As recently as May of last year, the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer labelled Stonehenge "a national disgrace" and, on the surface, it would appear, with some justification. He bemoaned the visitor facilities especially, and this has not been lost on the site's governors, English Heritage.
Laurence and myself are here to meet with English Heritage's Senior Landscape Manager, Alan Cathersides, and Chris Bally, their Landscape Manager South West.
The site occupies a triangular plot of land, bordered on two sides by main roads, the A344 and the A303, the latter being the major arterial route to the west country, and one of the busiest roads in the UK. On the third side of the triangle, National Trust land that contains ancient barrows, the odd sheep and a bridleway offers a more open view of the prehistoric monument.
From the A303, casual observers might wonder what all the fuss is about but, up close and personal, the magnificence of the stones can be truly appreciated.
Stonehenge attracts in the region of one million visitors a year, with as many as 9,000 a day during the height of the summer. It is one of the 'must see' attractions for tourists from home and abroad. This amount of foot traffic could have serious consequences if not managed correctly, and it falls to Chris Bally to manage the landscape maintenance contracts, not only for Stonehenge but across all the English Heritage sites in the south west.
Alan Cathersides provides professional and technical support to Chris and his four collegues spread around the country. Alan previously worked as a Grounds Maintenance Officer for the Property Services Agency (PSA), overseeing Ministry of Defence landscape contracts in various parts of the country. When that department closed in the 1990s, Alan joined English Heritage.
English Heritage's landscape contract specifications are modelled on the old, yet tried and trusted PSA Schedule of Rates tendering system for procuring and managing landscape contracts. The length and value of any contract will be dependent on the size, location and scale of the operations required. In the case of Stonehenge the document, is twenty pages of solid text!
Laurence and I had arranged to meet Alan and Chris very early in the morning to allow us to get inside the stone circle, whilst also seeing the work the contractors were undertaking prior to the gates opening to the public at 9.00am.
An immediate impression of the facilities would have me concurring with Charles Spencer's view, as they are modest to say the least, but we are soon to discover that, despite Government cutbacks to funding for English Heritage - currently £35m has been swiped of their budget - work has begun on a new visitor information centre, about a mile away and out of sight of the stones, that will include all the usual modernity for 21st century visitors, along with a display of artifacts discovered on the site. Visitors will be transported to the stones by land train, but will also be able to walk the route along an ancient processional avenue. This new visitor centre is due to open in 2013 and will require the final section of the A344 to be rerouted to link back up with the A303. The old road will then be returned to nature by sowing native grasses.
Sadly, the proposed 2.1km long A303 tunnel to bypass the monument was shelved back in 2007, and traffic pollution will remain a threat to the stones. Alan hopes that the scheme will be revisited once the economy has recovered.
In our present austere times, such expenditure is clearly out of the question but, if the economy does start to recover, I believe the tunnel project should become a priority. The present situation is little short of a national scandal as Stonehenge is one of the most important prehistoric monuments in the world.
Two of the busiest times at Stonehenge are the solstices. This year, 15,000 people had the chance to celebrate the summer solstice on 21st June. They begin arriving at 7.00pm the day before and leave soon after sunrise. The site is usually clear by 8.00am. Alan vividly remembers when English Heritage changed their views on the midsummer celebrations. Up until 1999, celebrating the solstice within the stone circle was prohibited. This required heavy policing as there were various religious sects and other groups who claimed, nay demanded, an historical right (or should that be rite?) to be there. So, in 2000, English Heritage agreed that the rules should be relaxed and access allowed to the stones - over 25,000 attended that first event, and one of them was Alan!
"It was a magical time," says Alan, "and it's one of the few times visitors have actually seen the sunrise since we changed the rules - it's generally been overcast in subsequent years!"
As new theories about the original purpose of the stones keep cropping up - one of the latest is that it was a centre for healing - the winter solstice has taken on increasing importance and, on 21st December last year, around 5,000 people turned up to see the sunrise. It was cloudy!
This year, as part of the Salisbury International Festival for the London 2012 Festival, an event called Fire Garden was held on 11th July. This required the lighting of fires around the stones, evidence of which can still be seen. Stonehenge also played host to the Olympic Torch with gold medal winning athlete Michael Johnson.
Whilst the majority of visitors are kept away from the monument, special bookings allow groups to enter the inner sanctum outside opening hours. The previous evening had seen three groups, totalling around one hundred people, all adding additional wear in sensitive areas.
Chris Bally explained that access to the centre of the stones does cause problems. "Seventy-seven different species of lichen have been identified on the stones," he explains. "Stonehenge is, therefore, of national importance. If you look carefully, you will see that, on many of the stones, the fruticose growth on the lichens does not start growing until about six feet off the ground. This has been caused by visitors touching the stones."
In another area, Chris points out a yellow lichen that is growing in a pronounced 'DI' formation. "Back in the mid-sixties, when the site was unsupervised, the stones were vandalised when someone sprayed 'Radio Caroline' across them," explains Chris. "Various solutions were tried to remove the graffiti and, whatever was used to remove the D and I from radio, this particular variety of lichen seems to thrive on it!"
General visitors are shepherded around the monument on, in the main, roped off grass walkways. The ropes are moved regularly to avoid excessive compaction.
During our visit, Parsons Landscapes Ltd, a family run firm from Taunton in Somerset, were carrying out their weekly maintenance regimes. A Gianni Ferrari ride on mower was cutting the larger areas of grass, whilst a Kubota G2180 mid mounted tractor, with attached spiker, was attending to the grass walkways. The contract specifies that the grass around the monument is kept between 25-50mm; in reality, it is generally cut at 35mm.
The depth of spiking is restricted to 100mm to avoid any damage to sub-surface archaeology that may be in the ground; special permission is required to go any deeper.
Strimming around the stones has to be undertaken carefully so as not to damage either the stones or the lichen. Blowers are used to remove clippings. A ditch that runs around the monument is cut on a less frequent basis to maintain a long grass policy that provides a habitat for wildflowers, insects and butterflies.
A portable bridge access pathway has been constructed to allow visitors to gain full access across an archaeologically sensitive area known as 'The Stonehenge Avenue'. Discovered in the 18th century, it measures nearly three kilometres and connects Stonehenge with the River Avon where, it is believed, the smaller bluestones arrived from Wales. The avenue is aligned with the sunrise of the summer solstice.
At the end of the avenue, a similar ring of bluestones, now known as Bluestonehenge, was discovered in 2009.
The bridge is moved two or three times a week to prevent wear in key pinch point areas. Other areas of the site are grazed by sheep to control growth. Chris admits that the farmer hasn't quite grasped the concept of summer growth though, preferring to put his sheep on the land in autumn and winter!
Other areas of the site - car parks and grass verges - are mown and strimmed on a weekly basis. Again, blowers are used to collect clippings and to ensure that the area remains as tidy as possible for visitors. Chris points out a small area of worn grass where, for a number of months, Chief Druid, Arthur Pendragon, had chained himself to a fence in protest at the 'deformation of a religious site'. However, it appears that even druids don't like three months of torrential rain, and he has now departed the site!
Rather like the Tower of London, corvids have nested on the stones for centuries. In this instance it is not ravens, but their smaller cousins, jackdaws. The famous ecologist, Gilbert White, recorded in 1788 in his 'Natural History & Antiquities of Selborne', in a series of letters written following visits around the area, that; "Another very unlikely spot is made use of by daws as a place to breed in, and that is Stonehenge. These birds deposit their nests in the interstices between the upright and the impost stones of that amazing work of antiquity: which circumstance alone speaks the prodigious height of the upright stones, that they should be tall enough to secure those nests from the annoyance of shepherd-boys, who are always idling round that place". "We still have the jackdaws, but the shepherd-boys are long gone," exclaims Alan.
In recent years, there have been a number of controlled archaeological digs around the stones, with the aim of uncovering more evidence to help conclude the age and meaning of the stones. There are also a number of other historical sites locally that are managed and promoted by English Heritage.
Parsons Landscapes are responsible for the maintenance at several of these sites as part of their maintenance contract with English Heritage.
One of these is Woodhenge, another ancient monument just a few miles from Stonehenge. Dating from about 2300 BC, concrete markers now show where the original timber posts used to be. Again, it is not clear what the original purpose of the site was, but it possibly supported a ring-shaped building.
It is a much smaller site than its more famous neighbour and, until the early 1990s, the whole site was simply cut short. Now, the grass is cut between and around the monument at a height of 30mm on a weekly basis, with a visitors pathway included. Outside of this, a natural grass meadow area has been allowed to develop which has encouraged the return of local flora and fauna to stunning effect. These areas are left to grow throughout the summer, with a cut and collect carried out in late August.
Alan has advised on over four hundred English Heritage sites and has written contract specifications to cater for all the different landscape environments.
The length of any contract depends on the nature of the specific site but, in the main, they vary from five to seven years. As Alan says, it is important to support the successful contractor as he has to invest in machinery and people, so having a minimum five year contract helps sustain a good working relationship between client and contractor.
As we only had a short time to enjoy being amongst the stones, Laurence had run around like a kid on blue Smarties getting as many photographs as he could - some of them in focus!
Whilst he was discussing compaction, aeration, spraying et al, I wandered over to talk to a security guard who had been one of three on the night shift. I asked if there were any security issues with the site. He replied that the biggest threat was the occasional interloper who wanted to play their flute or guitar to the stones, and they were asked, politely, to leave.
It would seem that Stonehenge will retain it's magic for centuries to come. Who knows, maybe the truth about it's construction will be uncovered in that time. Or, maybe, the spaceship will return to tell us?
The building of Stonehenge
Stonehenge was constructed in three phases. It has been estimated that the three phases of the construction required more than thirty million hours of labour. Speculation on the reason it was built range from human sacrifice to astronomy.
Stonehenge is probably the most important prehistoric monument in the whole of Britain and has attracted visitors from earliest times. It stands as a timeless monument to the people who built it.
The stonehenge that we see today is the final stage that was completed about 3500 years ago
The First Stage
The first Stonehenge was a large earthwork or Henge, comprising a ditch, bank and the Aubrey holes, all probably built around 3100 BC. The Aubrey holes are round pits in the chalk, about one metre wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms. They form a circle about 284 feet in diameter. Excavations have revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling, but the holes themselves were probably made, not for the purpose of graves, but as part of the religious ceremony.
Shortly after this stage Stonehenge was abandoned and left untouched for over 1000 years.
The Second Stage - The Arrival of the Bluestones
The second and most dramatic stage of Stonehenge started around 2150 BC. Some eighty-two bluestones from the Preseli mountains, in south-west Wales were transported to the site. It is thought these stones, some weighing four tonnes, were dragged on rollers and sledges to the headwaters on Milford Haven and then loaded onto rafts. They were carried by water along the south coast of Wales and up the rivers Avon and Frome, before being dragged overland again to near Warminster in Wiltshire. The final stage of the journey was mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Salisbury Avon to west Amesbury.
This astonishing journey covers nearly 240 miles. Once at the site, these stones were set up in the centre to form an incomplete double circle. (During the same period the original entrance of the circular earthwork was widened and a pair of Heel Stones were erected. Also the nearer part of the Avenue was built, aligned with the midsummer sunrise.)
The third stage of Stonehenge, about 2000 BC, saw the arrival of the Sarsen stones, which were almost certainly brought from the Marlborough Downs near Avebury, in north Wiltshire, about twenty-five miles north of Stonehenge. The largest of the Sarsen stones weigh fifty tonnes and transportation by water would have been impossible, the stones could only have been moved using sledges and ropes. Modern calculations show that it would have taken five hundred men, using leather ropes, to pull one stone, with an extra one hundred men needed to lay the huge rollers in front of the sledge. These were arranged in an outer circle with a continuous run of lintels. Inside the circle, five trilithons were placed in a horseshoe arrangement, whose remains we can still see today.
The Final Stage
The final stage took place soon after 1500 BC when the bluestones were rearranged in the horseshoe and circle that we see today. The original number of stones in the bluestone circle was probably around sixty, these have long since been removed or broken up.