The recent proposal by English Heritage to ban alcohol at Stonehenge during the open access events has been met with indignation in some quarters. Many of those complaining describe themselves as pagans, who might make a vastly more convincing case for their purported right to get drunk at Stonehenge if only they could bothered to pore over some observations made by their opponents the archaeologists, one being that people that you might reasonably describe as being part of a beer-drinking cult were notably present at Stonehenge during the earliest sarsen phase of the monument.
Another observation was based on evidence the archaeologists had unearthed showing that Stonehenge had been in continual use, particularly at winter solstices, from prehistoric times up until the early years of the seventeenth century, so there’s a case to be made that alcoholic celebrations were an integral part of the ceremonies conducted at Stonehenge for millennia. However, if anyone wishes to pursue this line of reasoning and put it to the relevant authorities or the court of public opinion, they can look up the relevant facts and present them in an eloquent fashion for wider consideration themselves, because I have no intention of helping or supporting them.
I lived just a few miles away from Stonehenge from 1996 to 2005, so I visited the ruins about three times a week on average and my two young children virtually learned to walk there. I also took them to just about every open access event, the most notable one being the Summer Solstice, so while the childhood memories of these nocturnal visits may have faded for them, I clearly recall how enchanted my young son and daughter were by me leading them through the milling crowds and into the shadowy centre of the stones.
These should have been idyllic celebrations and for the most part they were, but they were always marred at some point by the appalling behaviour of others. I am as enthusiastic a proponent of the delights and benefits of alcohol as anyone alive, but these ideals rapidly faded whenever I encountered the snarling, incapable, vomiting, belligerent, foul-mouthed drunkards – men and women – who have made their deeply unpleasant presence known at every Summer Solstice I’ve attended.
What made all this unforgivable in my eyes was the fact that these low-lives were utterly heedless of the presence of young children when they were loudly voicing their inane, obscenity-laced views. Indeed, there was one occasion when the sight of me pushing my two toddlers in their double buggy bemused one intoxicated harridan and prompted her to swear loudly and uncontrollably in her attempts to describe how we’d somehow amused or offended her, while I very much doubt that I’m the only parent to have encountered sheer drunken nastiness such as this at the Stonehenge celebrations.
Then there’s the matter of the clean-up of the monument on the morning after, when the English Heritage employees have regularly had to deal with the results of the ruins being defaced and actively vandalized by stoned, drunken morons who have lit fires on the stones, smeared them with oil and the like. Worse still, the custodians have had to remove vomit, excrement and every conceivable variety of human effluent from within the circle, a task that no one should have to perform at Stonehenge.This is a World Heritage Site and as such it is the common property of all Mankind, to be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone without them having to worry about stepping into the verbal, spiritual and physical squalor produced by some of the specimens the open access events attract.
In 2010, I spent a sunny afternoon waiting to be allowed into Stonehenge for the Solstice celebrations and to see the Ancestor in place, as I’d played my early part in making this unprecedented event take place. I wandered around for hours, talking to the others who were patiently waiting to be allowed in to one of the most enigmatic and mesmerising locations on the planet and it was clear to me that everyone just wanted to have a good time, to relax and to be present at a place and time that somehow elevated the spirit and provided a tangible connection with something greater than ourselves.
These people all went on to enjoy their stimulant of choice at Stonehenge, whether it was the company of like-minded others, the cool night air, singing, poetry, live performance, the presence of the eldritch stones, alcohol or some other substance, all without in any way making others feel uncomfortable and all adding to the enjoyment of the collective experience. Unfortunately, there were some visitors who quite literally did not give a shit for the feelings or enjoyment of anyone else, and they conducted themselves accordingly.
So, I think it will be a great shame if alcohol is indeed to be banned at the Stonehenge open access events, because it will be demonstrably unfair on the overwhelming majority of people who venerate the place and the occasion, who have consideration for their fellow pilgrims and for the monument that has become the centre of their celebrations. It would be great if those who felt compelled to drink themselves into a vomiting, urinating, defecating, foul-mouthed, vandalising, shambling stupor in order to honour the achievements and beliefs of our ancestors could do this somewhere else – perhaps in a custom-built shrine in their own homes? – but until that happy day arrives, then it seems that this generation is saddled with a Stonehenge it doesn’t deserve.