ‘to give some sense of sacredness to the occasion’. The police did nothing to interfere with this, keeping a discreet distance, while the marshals seemed to be enjoying the night as much as anyone. In an attempt to reach the tightly crowded centre of the circle I got wedged between a bluestone (one of the inner stones brought from the Preseli Mountains in Wales) and a man in a fluorescent jacket with ‘Family Support’ written on the back who was lecturing a young American who had never heard of Frank Zappa: ‘I can’t believe it. What about Captain Beefheart, you must have heard of Beefheart?’

As archaeologists and others like to point out, the whole event is ‘bogus’. Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge go back at best to the midsummer fairs of the 17th century. Most of the druid orders were founded in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of the rise of alternative archaeology, the earth mysteries movement, ley-lines and so forth. Yet the violence with which some of the academic establishment rejects such supposed nonsense, and what the archaeoastronomer John Michell characterised as the ‘vicious jealousy’ of the 1980s exclusion zone, is hard to account for. One real tradition that continues at Stonehenge is English radicalism, the campaign for land rights that comes down from the Diggers and the enclosure battles of the 18th century. It has been a largely successful campaign and, as befits midsummer, the season when fools are king for a day, it has often upset the usual order of society and made its opponents look foolish. Charges against those arrested at the Beanfield were dropped largely on the evidence of the secretary of the Marlborough Conservative Association, the Earl of Cardigan, who unexpectedly spoke out for the travellers against police brutality. The attempt to invoke the Criminal Justice Act backfired, and while English Heritage talks about protecting Stonehenge from damage by the public, its own custodianship of the World Heritage Site has been widely criticised. In a press announcement on 15 June Sir William Proby, the chairman of the National Trust, accused the government, and by implication English Heritage, of posing an ‘urgent, serious and imminent’ threat to the monument with its ‘second-rate solution’ for improving the site. The question of what to do with it – whether to remove or conceal the A344 and the A303, and how to do so without damage to the archaeological remains – has dragged on since the first ‘masterplan’ was produced in 1998. The current proposals have more to do with cost effectiveness than conservation. Meanwhile, traffic continues to thunder past and the visitor centre, condemned as a ‘national disgrace’ by a House of Commons select committee in 1993, is still there.

For the solstice it was happily shut and invisible. The stones looked starkly impressive rising above the sea of people. The complaint of tourists since the 18th century has been that Stonehenge is disappointingly small, but from close to, with humans to give the scale, it seems properly massive and impassive. As the night wore on, the rain blew in in sheets across Salisbury Plain. A heavy downpour at about two o’clock thinned the crowd and left the punks looking crestfallen. Then the clouds cleared as the moon set, and the sky lightened. The drumming got louder and the dancing spread out. As the sun rose it didn’t break the cloud so we didn’t see it come up near the Heel Stone. Like most people I saw dawn rise over other people’s shoulders. Then the Morris Dancers arrived.

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