Photojournalist Jeremy Flint travels to Wiltshire to meet the guardians of one of Britain’s most iconic landmarks: Stonehenge.
Here is his interview with some of the custodians of the stones and his most beautiful Stonehenge photos…
Stonehenge is the ultimate symbol of prehistoric achievement and one of the world’s most famous monuments. Located on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, it is one of the past’s most enduring mysteries, with historians and archaeologists puzzling over the purpose of the stones for centuries.
While there is strong archaeological evidence that Stonehenge was used as a burial ground, most modern scholars believe it also served either as a ceremonial site, a religious pilgrimage destination, a final resting place for royalty, or a memorial erected to honour and perhaps spiritually connect with distant ancestors.
Built in the late Neolithic period, around 2500 BC, the origin and construction of the circular henge are equally perplexing. The larger sarsen sandstone slabs of its outer ring are topped by connected horizontal lintel stones and are likely to have come from the nearby Marlborough Downs.
The smaller bluestones of the inner ring have been traced to the Preseli Hills in Wales, 200 miles away, and are thought to have had a special meaning to the Stonehenge builders or even hold magical properties. Inside these circles are free-standing trilithons – structures made up of two bulkier vertical sarsens joined by a lintel.
The stones are a masterpiece of physical engineering and are thought to have been transported with the help of sledges and ropes and raised by up to 100 people per stone. Shaped using stone tools such as hammerstones, the stones were joined together using woodworking techniques including mortise and tenon, and tongue-and-groove joints to slot them into place.
Owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage, this fascinating ruin has been a legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument since 1882. Today, it is preserved by a dedicated team of staff and volunteers who ultimately help safeguard the future of Stonehenge’s heritage: the guardians of England’s most majestic monument, and I travelled to Wiltshire to meet them.
Stonehenge is one of more than 400 historic sites and monuments across England that are protected by English Heritage and open for the public to visit under a licence from Historic England.
Heather Sebire, Curator of Stonehenge, oversees the monument’s conservation and management. She says: “As guardians, our main
goal is to protect the stones for the next generations. It is a big responsibility as there are many levels of protection. I make sure that everything that happens with visitors and events has a limited impact on the archaeology of the site. This includes improving the circulation so people can walk around year-round. I also schedule [the] upkeep of conserving the stones with volunteers to preserve the integrity of the place.”
Together with the stone circle at Avebury, Stonehenge and its surrounding monumental landscape has been a certified World Heritage Site since 1986, and part of Heather’s role is to sustain the site as a restful conservation area and report its condition to UNESCO every year, to retain its World Heritage status.
Heather loves being outdoors and on-site and does a regular stone check. As Stonehenge sits in a grass and chalkland landscape and is affected by the weather, Heather inspects it for signs of erosion and records the state of the stones and lichens, which are all legally protected.
“Some historical people have left their mark on Stonehenge, including Sir Christopher Wren, the famous 17th-century architect”, she says. Wren’s name has been skilfully chiselled into one of the 25-tonne sarsens. Nichola Tasker, Stonehenge Director, oversees the 200 members of staff who work on the site throughout the year. “I have a balanced role between providing access to 10,000 daily visitors during July and August and nearly 1 million people annually, whilst preserving and maintaining the landscape” she says. “I feel honoured to help create memories of the best days of people’s lives.”
Sue Martindale, Volunteer Manager, looks after the enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of volunteers who tend to the landscape and carry out conservation work, such as weeding and cutting the grass around the stones.
As custodians of the land, the volunteers have guardianship of Stonehenge and feel empowered to protect the monument. “I have been here almost nine years and protecting the stones is something we take very seriously,” Sue says. “I like to think that what we do has contributed to people being able to see the site for many years to come. We are always looking for new volunteers”.
The volunteers do a great job of looking after the place and tell the site’s story through workshops, including bronze casting, pottery, and basket weaving. David Price volunteers at Stonehenge to keep his mind active after retiring and to give something back to the community. He says: “As a volunteer I get a real buzz from welcoming people from all around the world and helping them to reflect on the history of the human population as seen through the lens of our most iconic and unique monument. Stonehenge has a mystique of its own and I feel so lucky to be able to help share its story with visitors.”
Other guardians include Julia Richardson, Deputy Operations Manager, who does a final check of the stones each morning before visitors arrive, and supervises the stewards. There are also security gatekeepers in place 24/7 to ensure the stones are safe and that the rules, such as not touching or walking over the stones, are upheld.
And what is it like working in such a spiritual place, which has been a main religious site for both Druids and Pagan groups? “You can’t help feel a sense of awe and protection when standing inside the stone circle,”
Nichola tells me. There is certainly something special about the stones. “You can’t help but feel the history of this huge monument, where very little has changed,” Julia says, “You get a real sense of connection to the people who have come before, including those who built and used it and the layers of visitors over time. There is almost a tangible link to the past, and a special sense of mystery and wonder.”
The monument is a powerful testament to human ingenuity, imagination, and creativity. “We are constantly discovering new things about Stonehenge – very often thanks to new scientific techniques” says Scott Ashman, Head of Historic Properties for Stonehenge.
This is an extract, read the full feature in the Dec/Jan 2022 issue of Discover Britain, out on 4 November.