I parked my camper between two thorn trees on the Drove, just passed the crossing where the old A344 used to run, and spent the night there.
In the morning there was a frost, despite the lateness of the season, with a thin mist rising in the hollows as the sun began to warm the landscape.
It was May the 1st: Beltane.
The Drove—full title “the Netheravon Cattle Drove”, also known as Byway 12—is an ancient right of way cutting across Salisbury Plain. Historically it was probably used to drive cattle from the village of Netheravon to Salisbury Cattle Market: hence its name.
It is a wholly unremarkable stretch of unmade road, pot holed and rutted, with a few scattered thorns along the verge. What gives this road its special significance is where it passes on one part of its journey: along the stretch from Lark Hill to the A303 it skirts Stonehenge on its Western side, close enough to get a good view of the monument without having to pay English Heritage for the privilege.
The current cost of entry to Stonehenge is £15.50 for adults, £9.30 for children, or £13.90 for students and senior citizens.
Tickets have to be booked in advance.
Park up on the Drove and you can get almost as close for free, without booking, and without the annoyance of having to pass through English Heritage’s new £27 million Disneyfied visitor centre.
Not that I was there to see the monument today, enigmatic and mysterious though it is. I had other purposes in mind.
By now my co-conspirators were arriving. I could see Kazz and Arthur on their Motorbike weaving slowly back and forth across the track to avoid the ruts, while I made my way to join them. There were about a dozen of them there by now, many already wearing their white robes with the red rampant dragon symbol on the front: the Loyal Arthurian Warband, or some of them at least.
I’ve known Kazz and Arthur for a long time: Arthur since the mid-nineties, when I first mooted the idea of writing a book about him. Just to clarify, in case you haven’t heard of him: he’s this ex-biker, ex-soldier turned Druid who in 1986 had a revelation that he was the reincarnation of the historical King Arthur, and who has been living his life as such ever since. And if you think that’s eccentric, you haven’t met the others yet.
“CJ, do you know Mad Alan?” Kazz said, introducing me to one. He had a shaved head and was wearing a short hooded robe. His legs were bare, showing a number of tattoos. His face was almost completely tattooed, in pink and blue psychedelic swirls that reached into his ears. I was studying these, wondering how painful it must have been to have the needle drill in such an intimate place, when I spotted something even more remarkable glinting from his forehead.
“Is that a nail?” I asked.
It was. A tiny silver nail, lodged a few inches above his nose, in the place where the third eye is reputed to be.
How often do you meet someone with a nail banged into his forehead?
After which which he spoke about his titanium teeth, and gave a clenched-teeth grimace to show them off. A full set: shiny and silver in his gob, like Jaws from the Bond movies.
No need to ask why he’s called “Mad Alan” then.
The Drove was our rendezvous. Our destination was across the National Trust field where a number of burial mounds are situated, to Fargo Plantation, a small stretch of wood about half a mile distant.
Veterans of the Stonehenge Free Festival will remember that field. It was where the festival took place. And Fargo Plantation was where they collected wood for their fires.
In the wood we held a circle for Beltane, holding hands and repeating the Druid’s vow three times as is customary:
“We swear by peace and love to stand, heart to heart and hand in hand; mark oh Spirit and hear us now, confirming this, our sacred vow.”
And so to business.
The wood is riven by a stretch of tarmacked road. This is the old A344, which used to run from the A303 to the A360 at Airman’s Corner. These days it belongs to English Heritage, who use it to bus the tourists the 2km or so from the visitor’s centre to the Stones and back.
Either side of the road it is National Trust land, and at this point in the road, near the old Airman’s Cross, there is a public right of way.
Let’s say those words again, just so we register their significance.
So, now, we are the public, and this is our right of way, which, despite English Heritage having taken possession of the road, we are still entitled to use.
Which is what we proceeded to do: to walk across the road and back again—back and forth, back and forth—from one National Trust field to the other, holding signs which said, “We Will Not Pay To Pray” and other such arcane and mysterious slogans.
Why did the Druids cross the road? To stop the English Heritage tourist buses from getting to the other side.
At this point maybe we should take a pause to consider what this is all about. It’s a protest. We are here to protest English Heritage’s plans for the Summer Solstice Managed Open Access this year, which include a £15 car-parking charge for most vehicles and an alcohol ban in the Stonehenge field.
Managed Open Access has been happening since the year 2000, four times a year, on the two solstices and the two equinoxes—all night for the Summer Solstice, and three hours each at dawn for the other three—and up to now it’s been free.
The Summer Solstice in particular is an event of world renown: with people including it on their bucket list of things they want to do before they die. As many as 37,000 people turned up in 2014, a record which looks set to increase as the years go by.
Prior to that, of course, from 1985 to 1999, there was a four-mile exclusion zone around the Stones, which, if you stepped over, you would get yourself arrested.
The cost of policing this operation, which involved hundreds, sometimes thousands, of police from a number of different constabularies —all on overtime as it took place overnight – plus helicopters, dog units, command and control centres, catering facilities, riot vans, secure vehicles and all the rest—not to speak of the cost of incarcerating dozens of people in police cells around the county—amounted to hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of pounds every year.
Arthur was one of the people arrested on a regular basis during those fourteen long years, and actually took the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights over the issue.
Managed Open Access has been considerably cheaper: some mobile toilets, moderate policing, security guards, catering facilities, infrastructure, not much more.
But English Heritage, a former quango, is a charity these days, and everyone has to tighten their belts in this age of austerity. Stonehenge is far and away EH’s most lucrative asset, but the cost of the new visitor’s centre – described by Will Self in the Guardian as “an orgiastic union between Mammon and science” – and the requirement to cash in on the tourist dollar in order to justify its existence, means that some of the rival claims to Stonehenge’s mystic aura have had to be squeezed out.
That means specifically all the people that Arthur considers his congregation and who he refers to as “pilgrims”: the new-age mystics and pagan travellers who arose during the years of the festival and who think of Stonehenge as “their” temple.
You might say they have as much right to it as anyone else, the builders not being around any more to stipulate what it should and shouldn’t be used for.
Arthur believes that the £15 car-parking charge is discriminatory. The tourists pay £5 for the same privilege, which is then refunded when they pay for the ticket, while the alcohol ban means that Druids won’t be able to partake of their ritual Mead. He also points to the hypocrisy of English Heritage who, he says, had a grand opening night in the Stones a while back in which all the assembled dignitaries were quaffing champagne. So it’s “one rule for the rich” as always.
There is also a planned £50 charge for vehicles larger than a camper van: this means converted buses and trucks, which are the mobile homes the New Age Travellers prefer, making it patently clear that it is this group in particular that English Heritage want to banish from the Stones.
And so back to our protest.
By now the tourist buses were stuck on either side of the procession, unable to move. The occupants were made to get out and walk. Meanwhile the Warband were tramping back and forth across the road shouting various slogans.
“Money grubbing English Heritage. We will not pay to pray. Stonehenge, our temple. English Heritage rip off the tourists. Etc. etc.”
Arthur’s idea was that by stopping the buses we would cause a backlog on EH’s timed ticket slots, which now have to be booked in advance, thus costing them money. “Money is the only thing they understand,” he said, “so we plan to cost them as much of it as we can.”
Mad Alan and Bubba—half punk, half Druid, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and a hood—were arm in arm singing Beatles songs: “All you need is Love, love love love, love is all you need.”
“Love” is Mad Alan’s favourite word.
At a certain point the police turned up, one male, one female, in a squad car.
They threatened Arthur with the Criminal Justice Act 1996, Trespassory Assembly.
“I was the first person to get arrested under that law,” said Arthur. “And the first Not Guilty.”
After a while they visibly softened. The male officer took his hat off and tucked it under his arm, which is always a good sign.
“What do you want?” he sighed, with a note of world-weary resignation in his voice.
Arthur asked to speak to a senior person from English Heritage and gave his demand, which was that they should withdraw the enforced car-parking charges and the alcohol ban immediately and return to the table to negotiate.
The stand off lasted a number of hours. Kate Davies, English Heritage’s manager at Stonehenge, was unavailable, and a lesser official came down. She said she was unable to make any decisions about the solstice at this point. The rumour was that EH were giving away free cream teas to compensate the tourists for their inconvenience.
Meanwhile, as they were now being made to walk to the monument instead of being taken by bus, Arthur changed his slogan.
“We will not be made to pay to pray,” he shouted, “and you should not have to pay to walk. Ask for your money back.”
There were negotiations with the bus drivers who were allowed to take a few old people and people with disabilities back to the visitor’s centre. Some of the tourists loved the sight of the Druids in their robes. They thought it was all part of the entertainment. Others got very angry and accused them of being weirdos. Mad Alan took that as a compliment.
Eventually the protest wound down. Arthur told the EH official that most of the people there lived in Salisbury and could do this again, any time they liked. He called it his “pop up protest”.
As for the future, the Solstice is fast approaching, and EH still intends to implement the car-parking charges, which Arthur says are illegal under European law as they discriminate disproportionally against the pagan community.
“I’ll be there on the night,” he says, “advising people not to pay. What can they do? If they try to tow any vehicles away, we’ll see ’em in court.”
Warband website: http://www.warband.org.uk/
Christopher Stone’s blog: https://christopherjamesstone.wordpress.com/
The Trials of Arthur: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trials-Arthur-Revised-Pendragon/dp/0956416314
“Stone writes with intelligence, wit and sensitivity.” Times Literary Supplement
“Passionately serious, irresistibly compelling, and hilariously good-humoured.” Professor Ronald Hutton, Bristol University
“Searching, funny, intelligent and illuminating.” Deborah Orr, the Guardian.
Publications: The Guardian Weekend * The Observer * The Big Issue * The Independent * The Independent on Sunday * The New Statesman * The London Review of Books * Mixmag * The Sunday Herald * The Times Literary Supplement * Prediction * Kindred Spirit * The Whitstable Times * Saga Magazine * Kent Life * The Whitstable Gazette *
Books: The Empire of Things (Gonzo Muiltimedia 2013) * The Trials of Arthur Revised Edition (with Arthur Pendragon: Big Hand Books 2010) * Dear Granny Smith (as Roy Mayall: Short Books 2009) * The Trials of Arthur: The Life & Times of a Modern Day King (With Arthur Pendragon: Thorsons/Element 2003) * Housing Benefit Hill (AK Press 2001) * The Last of the Hippies (Faber & Faber 1999) * Fierce Dancing: Adventures in the Underground (Faber & Faber 1996) *