If the weather is kind, around 30,000 druids, neo-pagans, hippies and others are expected to gather at Stonehenge next Thursday to mark the summer solstice, the only day of the year when the rising sun shines on the central altar.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the stones being gifted to the nation. Before 1918, and despite having brooded mysteriously on Salisbury Plain for more than 4,000 years to the delight and curiosity of many, Stonehenge formed part of the Amesbury Abbey estate in Wiltshire, owned by the Antrobus family.
Despite being in private hands, it was a big tourist attraction, particularly after the railway station was opened in Salisbury in 1856. “From that time onwards, enterprising carriage drivers would often keep the shutters of the carriages closed during the journey to give visitors the great reveal,” explains Susan Greaney, English Heritage’s historian.
Thanks to Victorian tourists’ penchant for chipping off parts of the stones as souvenirs, scratching their names in them and using Stonehenge as a picnic spot, by the beginning of the 20th century the site was suffering. Its owner, Sir Edmund Antrobus, erected a fence and introduced an entrance fee of one shilling in 1901 – a move which would spark a lawsuit which went all the way to the High Court, and which he won.
By 1915, however, it had become something of a neglected ruin. Sir Edmund’s only son and heir was killed in the first months of the First World War, and he died shortly after, so the decision was made to sell the entire estate, which extended to 6,420 acres. Stonehenge was put up for auction as one of 89 lots, and advertised in Country Life magazine.
When lot 15, Stonehenge and its surrounding 30 acres, went under the hammer, interest was lacklustre. In the end, Cecil Chubb, a local barrister, bought the monument for a mere £6,600, equal to £474,000 in current money. Even arriving at that sum was a struggle. “Gentlemen,” admonished Sir Howard Frank, the auctioneer, “it is impossible to value Stonehenge. £6,000 is poor bidding.”
When lot 15, Stonehenge and its surrounding 30 acres, went under the hammer, interest was lacklustre. In the end, Cecil Chubb, a local barrister, bought the monument for a mere £6,600, equal to £474,000 in current money
Evidently this moved Chubb, who had no previous intention of buying Stonehenge (allegedly he’d been sent to the sale by his wife to buy some chairs). “While I was in the room,” he later explained, “I thought a Salisbury man ought to buy it, and that is how it was done.”
It did not remain long in Chubb’s hands. In October 1918, and in a move that would earn him a knighthood (and, with it, the local moniker “Viscount Stonehenge”), Chubb gifted Stonehenge to the nation. As part of the conditions, he stipulated the entrance fee should remain one shilling (which lasted until the Seventies – standard adult tickets are now £17.50 – and that local residents should always be able to visit the stones for free, which English Heritage honours today.
This marked the start of a major period of restoration that included lifting some of the stones and re-setting them in concrete. Restoration gathered pace between 1958 and 1964 when there was a major risk of stones falling on people, so they created a safer site. What we see today replicates what they looked like in 1740, the earliest historical record in existence.
Throughout the 20th century, two areas of conflict have dogged the site: traffic and access. In 1978, it was decided to close off the centre from ordinary visitors, and eight years later it was named one of the first four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the British Isles – on the condition that the A344 Devizes road, which came up so close as to almost clip the heel stone of the circle, was closed.
That took until 2013 to achieve and there is still the pressing issue of resolving the problem of the traffic-clogged single-lane A303. The question over access reached its zenith after the Stonehenge Free Festival, which ran from 1978 until 1985, was shut down. From that time until 1999, there was no access to the site over solstice.
Today’s solstice-goers have “managed access” (among the banned items are pets, duvets, barbecues and drones), and the event is watched over by peace stewards. But there are still conflicts: earlier this year King Arthur Pendragon, a senior Druid, won the right to take English Heritage to court, as he argues that the £15 parking fee breaches his human rights.
English Heritage has to walk a fine line of preservation and access. “The past 100 years has seen a major amount of restoration and research. We know a huge amount more about the date and means that it was constructed,” says Ms Greaney. “But archaeologically speaking, Stonehenge is an incredibly clean site and so the question about why and how it was used remains. In many ways, the fact that it remains a mystery is what keeps visitors coming.”
English Heritage is marking the anniversary with a series of monthly lectures. Visit english-heritage.org.uk