My first impression of England came in a solstice ritual put on by the Cotswold Order of Druids at Stonehenge several weeks ago. This struck me at the time as the single most clichéd way for a Pagan pilgrim to begin his visit to the country, but then things become clichés often because they are so perfect that they can’t help but become obvious.
During my stay in England, I had the good fortune of having many wonderful magickal experiences, but the ceremony at Stonehenge stands out. For one thing, the sheer size of it: dozens and dozens of people in cloaks and robes, circling the stones, our steps in time with drums from the Morris players toward the back of our line. I felt the same sense that I felt at Thingvellir when I visited Iceland: that mixture of wonder, curiosity, smallness, transience that we call the sublime.
Then our ceremony’s leaders opened the gateway into the center of the henge. I passed under one of the archways, aware of the threshold between the worlds outside and in.
This is the circle, this is the space between the worlds… I’ve said those words many hundreds of times in my life, but never with that kind of potency.
The ritual itself, which included a Morris dance, a naming ceremony for an infant, and several initiations into the Druid order, was lovely and welcoming, but we were all aware that the unique power of the ritual came from the setting. Though I have often struggled with my own understanding that our Paganism of today bears little resemblance to the paganism of the past, the sense of timeless connection between what the Druids do at Stonehenge today and what the long-lost henge-builders did in the Neolithic era pervaded my senses at the ritual.
I really did have the sense of being part of something millennia old. Standing beneath those ancient arches, it’s hard to feel any other way. (I wondered, as well, how different my experience was from that of my British fellows, who after all have a cultural and national relationship with Stonehenge that I, an American who had come off the plane only a few hours before, simply could not match.) Stonehenge is often described as timeless; indeed, it is that sense of eternity which draws us to things from our deep human past. It seemed like a thing that would never change.
Therefore it was shocking to read that, in fact, serious changes are afoot at Stonehenge: the British government has given the go-ahead for a tunnel to be built beneath the complex, replacing the A303 highway that currently passes close to Stonehenge. The tunnel will not pass directly under the Stonehenge circle itself, rather passing a bit farther out than the current highway is; however, it will pass through the roughly 10-square-mile area that is considered part of the Stonehenge complex.
The reasoning, says the UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, is “cutting congestion and improving journey times.” The A303 is only a single carriageway, so it is often jammed, and the noise of the highway, as I know from my visit, can be heard from Stonehenge itself. The benefits, so they say, also include boosting the local economy, “linking people with jobs and businesses with customers – driving forward our agenda to build a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few.”
Well, perhaps. But the costs are significant. The local Chamber of Commerce official, Andy Rhind-Tutt, calls the current tunnel proposal “a time bomb of irreversible destruction.” Archeologists in particular have reacted with shock and anger at the proposal. Historian Tom Holland notes that Stonehenge is a unique link back to the stone age, with no equivalent landscape anywhere else in Europe. “The idea that we would obliterate that archaeology and destroy the chance of discovering about the very origins of people on this island,” he told Time, “all in the cause of speeding journeys up by 10 minutes, seems monstrous to me.”
As a bush-league scholar myself, my sympathies are with the archaeologists. Although I am not an archaeologist myself, my work as a medievalist owes an enormous debt to them, and there are a few basic principles of archaeology and material research that I have picked up over the years. The most fundamental is this: a site, once dug, is gone forever. If there is more to be learned about the people who built Stonehenge in the grounds around it, as there almost certainly is, this tunnel will destroy it forever.
I spoke to a few of the Cotswold Druids about their feelings on the tunnel. “Personally, I feel it is a sacrilegious act for Stonehenge to be excavated [for the tunnel] at all,” said Claudia Fae, who goes by the Druidic name of “Rue” in the Cotswold Order.
“There are archaeological treasures buried all around the site still, and having huge machines digging up the land will disturb the earth, its findings, and its ancestral lineage,” Fae explained. “I feel they will be very unhappy about this change. It will be corporations in charge of the operation and ultimately in charge of making even more money out of tourism. Stonehenge has already gone from standing alone on the landscape without a fence to its present form with its huge shop, car parking, and café. And whilst many have welcomed these developments, one can wonder about it ever being left alone in peace in its beautiful landscape as it once was, for us to marvel at its magnificence and beauty.”
Cotswold Druid Rex Tyler, meanwhile, expressed his feelings in a poem, Tunnel Vision:
…The myriad miracles that once were here
Bury the past in the concrete and fear
It’s all about us now driving our cars
Getting to wherever these violent scars
On humanities past will be felt in the hearts
Of our children and their children
Yea the upstarts
Were more into materialistic pursuits
They sacrificed history and their true roots…”
As modern Pagans, we have an obligation to our forebears. The preservation of Stonehenge, the enhancement of our ability to learn from it, and the ability for modern people to visit, enjoy, and worship at the site without causing it undue harm should be the foremost concerns for any development nearby. (This applies to many, many other sites besides just Stonehenge, of course.) There are other proposals for expanding the A303 and moving it further from the Stonehenge site which meet with more approval from scholars and locals; they should not be ignored in favor of a quicker, cheaper, and less considered approach to the area.
As I passed under the arches into the center of the stones last month, I was deeply aware that I was standing in the presence of something holy; something made holy both by its human construction and the passage of so much time. That holiness grows with knowledge; it diminishes with the destruction of that knowledge for short-term gain.
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