The road scheme greenlit by Grant Shapps risks damaging a unique landscape
Stonehenge is, with the sole exception of Big Ben, the most famous monument in the British Isles. Until the Covid-19 pandemic effectively stopped tourism, it was visited by 1.5 million people a year; from this single site, English Heritage would normally make about a fifth of its income. It is neither the largest nor the oldest of Britain’s 1,300 stone circles, but it is by far its most culturally generative, inspiring figures from Thomas Hardy to William Blake and, latterly, Jeremy Deller, who made a cheeky bouncy castle version, titled Sacrilege, that toured the UK in 2012. Who could forget, too, the comically tiny replica of Stonehenge that appears as a stage backdrop in the 1984 rock mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap? Stonehenge is surely unique among British monuments in having sparked a modern religion, druidism. It is even, argues historian Rosemary Hill, the distant ancestor of that great feature of the British roadscape, the roundabout.
Until relatively recently, little was understood about the monument’s history and purpose, and even its precise age was unclear until the 1990s, when radiocarbon dating provided firm evidence that it was about 5,000 years old. Into this void flooded every kind of theory: that it was deposited there by aliens, that it was built by Romans, druids, Vikings, or the magician Merlin; that it depicts a map of the stars, that it had healing or acoustic properties; that it is a fertility symbol representing a vast vulva. The most influential current theory is that of Prof Mike Parker Pearson, who argues that Stonehenge was built as a monument to the dead.
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