The cafe at the new Stonehenge visitor centre was packed; it was showery outside but inside the atmosphere was thick with the distinctive aroma of wet Gore-Tex - a smell I always associate with the British heritage industry. Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage - and therefore the pre-eminent guardian of our nation's physical remains - was delighted: "I'm glad there isn't any room," he said, leading me between the tables, "it shows we're doing something right." He found us somewhere to sit, near a couple who appeared a little bit more alternative than the tourists: she was wearing a long gypsy skirt and a garland of daisies on her head; he sported a hessian jacket and held a staff topped with a carved goat's head. Smiling, Thurley called my attention to the ageing hippies. For him, they were yet more evidence that English Heritage is on track; the long impasse during which the facilities at this, the most salient prehistoric monument in the country, have universally been regarded as a disgrace, has at last ended. At 4.43am today, when the sun rises above the rolling plains of Wiltshire and, cloud willing, its rays come fingering their way through the grass to touch the mighty sarsens and bluestones of the Henge, it will be a moment of joy for all concerned: the battles of the past between druids, crusties, conservators, archaeologists, seers and sightseers are over - thousands of them will be there, ready to celebrate the dawn of a new age for the Neolithic.
At least, I imagine that's how Thurley would like us to see it. A slim, trim man, sandy-haired and with sharp eyes, he's been at the top of the ancient heap since 2002. The past has, to put it mildly, been good to him, and he wasn't about to let some scuzzy hack lift a leg and piss on his parade.
In the cafe, pissing was to the forefront of Thurley's mind. He asked me if I remembered the old arrangements at Stonehenge, the tea served through a hole in the wall of what looked like a nuclear bunker, the grim tunnel under the road to the stones, and the Portakabin loos. He hymned the loveliness of the new loos, and went on to eulogise the fresh approach to this immemorial site. For Thurley, as the guardian of Stonehenge, his priorities were self-evident: to protect the nation's archaeology and to provide what he termed "a holiday experience". Later, he was still more specific about the nature of this experience: it was English Heritage's job, he told me, to provide "entertainment" for the million-plus visitors who descend on the site every year, visitors who - as he put it - mostly "want a selfie with the trilithon". For while Thurley is keen to enhance our understanding of the Neolithic, he doesn't want to be a po-faced purveyor of education; rather, he wishes to preserve the enigma of Stonehenge, an enigma he considers to be "the goose" that lays the gold-paying - and frequently ovoid - visitors.
He talked to me of how timed ticketing has made famous historic attractions such as the Alhambra in Spain far more enjoyable to visit, and he spoke enthusiastically of how experimental archaeology was transforming our understanding of Stonehenge. I could appreciate why he was keen to emphasise the latter: we were both there to see the Neolithic houses that archaeologists and their volunteer helpers have been erecting in a compound behind the new visitor centre - jolly little structures with steeply pitched thatch roofs and wattle-and-daub walls. Of course, the Henge itself has been substantially remodelled over the centuries, never more so than during the last, when several stones were re-erected and lintels were replaced to form trilithons that hadn't been intact for a long time. Thinking about all of this, and the contrivance of the new visitor experience - which, although it no longer involves the dreaded tunnel, does require a 2km road-train shuttle from the centre to the stones - I couldn't stop myself from uttering the dreaded M-word: "Don't you worry about the monument ceasing to be real in an important sense," I asked. "I mean, with all this messing about isn't Stonehenge in danger of museumification?"
Some druidical Beltane fire flickered in Thurley's eyes and he snapped back at me, quick as a flint-tipped arrowhead fired from a Neolithic bow: "Museumification isn't a word!" I forbore from referring him to the collected works of Jean Baudrillard, because I very much doubted he was unfamiliar with the philosopher's view that "Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view. To this end the pharaohs must be brought out of their tomb and the mummies out of their silence. To this end, they must be exhumed and given military honours. They are prey to both science and worms." In fact, I suspect the head of English Heritage probably reads such heretical works as Simulacra and Simulation late at night, in the privacy of his bedroom, the same way that priests dip into pornography. Because of course nothing is more destructive of the sanctity of his own vocation than the suggestion that we simply don't need this kind of conservation - if that's what it really is - at all; that on the contrary, the entire "relaunch" is simply the bastard offspring of an orgiastic union between Mammon and science, consummated on the Stonehenge altar stone and observed by the fee-paying public.
Anyway, I was able to get my own back when a few minutes later Thurley was describing the currently mooted plans to separate English Heritage into two organisations: one vested with the same responsibilities as the old Ministry of Works (namely the categorisation and preservation of listed buildings and sites), the other an independent charity - or series of such charities - that will continue with the husbandry of the 400-strong flock of golden geese (sorry, I mean "heritage sites"). Discussing the tricky Velcro-parting of the organisation Thurley used the dreaded D-word - "Demerging" - and I was able to snap at him in turn: "That isn't a word!" He took my remonstrance in good part, but the sad thing is that "demerging" is not only a word, it's exactly the right sort of term to apply to the English heritage industry, which, whatever else we may wish to believe about it, is potentially big business, and therefore subject entirely to the same calculus of profit as our other formerly public services. Thurley was at pains to stress that "I wouldn't ever say anything patronising about any of our visitors," which is odd, you might think, coming from someone whose very raison d'etre consists in preventing the childish public from chipping away at stuff they don't understand much - beyond the bare fact that it's very old - so they can cart off a free souvenir, rather than shelling out for a Stonehenge snow globe in the superbly appointed new gift shop.
Odd, also, given that such stress is placed at Stonehenge - and other English Heritage sites - on the educative value of a visit. Thurley was especially eager to distinguish EH from the National Trust on the grounds that "We do history." I thought this was all fair enough, although surely, I cavilled, if building simulacra of Neolithic houses and learning how to flint knap is our new route to the past, then really the actual monument itself is somewhat besides the point. And I was about to say the M-word again, but Thurley had had enough: the reception for the new-old houses was about to begin and his attendance was required. I tagged along. The canapes were excellent, and the archaeological folk smelt different from the trippers . . . more heathery. I fell into conversation with a weathered-looking man of about my own age, who turned out to be the freelance archaeologist (and editor of British Archaeology), Mike Pitts. I'd been reading his book Hengeworld (2001) over the preceding week, so I was pleased to meet him.
Archaeologists are paradoxical figures, I think - and increasingly so. Reading Pitts's writing, and that of other diggers and delvers, I'm always struck by the disparity between the sketchy nature of the evidence they present and the way the narratives they construct on its basis seem to bear down on their imaginations - and ours as well. Stonehenge, because of its unprecedented size - and more importantly, weight - has attracted hyperbole the way magnets do iron filings: the place positively bristles with explanations and always has. Rosemary Hill's fine book Stonehenge gathers together all of the tales that have been spun around the stones since its first appearance in the annals. Reading it, I was struck by how there are two main historical timelines at Stonehenge, the history of the monument itself and the history of these explanations of it.
Stonehenge seems so much more enigmatic than other Neolithic structures because these two timelines have been so oddly discontinuous; the problem isn't simply that our science cannot furnish a definitive explanation as to why or how the stones were raised - after all, how could it? - but that the narrative is itself so fragmentary and incomplete. Work at the site ceased, we believe, around 1600BCE, but the monument doesn't appear at all in the historical record - apart from being noted as a boundary marker in a property deed dated CE937 - until it's mentioned in Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum of around 1130. Henry says of "Staneges" that it is one of the wonders of the country, but that "no one can conceive . . . how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or why they were built there." We aren't surprised that the Romans had nothing to say about, say, the nearby Avebury stone circle, because it's far less manifest.
But Stonehenge was hiding for all those centuries in plain view, standing proud of a landscape of closely cropped turf, in an area where we now believe settled agriculture was being practised at the same time as its construction. It is, I think, the sense we have of Stonehenge being ever-present to the minds of scores of successive generations that has propagated this strange faith: if only we could accurately interrogate this millennia-long memory, we would somehow discover what the monument truly is and, in the process, find out who we, the English, are. Certainly, the way Stonehenge becomes rapidly incorporated into myths of origin supports this notion. For Henry of Huntingdon's contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Stonehenge was the burial place of King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, although it was originally built by Pendragon's brother, King Aurelius, as a monument to Britons who were murdered at the site by the treacherous Saxon invader Hengist. This foundational tale is given not one but two supernatural dimensions by Geoffrey: first, he conjures the wizard Merlin as Aurelius's contractor; Merlin, we are told, magically transported the great stones from Ireland; and second, he, together with other early medieval chroniclers, mixes the Arthurian legends with Christian mythology so as to put Joseph of Arimathea, the 12 apostles and the holy grail in the frame.
We can track the development of our own polity through these ideas about Stonehenge: from the Hanoverian period when the identification of the monarch with the embattled King Solomon led to the stones being viewed - at least figuratively - as an outpost of the Holy Land, to the contemporary era when the business of government is no longer to enforce God's rule on Earth, but to raise the finance necessary to dig that earth up and establish scientific truths about our origins. Thurley was keen to emphasise that the pounds 27m that's been spent on the new visitor centre and grassing over a section of the A344 was financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage's own commercial income and philanthropic donations. This means the new landscape of Stonehenge embodies modern Mammon's triumvirate of commoditisation, gambling and charity, just as it once did Trinitarian ideas of transcendence and immanence.
As late as the early 20th century, perfectly reputable archaeologists were still proposing mysterious foreign artificers for the stones. The monument has been variously attributed to Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians and the Jews. The discovery that the 11 bluestones of Stonehenge originated in the Presili Hills, 160 miles away in Pembrokeshire, gave strong impetus to the idea that its construction was deeply mysterious, and required the intervention either of magical beings or an alien and advanced civilisation. Even today, scientific opinion remains divided over whether they were hewn, dragged and possibly floated to the site, or were merely left lying there in the wake of retreating glaciations; while, as for the still larger sarsen stones, as far as I'm aware there's no specific separate explanation for how they got to Stonehenge from the Marlborough Downs, which are by no means as far as Wales but still a significant drag away. In recent decades the pushing back of the dates for the various phases of Stonehenge's construction, together with extensive new evidence from digs at the nearby massive earthen henge at Durrington Walls, have contributed to a different sort of a narrative; and there's general archaeological consensus that this entire part of Wiltshire, from the huge earthworks at Avebury and Silbury Hill, stretching down the Avon to Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, and taking in the strange features known as the cursus and the Stonehenge Avenue (parallel earthwork ridges running for several kilometres) as well as scores of barrows (or burial mounds) constituted an integrated "sacred landscape".
Thurley spoke to me of the "immersive" visitor experience the new Stonehenge provides, and it's obviously this narrative he had in mind. In fairness to English Heritage, there's a curious congruence between our forebears' supposed fate and our own. They came by water; we usually arrive at Stonehenge via the A303. They may have stopped at the settlement at Durrington Walls; we park up at the visitor centre. They proceeded on foot several kilometres from east to west; we're dragged by a Land Rover hitched to a road train 2km from west to east. They doubtless engaged in a ceremonial procession around the stones; and of course, so do we. They may well have paid with their lives for this experience; we shell out pounds 13.90, or pounds 21 if we want a Stone Circle Access ticket (26 places available either in the early morning or the late evening). They were perhaps engaged in ritual observance mediated by the stones - and we definitely are. We cannot know the nature of their beliefs, but it seems reasonable to imagine that the monument stood at the centre of a complex web of ideas conjoining human life, death and the natural cycles of the cosmos. We can however be perfectly clear about our own beliefs; for us, the monument stands at the centre of a complex web of ideas linking ownership, knowledge and consumption, ideas that are mediated by rituals involving money. The more you consider the matter, the more salient the parallels between the Neolithic and the neoliberal appear: archaeologists seem fairly convinced that implicit in the Stonehenge's design is some form of ancestor worship; for us there can be no doubt: we revere the idea of their reverence, we are engaged in a degraded form of meta-ancestor worship.
I first encountered the wonder of the Neolithic far to the north of Wiltshire. Like so many others, I visited Stonehenge as a child, although I remember little of the experience. When I was working on this piece, my brother reminded me of that trip: the barbed wire strung lopsidedly around the stones, the cars pulled up at the roadside, the woeful refreshments stall and the scrappy air of desuetude and decay. I've been back to Stonehenge several times over the years, and at no time did I find the experience in the least bit immersive, nor did I apprehend any great wondrousness inhering in the stones themselves. But in the Orkney islands, where I lived over the winter of 1993-4 - I've returned many times since - Neolithic remains can seem more significant than the contemporary built environment. A couple of miles from the house I stayed in on the island of Rousay, there's the ruin of an iron age broch, or fortified dwelling, and beyond this there's a Neolithic chamber tomb, Midhowe, that's dated to the third millennium BCE. Midhowe is a large and complex structure, although by no means as obviously important as Stonehenge. It was fully excavated in the 1930s and 40s by Walter Grant (of the distilling family) who owned the Trumland estate on Rousay, which included this site and several other important tombs. Since the roof of Midhowe has long since gone, Grant covered up the exposed stonework with hangar-like structure, but the curious thing is that this doesn't detract at all from its powerful and brooding atmosphere.
During my times in Orkney I've visited a great many of the Neolithic sites. I've sat in tombs, laid in them, dreamed in them, and tried to grasp the sort of mindset - whether individual or collective - that's implied by buildings that took shape over thousands of years, and were built by people with life-spans far shorter than our own. I have felt the wonder - felt it most of all, because at Midhowe there is hardly any of the furniture and signage associated with the modern tourist attraction: no ticket office, no custodian, and only discreet information boards. Apart from in high season, you can visit Midhowe and most of the other great Orkney sites with the confident expectation that you'll see scarcely another human being. When I mentioned that I'd done my Neolithic wondering in Orkney to Pitts at Stonehenge he said: "Well, that's quite a different sort of experience." And when I remarked to Thurley that it seemed a shame that Stonehenge was overrun with people while even sites as nearby - and impressive - as Avebury were scarcely visited, he shrugged and said: "People just won't go there," as if this were something entirely beyond his control.
After admiring the cafe at the visitor centre, and the Neolithic houses, I walked together with Pitts, Heather Sebire (English Heritage's property curator), and a fellow from the National Lottery Heritage Fund up the sealed-off stretch of road to the stones themselves. The rain had cleared, and apart from the rumble of the road-trains, all was placid in the sunlight. Pitts and Sebire were never less than engaged and authoritative - offering rich information and giving serious consideration to my heretical views - yet, for my part, wonder was there not. As we neared the stones, Sebire pointed out the green lane that runs immediately to the west of the site. Neither she nor Thurley will thank me for writing this, but it remains a byway open to traffic, so, at least in principle, it's still possible for trippers to park adjacent to Stonehenge, and in the time-honoured way munch sandwiches, drink tea from a Thermos, and perhaps scatter a few crumpled papery offerings. It's the possible removal of this byway, together with the display of human remains at the visitor centre, that is most exercising the man we might think of as Stonehenge's alternative archon, Arthur Uther Pendragon (born John Rothwell), the leader of the Loyal Arthurian Warband - a neo-druidic order with strong political and environmentalist tendencies - and the self-proclaimed reincarnation of King Arthur.
If the aim of most neophyte visitors to the site is, as Thurley suggests, getting a selfie with a trilithon, then lingering in most of their minds is also an image of men with long white beards and long white robes doing stuff with sickles and mistletoe while raising their arms up to the rising sun. As inventions of bogus deep-time traditions go, British druidism has to be one of the most enduringly successful. The antiquarians of the 17th and 18th centuries who linked Stonehenge to the Celtic druids helped to spawn druidic orders that, by the Victorian era, allowed thousands of men to dress up in funny costumes and hold ceremonies. Druidism can be seen as another quasi-Masonic phenomenon, and druids of this ilk are on a par with any other odd fellows, their aim being clubbable mutual assistance rather than mystical transcendence. But in the last century, some druidic orders began hearkening to the rising tides of paganism and pantheism, and by the time hippies and crusties began gathering at the stones to celebrate the solstice, there was at least some common cause between the men with goat-headed staffs and those with long white robes. Even the archaeological community felt the ripples of cosmic knowledge spreading out from the stones: the new field of astro-archaeology, which posits Stonehenge and other Neolithic sites as astronomical "clocks" or "calendars", formed a bridge between the diggers and the dreamers.
It might be easy to dismiss Arthur Pendragon as an endearing eccentric had he not been quite so successful. The Stonehenge Free festival began in 1974, and during the following decade the numbers of celebrants and revellers descending on the stones to dance the shortest night of the year away grew and grew. The so-called Convoy - a cavalry of hippies, anarchists and crusties that moved around the country from festival to festival - became the focus of the secular authorities' displeasure. Goaded by local landowners, in June 1985 the then chairman of English Heritage, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, took measures to suppress the Free festival. Riot police with helicopter support were called in, and the Convoy was tracked down to a Wiltshire bean field on the border where many hairy heads were unceremoniously cracked. The following year, the Public Order Act was passed by parliament, in part to suppress events such as the solstice celebration.
It was Arthur Pendragon's destiny to take on this grotesque alignment of state power and property rights. In subsequent years, armed with his trusty sword, Excalibur (a superannuated prop from John Boorman's film of the same name), he persistently challenged the law against assembling at Stonehenge, while the site itself grew increasingly to resemble one of the military encampments on nearby Salisbury Plain. All this came to a head when two demonstrators were arrested at the stones, and Arthur chained up the doors of English Heritage's HQ. When, in 1999, the case of the Stonehenge Two was finally brought to the House of Lords, their conviction was overturned. This marked the last violent solstice confrontation: English Heritage, the National Trust and other official bodies had already - much in the spirit of British governments negotiating secretly with the IRA - been holding round-table talks (yes, at an actual round table) with Arthur and other druids, and now it was agreed that limited open access would be allowed for the summer and winter solstice festivals.
Speaking to Arthur on the phone, I was struck by how nuanced his view of the monument was. In part he still cleaves to the agreement forged 15 years ago. He agrees with the English Heritage plan originally formulated by Jocelyn Stevens and now being enacted by his successor; he wants to see Stonehenge reintegrated with the surrounding "sacred" landscape, while in important ways the pagans and the archaeologists retain a common cause: both groups, after all, venerate the monument, even if it's in radically different ways. Arthur, however, has three sword edges to grind: he wants greater open access to the stones for solstices and equinoxes, objects to the timed ticketing of the monument and particularly reviles the display at the new visitor centre of human remains found at the site. His epithet for Thurley's outfit is "English Heretics", and he sees the demerging of English Heritage as the beginning of the rampant commercialisation of our historic sites. "English Heritage will be measured on a success criteria . . . based on how much they save the tax payer in grants, and thereby how much money they make themselves," he wrote in the Western Daily Press. "How long before McDonald's Stonehenge or World of Warcraft Battle Abbey? Once they are cut loose from the government, they will be free to look for outside sponsorship."
For now, English Heretics - sorry, I mean Heritage - is in a transitional stage, and the state of Stonehenge reflects this. As we reached the stones another showery curtain came swishing over the Wiltshire sward. The tourists kept up with their penitential circuit of the site on the prescribed route, while I examined the broken ground where the old visitor centre and the foot tunnel under the abandoned road are being returned to a simulacrum of the natural. Given the vast timescale over which humans have interacted with the English landscape, it seems plausible that archaeologists of the distant future will concoct some narrative to unify these works with the stones themselves, perhaps one based on the astronomical alignment of the tunnel with the decayed footings of some vast M-shaped golden arches that were mysteriously erected some decades later.
Stonehenge has influenced English architecture as various as Georgian Bath and the roundabouts and boulevards of Milton Keynes, and it's the latter that the monument now seems to be mimicking in turn. I don't doubt that Thurley has an aversion to patronising his paying guests - but really, patronising is precisely what the heritage industry is all about: preserving our ancient monuments against our own thoughtless depredations; organising a charitable and corporate funding structure for them because we cannot be trusted to pay for them out of the public purse; educating us as to their possible meaning; and, most of all, providing a seamless complex of car parks and road trains so we can visit them without having to animate our own overweight bodies. We took the road train back from the stones to the visitor centre, and, as we chugged along, I asked an elderly American gentleman where he was from: "Virginia," he replied. I then asked him how long he would be in England and he told me his cruise ship had docked at Southampton that morning, they'd been ferried to Stonehenge by coach, and now they were returning directly to the port. Had he enjoyed the stones? "I just wanted to see them," he said. "I've heard about them all my life and I just wanted to see them." Hadn't he been impressed? "Not especially, I just wanted to see them."
It's this just-wanting-to-see-things that English Heritage seems perfectly willing to cater to, and it's the logical correlate of a modern attitude that sees places as exchangeable one for another in some notional marketplace. I don't believe you can force people to visit Avebury - or the Orkneys for that matter - but it seems a pretty poor bit of patronising to not at least make strenuous efforts to encourage them. Back at the new visitor centre there was an expensive range of Stonehenge jewellery for sale, and in the exhibition area, along with the computerised VDU info-panels, there were copies of some of the celebrated early medieval works that mention Stonehenge. At least, I thought, they were the real copies, until I took a closer look and discovered that these were in fact replicas. It would seem that museumification and demerging are both very real words indeed, and at Stonehenge they are beginning a beautiful relationship.
Will Self surveys the new Neolithic houses
King Arthur Pendragon (centre left) leads a protest march at Stonehenge