I was reviewing the Sunday papers a few weeks ago in a local radio station (I know, wacky eh?) where I had a creeping sense of dread that there wouldn't actually be anything in the news that I was even remotely qualified to talk about (it all being relentlessly depressing). This was a big concern, having been given two requests by the show's producer namely 'find something historical / heritage related' and 'keep it light'. Luckily I needn't have worried for there is one archeo-staple that you can be sure will always be in the papers, especially on a Sunday:
This time it wasn't the road closures / land-train / entrance price / druids / display of human remains / startling new interpretation etc etc, but the very simple story concerning the surprise visit by the US president to a set of sarsen boulders 'somewhere' in the Wiltshire landscape.
Apparently it had been on his 'bucket list' for some time and, if the photos are any judge, it looked like he had a good time.
My only worry is that he didn't get the complete Stonehenge experience. No gift shop, no land-train, no chance to see or walk within the wider landscape, no chance to eat cake.
The visitor experience at Europe's most iconic archaeological site is, of course, currently undergoing significant modification. The road that ran so perilously close to the monument, allowing trucks, coaches and cars to thunder across the line of the Avenue, severing Stonehenge from its immediate environs, has gone, whilst the car park, ticket office and concrete bunker-style gift-shop and adjoining café, are all being demolished, and that's all good...
Well yes, of course, removing some of the more intrusive 20th and 21st century buildings and returning a more 'natural' feel to this much neglected site is, and will continue to be, hugely beneficial, drastically improving both the environment and the overall visitor experience (although whether it really does reduce numbers at the stones is a matter for debate), opening up the surrounding landscape and permitting better access to the Avenue, Cursus and surrounding barrow groups.
But (there's always a ‘but’) I must admit a degree of sadness at the loss of certain parts of the 'old' Stonehenge property. Certainly the new visitor centre should be applauded, especially given that, throughout the 20th century, there was no on-site museum, interpretation or display. OK so I remain to be convinced about the exterior of said new-build, which looks a bit like an unfinished motorway service station
but the interior is uniformly excellent. Larger shop (always good) indoor café (even better) and best of all a set of displays, artefact show-cases and interactive thingamys explaining the who, what, why and wherefore of Stonehenge. Here you can at last learn about the monument and about the Neolithic and Bronze Age and all the many periods of antiquarian and later investigation conducted, and I particularly enjoyed seeing some of the many interpretations of the stone structure being discussed by leading experts who used words like 'Wiltshire', 'Tradition' and 'Wales'
or who spent time explaining why they like wearing clothes with maps of Europe and Africa printed on them
All in all then, the experience for visitors has improved considerably, although poor Mr Obama obviously did not have time to fully appreciate this, being cajoled by his bodyguard to return to his helicopter and the defence of the free-world as soon as politely possible.
But (there we go again), I still can't help but feel nostalgia for what has gone. Having spent so much time in the old tarmac covered car park, complete with its incongruous circular white-blobs, painted to show where Mesolithic timber posts once stood (and which always confused unwary motorists), buying 'Stonehenge rock cakes' and (the rather unappealingly named) 'Aubrey-hole doughnuts' (and eating them sat on a windswept bench watching parties of German, French and Japanese tourists flock past) as well as spending time (and not an inconsiderable amount of money) in the old-bunker shop (buying stick-on druid beards and snow-globes) and deep-set underground toilet facilities, I do feel rather sad that these are things that have now, together with the road, houses, petrol station, airfield etc, all been consigned to archaeological history. Is that just me......?
....it is just me isn't it.