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.
LRB 6 July 2006 | PDF Download