Between a Rock and a Stonehenge

Between a Rock and a Stonehenge

Stonehenge, the world’s most famous Neolithic megalith, is under crisis.  Built around 4,500 years ago, it is only recently that archaeologists have begun to understand the true complexity of this ancient site. Unfortunately, time is running out on archaeologists as the modern world encroaches on the ancient one.

The Henge

For centuries it was believed that Stonehenge was simply an isolated outcropping of stones put there by ancient men to celebrate rituals that we no longer understand.  In the early 2000’s a new archaeological project was begun to study the surrounding area.  It discovered that Stonehenge is far more than the large standing stones everyone recognises.  It is, in fact, part of a much larger complex spanning several miles which encompass up to 17 other henges including Avebury, Woodhenge and the newly discovered Bluestonehenge.  Also unearthed are various pathways, pits and dozens of burials.

In 2013 a brand new visitor centre opened its doors to better accommodate the site’s 1.3 million yearly visitors.  It replaced a smaller centre opened as a temporary structure in 1968.  By 1989, that same structure was dubbed a ‘national disgrace’ yet somehow it remained in place for a further 20 years.

The original visitor centre sat directly across the A344 road from the ancient monument. Visitors could park in its small car park, pay the entrance fee then use an underpass to take them under the busy main road and out into the large field where Stonehenge resides. From here they could get a 360° view of the ancient monument.

For those not wanting to pay the entrance fee and not worried about seeing Stonehenge from all angles, they could walk along the footpath on the main road, getting almost as close as the paying visitors.  While the nearness of the road was great for tourists wanting free access to the site, it was a disaster for traffic as drivers inevitably slowed their cars down to look.

The solution to both the ‘national disgrace’ of a visitor centre and the traffic, was to close the A344 altogether and move the visitor centre to Larkhill, a mile and a half from the monument. The new visitor centre cost £27 million and is simply amazing.  It holds archaeological finds, replica Neolithic houses, and even the reconstructed face of a Neolithic man, based on a skeleton found on the site.

The Rock

Closing the A344 was an important step, however the nearby A303 road also runs within eyesight of Stonehenge.  Although the monument is now further off in the distance, tourists can still get a decent look at the ancient stones from the road, making slow traffic a continuing problem.

In response, central government has approved a plan to build a 1.8 mile long tunnel as part of a £2 billion scheme to improve the A303. Leading cars underground will stop them from slowing down as they will no longer be able to see the monument.  The problem is that Stonehenge isn’t just what people can see from their cars.  Not only will underground archaeology be compromised by a tunnel, the sightline from Stonehenge will also be in danger. The Western entrance to the proposed tunnel would be bathed in artificial light creating a permanent glow over the horizon, blocking the last rays of the setting midwinter sun.

The Hard Place

It has long been known that Stonehenge aligns with the sunrise during the Summer Solstice. On the longest day of the year, the sun can be seen rising over the nearby ‘Heel’ stone, casting a shadow into the centre of the stone circle.  Recently, it has become apparent to historians that Stonehenge hosts another solar phenomenon in the winter. On the shortest day of the year, the tallest stone, Stone 56, aligns with the midwinter sunset.

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and was a significant time for early civilisations. Animals would be slaughtered both for food and because it was difficult to keep them fed during the harsh winter.  For people living during the this time, the Winter Solstice was potentially far more important than that of the Summer Solstice. Unfortunately, the creation of a tunnel will stand directly in the line of site of the midwinter sunset, thus stopping any future study of its alignment.

During a public consultation, archaeologists raised concerns that a tunnel would require “expensive and time consuming” work to recover and record findings.  As a World Heritage Site, they also worry that the tunnel “lowers the bar for allowing development to overrule conservation”.

The council has asked why Ministry of Defense land, which surrounds Stonehenge, was not being considered for use. However, the ‘big guys’ in historic sites, English Heritage, the National Trust and Historic England have stated that the tunnel “has the potential to deliver huge benefits if designed and sited well”.  On the other hand, they have particular concerns over the location of the western portal of the tunnel, presumably as this will be the point which compromises the sightline for the Winter Solstice.

With the public consultation finished, it is now up to the Highway Agency to consider all of the options and come up with a final plan.  In the meantime, we wait to learn the fate of Stonehenge.

What do you think about the proposed plans to build a tunnel near Stonehenge?

To see for yourself how close the road is to Stonehenge, follow the link below for Google Street View.  Then click on the Satellite button along the bottom menu and zoom in to see the location of the A344 and the old Visitor’s Centre :

https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@51.1768049,-1.8260684,3a,75y,340.35h,87.01t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s_zOGkkZD1t_wb7vkmXVEfQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

To learn more about Stonehenge follow this link to the English Heritage website:

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/history/

The Great Whisky Caper

The Great Whisky Caper- Isle of Eriskay, Scotland

The year was 1941, the location, the tiny Hebridean Isle of Eriskay off the West coast of Scotland. Famous for being the spot where Charles Edward Stuart first stepped foot on British soil at the beginning of the 1745 uprising. Now, 200 years later, this island was about to become infamous for an entirely different reason.

The war was taking its toll on this remote island with the residents suffering under rationing. Although they grew their own food, whisky was almost impossible to come by.

In February, the SS Politician set off from Liverpool to Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans. It’s cargo? Bicycles, linen, tobacco, £145,000 in Jamaican 10 Shilling notes and most importantly, 264,000 bottles of the finest Scotch whisky.

Distilleries and warehouses had been targeted in the war by the Nazis. The ignition of such a flammable substance was found to be as dangerous as hitting live shells. After a mass public campaign the whisky was loaded up to be sold in safer places across the Atlantic.

As the SS Politician passed the Isle of Wight, gale force winds forced the ship to change its course. The storm continued to batter the ship, pushing it further off track. On the morning of the 5th of February, 1941, it ran aground off the Isle of Eriskay. With its oil tanks ruptured and the engines no longer working, the crew had no choice but to abandon ship. The hold in which the whisky was kept had been flooded with water and fuel oil. Therefore, the captain didn’t believe that the cargo could be salvaged.

The ‘helpful’ islanders hoped otherwise and set up unofficial salvage teams to collect the cargo. Many men donned their wive’s dresses to keep their clothes clean from the ship’s leaking oil. Under the cover of darkness, they rowed out to the SS Politician and used their wits to get to the flooded hold. They salvaged whatever they could carry.

When word got out of the whisky on board, people from neighbouring islands, some as far as Lewis (130 miles away), made their way to Eriskay. In the words of one man, they were simply “rescuing the whisky”. In all, around 24,000 bottles were salvaged. To put that into perspective, the population of the entire Isle of Eriskay at that time was around 400. Local resident Mairi MacInnes later recalled that, “Men were dancing in the streets and singing songs and everyone joined in. It was very exciting.”

The authorities, and certainly the ship’s owners, saw the islander’s salvage efforts as nothing short of thievery. After all, duty hadn’t been paid on any of the cargo. The customs officers began combing the islands, confiscating the loot and arresting those found with it.

The locals on the Isle of Eriskay were crafty when hiding their spoils. Bottles were hidden everywhere, in hen houses, amongst rocks and buried deep in people’s gardens. Very little of it was hidden in their homes. Many of them simply tried to drink the evidence, although there was far too much to get through so quickly. Very few were ever caught with their loot. Eriskay was awash with a sense of adventure, community spirit and whisky!

After many months, the authorities finally gave up and the islanders were left alone. To deter any further looting, the hull of the ship was destroyed. This prompted one resident to declare, “Dynamiting whisky. You wouldn’t think there’d be men in the world so crazy as that!”

Although the incident was never publicly reported, the story was picked up by Scottish author Compton MacKenzie and made into a book, Whisky Galore, which was later immortalised on film.

To this day, whisky is still being found under water and in forgotten hiding places on the island. In 2013, two recovered bottles of whisky were sold at auction for just over £12000.

The money has its own story. In the hold, the cases of Jamaican notes had been covered with fuel and water and later believed to be swept out to sea. However, within a few years, notes began showing up in banks in Northern Scotland, Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent and London and later internationally. By 1958, just over £105,000 had been recovered. To this day, no one knows exactly how the Jamaican shillings could be used in such remote parts of Scotland in the middle of a war.

For more information on this story, have a look at this online exhibition at     The Merseyside Maritime Museum: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/archive/displays/politician/