The Druid and the Minister
This article was originally posted to www.eternalidol.com back in April 2011
I wake up in the mornings slowly and switch on the BBC breakfast news to help keep me awake. I was still bleary eyed and half within the realm of dreams when the television presenter declared that two government ministers would be making an important announcement from Stonehenge this morning. Unusually, in these times of spin, where government tells the media to report what will happen, what will be said, and how to report it before it occurs; this time no-one knew what it was all about.
The announcement could be about anything, and given how totally out of touch with reality most governments of any political flag are, it could range from selling the Stones to China to help with our national deficit to announcing that elves have returned and are in communication with our military. In between these extreme scenarios sit the more likely subjects of the The Visitor Centre, or the return of the Ancestors.
As I sat in my van ready to head off to work in my business suit, I weighed up my responsibilities as a spiritual guardian of the Stones with my very real need to pay my mortgage and keep my employers happy. Stonehenge narrowly won, so I set off cross-country at the best pace that tractors and OAPs on a day out would allow me. An hour or so later I was pulling into the Visitor centre car park, past security, and I parked up. I grabbed my SLR camera which by chance was in my van and I walked to the visitor centre, where a gaggle of media, TV and national press were reading the freshly issued press releases.
I asked an unfamiliar EH Press officer for a release and was duly handed one. Shortly afterwards, we were all waved through to the underpass that leads through to Stonehenge for the press announcement with the waiting ministers. As I walked under the tunnel, I was wondering why no-one had hooked me out of this elite group of media professionals, because under some circumstances, the EH staff might want to keep the Druids and their special guests as far apart as possible. Maybe they were happy that a senior Stonehenge Druid had turned up, but it then also dawned on me that in my business suite and carrying a big SLR camera, I probably looked just like one of the media and not my familiar, white robed Druidic self.
So, with my media hat on I decided to play along.
We reached the presentation area in front of the Heel stone and everyone around me started snapping photos with the enormous cameras that the press always carry. Doing my bit, I picked up my camera and tried to take some photos, but nothing happened. I had forgotten to put in a battery! Drat. We Druids prize resourcefulness, so I utilised my trusty i-phone instead. One media guy saw what I was using and laughed, muttering something like “my editor would kill me”. Then, after a short speech from the ministers, the TV people started interviewing them in rough order of size of organisation; BBC first, local papers last, so I waited and listened.
Finally left alone, John Penrose, Minister for Tourism and Heritage, made eye contact, stepped forward and I did likewise, and shaking his hand warmly introduced myself: “Frank Somers, STONEHENGE DRUIDS”. I have to credit him with recovering very deftly from the surprise.
I congratulated him on his achievement and I had a polite and very agreeable conversation with him before eventually wandering back to my van. We might argue with the Government over many things, but when they do get things right we are happy to acknowledge this.
He said “The long awaited transformation of the Stonehenge landscape is finally within grasp.”
The plans which will improve the current disfiguring visitor facilities from the vicinity of the stones have been given a huge boost following Government moves to help English Heritage secure a unique funding mix to achieve the project.
The funding package which mixes private philanthropy, lottery cash and commercial funding, has been supported by today’s government announcement about English Heritage reserves and road improvements.
He has also confirmed that English Heritage will be allowed to access 2 million pounds of historic reserves raised from philanthropic sources, demonstrating the Government’s commitment to philanthropic support for major cultural projects
“This is fantastic news for everyone involved in the project. It is a real step forwards in making sure this world heritage site – a unique and iconic symbol of our prehistoric past – is not simply preserved, but also presented in the best possible light for visitors in the future. Stonehenge is also an important draw for tourists from all over the world. But for too long the way it has been presented to visitors has been woefully inadequate – decades of dithering and indecision have got us nowhere. So it’s only right – and long overdue – that new thinking and cooperation between parties come together to ensure the whole visitor experience is world class too.”
“It was bitterly disappointing when the country’s dire financial state meant that we had to withdraw government funding for the visitor centre last June. But I – along with EH and my colleagues across government – have been committed to finding other ways to support the project. The fact that we have now almost secured private funding is an example of the Big Society in action, with everyone working together to ensure a mix of funding solutions.”
Mike Penning said “I fully recognise the importance of preserving this iconic heritage site and I am delighted to help the Stonehenge improvements take an important step forward. I have agreed around 3.5 million pounds funding to allow the highways agency to close the junction of the A303/A304 – improving the setting at one of the world’s most popular ancient monuments and aiding its conservation. This is subject to successful completion of statutory process to remove traffic from the Wiltshire controlled A344.”
“The funding would also allow the HA to increase capacity on the TA360/A303 at Long-barrow crossroads, which will help ease congestion around Stonehenge, including for those travelling to the new visitor centre”.
Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage said “These are crucial steps which bring closer the transformation of the currently blighted Stonehenge landscape.”
So there we have it. After years of successive governments talking and holding enquiries with no progress and allegedly nearly 100 million pounds spent in the process, something is finally going to happen. That something will begin next year with two improved roundabouts, a high tech road surface for the A303 past Stonehenge that will mute the road noise, and filling in the eastern end of the old access road with dirt so that it can be grass once more, linking Stonehenge to the northern sacred landscape.
Credit where it’s due, that is good progress, and I totally approve. Well done chaps.
Thanks too must go to whoever it is that has donated freely of their own money to help with this, which just goes to show how deeply Stonehenge touches peoples’ hearts.
And Ministers please note that I was nice about you this time!