HC Deb 20 December 1976 vol 923 cc159-67

9.37 p.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

All is not well today at Stonehenge, and since this is the most-visited ancient monument in Britain it is right that the House should know about the situation there. There is a dangerous assumption that if something has survived from prehistoric times it will continue to survive and a few centuries more or less will have no effect. Nothing could be further from the truth. The alarm bells are beginning to ring.

Hon. Members who have visited the cave paintings at Altamira in Spain and at Lascaux in France will know of the increasing attraction of those places and of the mounting anxiety lest the breath of the daily throngs of tourists will damage the paintings. Something of this anxiety is now apparent in Wiltshire, where the weight of numbers is becoming unmanageable. It was Dr. Johnson who said: Salisbury Cathedral and its neighbour, Stonehenge, are two eminent monuments of art and rudeness, and may show the first essay and the last perfection in architecture. The practical care exercised in the maintenance of these two monuments has been in marked contrast.

From the first day that the spire of the cathedral was completed, with all of its 400 ft. and more, successive deans and chapters have accorded the highest priority to its maintenance. Architects, including Sir Christopher Wren, have strengthened it with iron collars. The lean from the perpendicular is measured regularly, just as a doctor takes the temperature of his patient. The result is that, although the spire dwarfs Big Ben and the Victoria Tower, it has stood up firmly through more than seven centuries.

Stonehenge is in melancholy contrast. For most of its life there has been no Department of the Environment. It is not just wind and weather that have done the damage. Stones have actually been removed through the years. Stones have been taken to build bridges or to dam streams. Moreover, in the past visitors have been allowed to chip away pieces of stone for the purpose of taking souvenirs, In the last century my constituents hired out hammers to visitors to facilitate their task. We all have to live. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) smiling. It is a fact that wages in Wiltshire have always been below the national average. If visitors were too idle to chip away the pieces for themselves, instead they could buy pieces for mementos.

Moreover, at this time of the year severe storms sweep across Salisbury Plain. It was on 3rd January 1797 that one of the finest stone arches—trilithons, as they are called—fell. When one trilithon falls, as with a plantation of trees the pressures on the remainder increase. On New Year's Eve of 1900 another trilithon fell. It must be said, if only in fairness to those prehistoric builders, that a contributory cause of these falls has been digging by treasure hunters in the past too close to their foundations.

The greatest danger to Stonehenge today is what I have called the problems of popularity. The M3 motorway brings Stonehenge within an hour and a half of London. The coaches arrive there by mid-morning. The number of visitors grows week by week and year by year. Chatsworth, Blenheim, Longleat—they are all left standing in the league table. Stonehenge exerts a fascination which is insatiable.

Nobody knows what purpose Stonehenge served. Nobody knows who built it. Nobody knows where the stones came from. Some say that they came from the hills near Edinburgh. Some say that they came from Pembrokeshire in Wales. But at the rate of 16 men per ton it must have taken 800 men to pull one stone and it must have taken them decades to do it. Therefore, I suppose I can fairly claim that my constituents are not frightened of hard work.

Stonehenge was already old before the first Roman arrived here and already its history had been forgotten. Some people attach immense importance and significance to the fact that the main axis of the monument is aligned to the midsummer sunrise. There are a great many numbers and alignments at Stonehenge, and numbers and lines never cease to fascinate people. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris was set up to commemorate the victories of Napoleon's troops, and the French will tell one that Paris is aligned' so that on 15th August—Napoleon's birthday—the sun as viewed from the Champs-Elysées sets in the centre of the arch. These things are of great significance, or they are of none. It may be just the numbers game. It may be just a field day for the coincidentalists. It may be just the mass of legend. But, whatever the cause, the press of visitors to Stonehenge grows year by year.

In the short 12 years that I have represented Salisbury, the numbers have more than doubled. Each June the place becomes like a carnival site. There are whirring cameras, there are fireworks, there are Morris dancers, there are so-called Druids waving branches of oak, and there are incense burners—all of them waiting for 4.59 a.m. on 21st June.

But it is not all fun. Back in the relatively peaceful days of 1956, the Salisbury Journal reported that 15 military policemen had been called out in order to quell an unruly mob and to restore order. Ten years later it was mods and rockers on their motor-cycles.

This year things were more difficult still. The midsummer rally planned this year began earlier than expected. The authorities were caught on the wrong foot. The monument was engulfed long before the solstice sunrise was due. It was a friendly and easy-going crowd, but among them was a mere handful of potential troublemakers. The police were hesitant to go in and clear the site. Why was this? The Wiltshire Constabulary, as I know it, is second to none. The reason was not basically the wish to avoid a repetition of the events at Windsor, although I concede that that was a factor. I believe the basic reason to be that, had the police moved, the monument itself might have been damaged. In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, for some days Stonehenge was hijacked and held hostage. This must never happen again.

Inevitably these problems spill over into the surrounding district. Local farmers speak of their woods being fouled. Amesbury householders find that milk bottles are stolen from their doorsteps. The people in the married quarters at Larkhill, which is more than a mile away, complain that with midsummer temperatures they have to sleep with their windows closed because of the noise.

It is the accumulation of these things that prompts me to speak tonight of these problems of popularity. I am concerned with the well-being of the monument, as is the Minister, but I am also concerned with the well-being of those living in the district.

I want to be fair to the Department of the Environment. I believe that it is alive to these difficulties, and I pay special tribute to Lady Birk, who has responsibility for ancient monuments and who has herself on more than one occasion been to look at matters on the ground.

Indeed, I remember appealing to the Department some 10 years ago, and receiving the fullest co-operation from it, when someone threatened to route an overhead power line too close to the monument. I believe that the Department has given thought to these matters and has drawn up fresh plans for the improvement and management of the site. It is these that I wish to hear about.

The neighbourhood of Salisbury was one of the most important areas of prehistoric England, and the city's museum has exhibits of almost every age. The Minister will know that the museum recently has been given what was the finest remaining archaeological collection in private hands—the Pitt-Rivers collection, which is beyond price. It is a museum which was provided, as were most museums, by Victorian benefactors. It is rich in treasure but poor in funds. The constant worry is how the curator's salary can be paid.

I appeal to the Minister on this matter. Stonehenge used to be in private hands, it used to belong to the family of Sir Philip Antrobus, who lives in Amesbury, and it was generously presented to the nation. The Minister enjoys a sizeable revenue each year from 750,000 visitors. I urge him to be generous in providing facilities at Stonehenge whereby the museum can make its existence known to those who visit the monument. For the sake of the museum, I would like to see a few crumbs fall from the Minister's rich man's table.

In closing, I would point out that Stonehenge probably took three centuries to build. It is a highly sophisticated building and a good many generations of my constituents must have devoted their whole lives to working on it. They created an interlocking series of astronomical observing instruments of remarkable ingenuity and which architecturally are of great simplicity. It genuinely ranks with the seven classic wonders of the world—the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Pyramids and so on. The monument is worth safeguarding, and I hope the Minister will agree with me.

9.53 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

It is symbolic of the variety of aspects of the work in my Department that I am replying to this debate now, and at some time during tonight or tomorrow morning with the permission of the House, I shall reply to a debate on nuclear power and the environment. 1 only hope that 3,500 years from now there will be debates on whether Windscale is being properly looked after.

It has been recognised for many years by those concerned about our natural and man-made heritage that the popularity of a particular area or feature may damage, or even destroy, the very thing that has attracted visitors to it. I believe that the House and the public, will agree that we have a duty to future generations as well as to the present one in respect of our heritage.

The principle is well stated in the report of the National Parks Policies Review Committee which said in respect of national parks that their enjoyment by the public should be in such manner and by such means as will leave their beauty unimpaired for the enjoyment of this and future generations. This recommendation was endorsed by the Secretary of State for the Environment, then my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), in a circular to local authorities in January of this year.

Hon. Members may perhaps wonder how this doctrine can possibly apply to the apparently robustly constructed Stonehenge Circle. But Stonehenge is more than the familiar stone circle; it is a "henge", comprising a ditched and banked enclosure containing within it an arrangement of upright stones, pits and the settings of former timber structures; and there are associated features, notably the Heelstone and the Avenue—the processional route to the circle which is severed only a few yards from the henge by the A344 road.

The effects on the monument of increasing numbers of visitors–120,000 in 1951, 300,000 in 1960 and 700,000 in recent years, coming second only to those who visit the Tower of London—have been worrying the Department and our advisers, the Ancient Monuments Board, for many years. I have been amongst those crowds on a Friday afternoon in August. The turf has been worn away, leaving a sea of mud in wet weather. We have replaced this by gravel, but then it was found that the bank and ditch surrounding the enclosure were being eroded. Fences were put up on each side of them. Since then, we have realised with growing anxiety that the stones themselves are suffering wear.

The wear is partly caused by adults and children climbing on the low and fallen stones, but there is more to it than that. Fairly recently it has been discovered that there are faint incisions on some of the upright stones representing axe and dagger symbols of Bronze Age date. These are of significance to archaeologists, but we have evidence that they are at risk by the amount of rubbing and fingering to which they are subjected.

The density of crowds in summer and at fine weekends throughout the year is such that the custody staff cannot control them. There is no room within the circle to fence off corridors within which large numbers of people can shuffle round in a queue.

Rationing by price was tried, and the price of admission was increased to 40 pence during the summer, keeping it to 10p in winter. That caused many complaints and hostility to our staff, and it had no significant effect on attendances. There has been a recent addition of overenthusiastic festivities—some would say hooliganism—during the night of the Summer Solstice. Because of the dangers to the monument and to people, it has been necessary for more than 10 years to surround the henge with dannert wire, and to admit inside it only the Druids—who have been allowed for over 50 years to perform their rites—and a limited number of local residents selected by the district council.

My hon. Friend the noble Lady, Lady Birk, who also is Under-Secretary of State in the Department, met representatives of the district council last April to discuss these arrangements. On police advice it was agreed that they must continue until there is evidence of an improvement in public behaviour. The organisers of unauthorised free festivals have in recent years made Stonehenge a target at that time of year. In 1975 they were deflected from the monument by the police, but invaded surrounding farmland. In 1976 the vanguard arrived well before the solstice and established themselves close to the monument. The police advised against attempting to dislodge them unless there was an alternative site available. There was and is no such site.

I appreciate that there is resentment in Amesbury and Salisbury against the festival because of the aggressive behaviour of some participants in the locality and because of the expense which falls upon the public funds. The Department is in touch with the police and the local authorities about the expected 1977 festival. We are anxious to co-operate with the police and the local authorities. We control only a small area adjoining the monument. While the defence of that area may be reasonable, it would not necessarily be to the advantage of the local community. Intruders would go somewhere else near by.

A group of drop-outs set up a sordid encampment adjoining the monument in 1974. After some months the Department secured their removal by an injunction from the High Court, after some rather bizarre proceedings lasting several days. All the trespassers claimed the same name—Wally. They then settled on the adjoining trackway from which they were eventually dispersed by the highway authority. They then squatted in Amesbury. Their leader has since died. The Department has no responsibility for any remnants of the sect who may survive in the locality.

However, I believe that the House will recognise that some other radical action is necessary. It has been suggested that the car park should be moved from its present site near the monument to another site so far distant that only the most robust and determined would-be visitors would ever get to the monument. There would be practical difficulties about that. There are abundant opportunities for unauthorised parking in the locality. It would also be unfair to less active and older visitors.

We have come to the conclusion, after much agonising, that the right course will be to ask visitors to remain outside the henge, that is about 30 yards away from the stone circle. We would not envisage erecting a formidable physical barrier: simply a line of rope to define the limits of access. That would enable visitors to have a view of the stones, undistracted by fences or by crowds of people milling about within and around them. We should also be able to restore the turf surface, thus enhancing the present appearance of the monument.

Like you, Mr. Speaker, as a teacher I frequently regret that I am not allowed to use visual aids in this place. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that maps are available—I can show them to him later—to give a picture of the stones as they will be seen from the area where the public will be permitted. I do not deny that this proposal involves a sacrifice which many will regret. In return we propose to provide explanatory material at the outer part of the site, including a model of the monument as it would have been at various stages of its history. We shall also reduce the admission price to 20p.

I hope that these measures, taken as a whole, will prove acceptable to the public. We are relying upon their understanding and co-operation to save this unique monument from further damage. We owe this not only to our children and their children, but to Europe and the world, since Stonehenge is of international significance, no less than the caves of Lascaux and the Acropolis, where comparable measures have been found necessary.

We are working urgently on arrangements to implement these proposals. We hope in the long run to provide parking and other facilities a little further away than the present site. The site would be invisible from the monument. It would permit of more adequate facilities for visitors, in particular the provision of "interpretation" of the monument and other Wessex pre-historic monuments. Visitors would be told about related material—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be glad to hear about this—in Salisbury and Devizes Museums. The new facilities would be designed for visitors to the monument, not travellers in general. The main charge, probably the sole charge, would be for parking.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I look forward to co-operation between my Department, the local people and the many visitors who will continue to go to Stonehenge.

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