Stonehenge News: Solstice cancellation impact and update on A303 legal challenges

WILTSHIRE, England – In a decision that seemed somewhat symbolic to Britain’s Pagan community, some months ago the United Kingdom government set June 21st, the summer solstice, as the date on which the country’s COVID-19 restrictions would finally be lifted. However, plans to celebrate the longest day as well as a release from masks and social distancing had to be put on hold: the rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19 across the country has meant that the ending of restrictions has now been put forward by a month to July.

Stonehenge at sunrise  CC BY-SA 2.0 

This led to some disruption among public events, including the celebrations of the solstice itself. English Heritage, the organization in charge of Stonehenge, announced in mid-June that they would be cancelling any gatherings at the henge itself. It added that celebrants would be welcome to join the observation of the sunrise via an online livestream.

Around 10,000 people usually gather at the henge at this time of year, considerably in excess of the 4,000 permitted according to current COVID-19 regulations.

Nicola Tasker, the director of Stonehenge, says she shared “people’s disappointment with this decision. We were busy getting ready to welcome everyone for summer solstice but the announcement this week left us with no choice. We’re working with the pagan and druid community to ensure that small groups can still mark in person what is a very important moment for them.”

Senior Druid King Arthur Pendragon responded that “Just as spring, autumn, winter of 2020 and the spring equinox this year – it is my intention to be as close to the Heel Stone as possible. And as on previous occasions it is not my intention to break the law – but be there I shall on one side of the fence or another.”

However, some participants evidently decided that an online presence was insufficient, and (despite somewhat inclement weather) turned up in person. Over a hundred people scaled fences to celebrate amongst the stones, resulting in the livestream being pulled.

Ed Shires, the host of the livestream, said: “We have been disappointed that a number of people have chosen to disregard our request to not travel to the stones this morning and that is the reason why we haven’t been able to bring you the pictures that we would have liked to have done. It is disappointing to see that happen but unfortunately in those kind of situations we have to put the safety of our staff members first and that’s why we have had some interruption this morning.”

English Heritage added: “The COVID-19 restrictions were extended for a reason and it was disappointing to see, during a pandemic, people act in a way that put themselves, our staff and the police at risk.”

The UK’s Pagan community is divided over the question of whether to attend solstice at the henge in a normal year. Many people feel that the crowds and anti-social behaviour are offputting, but with access put on hold for another year, some also questioned why more mainstream events such as Ascot, which also features extensive crowds, were allowed to go ahead.

Caroline Perry,  who identifies as a Pagan told TWH, “Surely the risk is similar to football stadiums and they’ve been allowing 10K to gather there! Beaches are packed too. It’s an outdoor event – I’m sure something could have been arranged.” 

However, others pointed out that Ascot is being used as a specific test case with ticket holders being monitored, as are other stadium events. Some also raised doubts that English Heritage could make the solstice celebrations a ticketed, monitored event given the time available. The site can apparently host 4,000 people and as mentioned above, were allowing specific groups, such as various Druidic organizations, access around the solstice date, as usual.

Others pointed out that it is not essential to celebrate at Stonehenge itself, and perhaps remaining in one’s locality for the solstice might have been preferable for 2021.

In other Stonehenge news, the High Court case regarding the proposed A303 expressway tunnel continues.

Map showing A303 – Image credit: OpenStreetMap contributorsCC BY 2.0

TWH has reported extensively on the issue of the proposed Stonehenge tunnel, which is being suggested in order to resolve traffic issues around the henge (this reporter, having sat in a near-stationary traffic jam for 45 minutes at Stonehenge last Friday, can testify to the fact that there is indeed a problem).

The new tunnel would take the existing A303 road beneath the southern edge of the Stonehenge site, but campaigners are concerned about the potential damage to the archaeological record.

They have taken a case to the High Court, based on the legality of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ acceptance of the proposal and this is now undergoing a High Court review. Mr. Justice Holgate has stressed that the court is not considering the merits of the project itself but only the question of whether the Transport Secretary has acted unlawfully in reaching his decision. Campaigners against the tunnel say that he has, and have now put their case to the court.

Justice Holgate said, “We will not be looking at the merits of the project, whether it is a good project or a bad project. We are here only, we are concerned only, with the questions of law and whether the Secretary of State has acted unlawfully.”

Within the last few days, it has been reported that the High Court has rejected the campaigners’ argument that Shapps’ consent to the road tunnel proposal was predetermined (i.e. that he had made up his mind to approve the tunnel prior to hearing the evidence in support of it and against it).

This is, however, only one part of the campaigners’ case, which remains ongoing and which we shall cover in due course, as events unfold.

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