Salisbury, UK. Stonehenge has been back in the news recently with the arrest of three pagan women who are said to have breached access restrictions to the sacred site. Maryam Halcrow and Angela Grace, identifying as witches, and Lisa Mead, identifying as a Druid, were found guilty of entering the site without reasonable excuse. All have received 6-month conditional discharges. Grace and Halcrow are from Swindon; Mead is from Aberdeenshire.
District Judge Simon Cooper stated that “Unseen, uncontrolled access to the site prejudices the rights of others to enjoy them for another 8,000 years.”
Mead and Halcrow have been part of the Free Stonehenge movement. Mead has stated that she believes in a charge for entering the monument, but that the current fee is excessive, particularly for people on benefits. Halcrow said that the food concession stands, fumes from transport and crowds at the Summer Solstice had ‘sickened’ her. The judge felt obliged to impose a penalty, on the grounds that it is not for the courts to question the policies of English Heritage, who own and manage the site. The three plan to appeal.
Halcrow says “It’s the best we could have expected and the District Judge has given us grounds to take it further.”
Halcrow and Mead had previously approached the stones in February 2018 as part of a protest organised by the Free Stonehenge group, and along with Grace, again breached the restrictions on May 4th.
Lisa Mead added: “I went into Stonehenge for the first time when I was 16 and I felt the subtle earth energies. Then I learned how you can heal people with these subtle earth energies. My message to English Heritage is to stop exploiting Stonehenge as a cash cow. They’ve got no regard to our spiritual beliefs and practices. It’s just profit, profit, profit.”
Kate Davies, English Heritage’s Director of Stonehenge, responded: “We are pleased with the court’s guilty verdict. The Stonehenge Regulations (1997) exist to protect Stonehenge now and for future generations to enjoy. As guardians of the monument, an employer and host to more than a million visitors from around the world each year, we cannot stand by and allow people to put the monument or people at risk at Stonehenge. We appreciate that Stonehenge has spiritual significance for many people. That is why we work with pagan and druid groups throughout the year to facilitate opportunities for access for ceremonies and access at and around the time of solstices and equinoxes.”
However, although Judge Cooper felt obliged to impose a legal penalty, he expressed sympathy with the women. “I have heard descriptions of the Solstice events and I can quite understand Miss Halcrow’s evidence that for her they were terrifying. They certainly destroy the sense of spirituality for those who wish to worship.” He added that he felt moved by the women’s descriptions of their beliefs, saying that they were ‘touching and genuinely held.’
Comments in the local Swindon Advertiser show public sympathy lies with pagans who wish to worship responsibly at the stones, with one commentator expressing the opinion that the majority of people who attend the Summer Solstice celebrations are merely there for the ‘buzz,’ rather than Druids who attend out of genuine religious conviction.
Protest at Stonehenge has a long history over the last 60 years, with many in the British pagan community feeling that entrance to the henge ought to be free, or at least free at the ‘wheel of the year’ festivals. This is not a universal belief among UK pagans, but it is deeply felt. Access to the stones has been a bone of contention for many years, ever since the Stonehenge Free Festival took place from 1974 to 1984. In its last year it attracted 30,000 people to the site, but concerns about numbers, damage to the henge, and open drug use also drew the attention of the police, and in 1985 the infamous Battle of the Beanfield took place when police tried to prevent a large New Age traveler convoy from attending the festival. This resulted in one of the largest mass arrests of British civilians since World War Two and the prosecution of a Wiltshire police sergeant for actual bodily harm. 21 travelers were subsequently awarded £24,000 in damages for false imprisonment, damage to property and wrongful arrest.
The approach to the law has recently undergone a revision, with the Crown Prosecution Service stating that it will no longer bring charges against anyone who trespasses at Stonehenge and that responsibility for civil claims now rests with English Heritage itself, who must bring private prosecutions. Taunton resident Mardi Lee trespassed at the henge on June 19th, but was not prosecuted by the CPS as the prosecutor withdrew the case.
Blogger Pete Anahata stated on the Free Stonehenge website at the time, “Let’s hope now that everyone relaxes and sees sense, and sees that we are not criminals but lawful and peaceful members of the public who have many issues with EH, and we reserve the right to speak out about it and take peaceful lawful action.”
Lisa Mead, one of the three women in the Swindon court case, posted on Facebook that she had asked the prosecutor if she could go trespassing at Stonehenge that evening.
“He said it would have to be English Heritage that take out a private prosecution,” she said. “But they will never do this because they know we would fight the case, and challenge their legal occupation of the site.” However, Lee has in fact subsequently been privately prosecuted, also at Swindon, by English Heritage. He has stated that he had a reasonable excuse to enter the stones, the centre of Stonehenge being the best place to exercise his legal right to protest. The judge has upheld the conviction, however, apparently on the grounds that Lee could have protested on the access path, the visitor’s centre or the drove rather than in the circle itself.
It is clear that legal issues surrounding access to the henge are ongoing, and it seems unlikely that the court cases in 2018 will be the last.