The United Kingdom is a fusion of four old countries that have fought wars together and with others. It has had kings, princes, invaders, usurpers, pretenders, bishops, priests and parliamentarians who have fought among themselves. Going back into archaeological time and pre-history and even in legend there have been conflicts of people and ideas of which we know little. No wonder that the country is littered with old castles, battlefields, abbeys, forts and earthworks.
Preserve or Restore?
Many of the ruins are cared for by municipal authorities, the National Trust and English Heritage. Some castles and important houses are still in the hands of the aristocratic descendants of the original builders. Ruins are revered, we spend money to visit them, enthusiasts write about them and illustrate how life would have been at that time. They are a draw for historians; tired teachers love a day out taking their class of children to visit them.
Why do we not restore them to their original state and use them? Oh dear, no, say people. That would not be authentic, this is the way they are and this is how they must stay, preserved but not changed. Why not? Why can’t we restore them?
We are about to spend a billion pounds or so drilling a tunnel under Stonehenge to keep it isolated and authentic. Would it not be better and cheaper to restore it? We could re-erect the fallen stones, replace missing ones, put up the lintel stones, re-dig the earthworks, repair broken bits and then pave the area so that crowds could visit without eroding the grass.
Then we could all walk within the magic circle and experience the way the ancients used it and saw their place in the universe. When the sun appears over the Heel stone on midsummer morn and casts a shadow towards the altar and on towards the full moon directly opposite we could experience sun, earth and moon all in perfect balance, just as the ancients did.
We could be proud that we had restored the ravages of time and the wilful damage and neglect of our ancestors.
The purists would say we must leave it as it is. But we haven’t left it as it is, or as it was when it became of archaeological importance. We have fenced it off, put a path around it, re-erected, in 1958, one of the stones that fell over in 1797. What should we do if frost cracks a stone or another one falls over. Stonehenge has lasted 4500 years but in another 4500 years, what will it look like?
My last visit to Stonehenge was a sterile affair. My first visit in at midsummer in 1961 was vibrant. There were druids and sacrificial virgins, priests blowing large horns and wearing flowing white robes. There were picnickers, revellers and our group of students straight from a late night extension at the pub.
One of our group was (still is) a world class climber and he climbed one of the stones and stood on the top. Several other tried but none had the skill.
The sun rose, the druids chanted, blew their horns and the sacrificial virgins draped themselves over the altar. Everyone cheered. Suddenly, we were cold, tired and hungry. The parents of one of our group who lived in Warminster were surprised to be woken at 6.00am by a dozen hungry students. They provided us all with as much breakfast as we could eat – bless ‘em.
Restorations can work. There is no restored Roman Villa but there is a facsimile of one. I visited an ancient Roman Villa in Malibu, California. OK, yes, I know the Romans did not know about California but J Paul Getty, the oil magnate, knew about the Romans. He built a Villa based on one in Herculaneum, it has formal gardens, fountains, watercourses, an inner courtyard, atrium and audience hall. It is decorated with original ancient statues in stone, marble and bronze and some copies. It has facsimile urns, plaques, mosaics and furniture. Our visit showed how wonderful life was for a Roman noblemen. It was a rich and lovely experience, so much more fun than gazing at the remains of mosaics and bathrooms in Chedworth and Fishbourne.
But ruins can be truly magical. We attended a performance of Verdi’s Aida in the Arena di Verona. As the audience gathered and darkness fell we all lit candles. The opera alone is wonderful but on this night the performance was punctuated by a loud cheer during the Grand March in act 2. It seems that Italy were playing France in the world cup and Italy had just scored a goal. Many of the Italians had one ear for Verdi and another for the radio commentary of the match.
What do you think?
Back to Stonehenge. My wife says how she visited as a child with a family picnic. They sat alone listening to the wind sowing through the stones and across the grass. What do you think of Stonehenge? Will Self did not think much of it. Have you visited ancient sites that are not all they are made out to be? Have some places exceeded your expectations? Is there room for improvement without losing the spirit of the places?