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As antiquarian rock star Julian Cope reflects on the significance of ancient megalithic monuments Andy Worthington says attempts to suppress the popularity of the summer solstice at Stonehenge and Avebury are doomed

Wednesday June 16, 2004

As the summer solstice approaches, heritage managers at Britain’s most popular ancient monuments, Stonehenge and its near-neighbour Avebury, will be hoping to avoid confrontation with pagans, travellers and hordes of the young and curious.

The sources of potential conflict are issues of access, ownership and preservation that began over a hundred years ago, when Druid revivalists and crowds of the general public first began to gather at Stonehenge. These issues came to a head in 1985, when the Stonehenge Free Festival, an annual event that had grown from a small gathering in 1974 to become a city-sized alternative state in 1984, was brutally suppressed at the Battle of the Beanfield.

In the wake of the festival’s suppression, a four-mile exclusion zone was set up around Stonehenge every summer solstice. Although the authorities achieved a short-term aim, crippling the traveller scene that was at the heart of the festival, first with violence and then with waves of draconian legislation, the frustrated impulses of the festival community mutated into a new raft of interest groups, all staking their own claims on the monument.

A particularly successful example was the road protest movement, famous for campaigns at Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill and Newbury, which was suffused with the general growth of paganism during these years, with its emphasis on nature and ecology, gender equality, libertarianism and the revived, or invented, festivals of an ancient ritual year.

As the violence of the 1980s gave way to a more conciliatory approach, large crowds began to appear at Avebury for the major pagan festivals, and Stonehenge was finally reopened to the public on the solstice in 2000, although only after the House of Lords judged that the exclusion zone was illegal.

The new access arrangements have been phenomenally successful, with over 30,000 people attending the solstice in 2003, and a workable compromise has clearly been achieved, balancing the demands of all the different interest groups with the concerns of those charged with the conservation of Britain’s ancient heritage. Nevertheless, doubts over the sustainability of these events remain.

Although English Heritage and the police are resolutely upbeat about the success of the new access arrangements at Stonehenge, the National Trust’s property manager, Scott Green, has suggested that “the trust is not convinced that the solstice observance as it is currently celebrated is sustainable in the long-term”.

At Avebury, the fault lines are even more evident. At the solstice in 2003, the local council enraged everyone from pagans to the Campaign to Protect Rural England by painting double yellow lines on all the roadside verges in and around the village, and on the night itself there were widespread complaints about the police’s heavy-handed approach to removing illegally parked vehicles.

Whilst I understand the concerns of those outlined above, I suspect that all attempts to suppress the popularity of the summer solstice are doomed to failure. For better or worse, the solstice has established itself as an alternative national holiday, a potent mixture of spirituality, politics and celebration that is unlikely to diminish in popularity in the near future.

· Andy Worthington is the author of Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, published on June 21