Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Meditations on underground access

The renegade firefighter heads underground only to crash in the subway next to the English Heritage souvenir shop. And so the chase comes to an end.

The underground access to the real Stonehenge has received much criticism over the years since it was built in 1968, but in my mind it has a great deal of symbolic significance. The modern entrances to many heritage buildings are too simplistic: they are above ground, with simple linear access to the monuments, thus denying them any sense of mystery. At Stonehenge it is different. There is nothing linear about access at all. Instead, you have to park your car on the wrong side of the road from the monument, then pass through an underground subway, which symbolises your death and rebirth. When you emerge from the ground you are a new being; you are now on the right side of the road, in the sacred space, and you are now allowed to approach the holy place. You then make one full circuit of Stonehenge following the path laid out by English Heritage, in the same manner that thousands of pilgrims before you have done. Then you pass back through the underworld to return to the secular reality from whence you came.

It is interesting how many stone circle sites in England have strange kinks in their modern access routes. At Avebury for instance, the lane from the National Trust car park kinks and meanders it way past houses and gardens before emerging in the village street. At Stanton Drew there is a dog-leg approach from the car park to the circle, seemingly for no reason other than the farmer's whim to make it so, because a straight-line, linear approach would be just as possible, as far as I can tell. Arbor Low and Boscawen Un have strange dog-leg walks too.

Why should this be? Perhaps there is an unconscious need to make access difficult, or to make it special. By forcing the visitor to make turns and twists in order to reach the monument, the paths are forcing the visitor to exert righteous effort. And Stonehenge, by symbolising death and rebirth in its underground subway, has perhaps the best modern access of all.


unkle e said...

Ah, that brings back some memories!

We visited UK from Australia 7 years ago, and I remember the underpass (fortunately no police chases were occurring at the time). Yes, we experienced the death and re-birth, and we traversed Stonehenge in the prescribed manner, toting English Heritage tape recorders.

But one thing that is very interesting - the route leads you in a circle around the stones in an anticlockwise direction. Now viewed from the northern hemisphere, the sun appears to move across the sky in a clockwise direction, so this anticlockwise movement must symbolise the view of someone from the southern hemisphere. Thus the controversial new theory (you heard it here first folks!) that Stonehenge was not designed by hunters on the Salisbury Plains (even if they provided the labour for it), but by indigenous Australians who travelled across to Avalon to play cricket against the MCC (Megalith Cricket Club - notice how a trilithon looks like a giant cricket wicket?).

I also noticed the kinks in the approaches to other neolithic monuments. One approaches West Kennet Longbarrow along a path through a field that takes two right hand bends, and the path to Mitchells Fold Stone Circle was so tortuous we were unable to reach it in the rain. Silbury Hill is the one exception, but getting inside it and finding its purpose is proving so difficult that it has stumped the experts.

Thanks for all you are doing to promote the old ways!

Alan A said...

Yes I noticed the anticlockwise approach too, and have wondered why English Heritage opted for it, rather than the clockwise one. My knowledge of shamanism is limited but it does suggest that clockwise movement is the preferred choice, and certainly medieval Christianity preferred clockwise processions, because to move widdershins would only wake the Devil. I imagine all this is because the sun (and everything else in the celestial sphere) moves clockwise round the horizon, from rising to setting.

But if you think about it, the reason why the celestial sphere moves clockwise is because the earth itself is moving anticlockwise ... if you look at a modern astronomy textbook you'll see that the earth moves anticlockwise around the sun, if you're an observer looking down upon the northern hemisphere. And the earth spins anticlockwise on its own axis ditto. So by making us pilgrims process in an anticlockwise manner, English Heritage is simply making us embody the movement of the planets around the life-giving sun...

I am glad you have noticed the dog-legs too... As a general heuristic, I have noticed that the more complicated the route towards a monument is, the more enjoyment I eventually gain from that monument. Just a rule of thumb, though.