'Shifting sands yield Stonehenge of the sea'.
So read the headline in The Independent last January. Underneath the headline was a photograph, taken from above the newly uncovered henge. It showed a great circle of tree trunks, worn by timeand water into various jagged shapes. Beyond them the sea stretched away to the Wash; in their midst, embedded in the peat of which the shore at that point is made, was a single massive upturned tree. The roots pointing to the sky in a violent inversion of the natural order it was a gesture both primeval and immediate. The image haunted me. I began to follow the story.
Originally the tree circle was on dry land, but it was constructed on a part of the Norfolk coast that is among the most volatile in the British Isles. Having been submerged for centuries, the henge reappeared some little time ago, although no one seems to have noticed the exact moment. Carbon dating has shown it to belong to the Bronze Age, some time between 2202 and 2036BC, contemporary with parts of Stonehenge. The purpose of the circle, which now comprises 55 posts, was ritual. The tree in the middle, an Essential Oak, was, the archaeologists discern, originally dressed with honeysuckle.
Much else about the wooden henge remains mysterious; that is its fascination. It seems to speak directly across four thousand years in its own, as yet impenetrable language. Stonehenge does not. It has been so much interpreted, in part indeed created, by the antiquaries of the 18th and early 19th centuries that we can only see it through their eyes; a Picturesque landscape, painted by Constable and darkened by the varnish of two centuries subsequent description.
Before the antiquaries began to study it, Stonehenge was largely a mystery, and not a particularly attractive one. To a cultivated Elizabethan these were merely huge heapes of stones... so confusd, Sir Philip Sidney thought, that neither eie / Can count them just, nor reason reason try / What force them brought to so unlikely ground. The gradual process by which the stones acquired a shape in the minds eye and a life in the national imagination began with James I. The worst kind of royal amateur, he ordered excavations which made the central stone fall over. He also commissioned Inigo Jones to draw out what he thought was the original arrangement. The result was a thoroughly Jacobean hexagonal design about which the author John Aubrey on behalf of the antiquarian camp was scathing.
It was left to the 18th century fully to discover Stonehenge. By then, polite society felt safe and comfortable enough to enjoy the qualities of the primitive and feel a pleasurable shudder at the sight of what William Stukeley (1687-1765) called the yawning ruins on Salisbury Plain. They suited an age in which science and art, aesthetics and archaeology, had yet to part company. No one Stukely said could experience the extatic reverie without visiting the site, but what was communicable about it he wrote and drew in his great book of 1740, Stonehenge a temple restord to the Druids.
It was Stukely who formalised the name and gave it currency. Henge, a north-country word for something hanging and in suspense, was a term which he doubted not was Saxon. Stonehenge, as we know it, is, therefore, about 250 years old. (Henges in general are much newer, dating from 1932 when T.D. Kendrick, in Archaeology in England and Wales, first proposed the word as a generic term.) Once properly drawn and named, Stonehenge became increasingly vivid to the following generations, for whose theories of the Sublime and the Picturesque it offered a perfect example of solitary and magnificent landscape art. The coast by Holme-next-the-sea, the nearest village to the wooden circle, has been much less described. An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of NORFOLK is the classic antiquarian study, typical in being the work of six men, including two booksellers and a bishop, several of whom died during the half century of its compilation, bequeathing their researches to their successors. Holme makes only a brief appearance in Volume 9, published in 1781, where we learn that: On this fhore... are a number of ftumps or roots of great trees, what are called by country people Sleepers.... Thefe fleepers are evident marks of acquifition from the land, and have been pointed out to us by John Holley efq. of Holm, who alfo in his own time and memory has obferved the tides and influx of the fea... to gain upon the fhore.
Apart, then, from the known instability of the coast and a brief moment of excitement in December 1626, when a 57-foot whale was washed ashore in a storm, modern history appeared to have passed Holme by. There was, however, one more resonant fact, brought to my attention by a friend of similar antiquarian tastes. The Peddars (or Peddlars) Way, a Roman Road that runs for 40 miles south-south-east across the whole county, finishes at Holme. Why should such a major road point to such a minor place unless the route was there before the Romans and took pilgrims to the sacred site at Holme?
The Victoria County History concedes it is in some respects a puzzling road, but makes it firmly Roman and is impatient with those who would have it terminate at Holme. It has been suggested Holme was a ferry station linking Norfolk with Lincolnshire, though this would mean crossing the dangerous waters at the mouth of the Wash. Even an antiquary, says the County History, crushingly, would shrink from such a trajectus. The question, it seemed, was still open. In April this year, the wooden circle was once again in The Independent, this time as Stonehenge-on-Sea, the headline over a smaller story announcing that it would, probably, be saved for the nation by being moved. This was necessary because the peat in which it was embedded was being eroded by the tide and by visitors. The County Council was asking people to stay away. I wrestled with my conscience. I wanted to go. I did not want to do harm, but whatever happened to the circle it could not survive in its present form. Those who did not see it now would never see it in its unmediated state.
Making myself a private promise not to go too close or tread on any peat, I set off one Saturday with a friend and an Ordnance Survey map. We found the place with no more information than I have given here. It is on a great wide beach that spreads away now even further than in Mr Holley's day. Yet we cannot be said to have gone straight to it. We had as many setbacks as any 18th-century antiquary. The circle is only visible we discovered at low tide. Of our attempts to work out the height of the tides, of the advice we asked and mistakenly followed, of how we once mistook a breakwater for it, of how we returned and thought we had missed it, set off for home and had gone ten miles before we managed to read the tide table correctly and realise that the sea had not yet reached its lowest point, of the hair-raising speed at which we drove back to Holme in order to get there before the tide really did turn, I shall say nothing. I shall say only that we approached the spot some time just after sunset. There were three other people there. My friend and I went to the edge of the water and gazed about. Nothing. Then the woman in the other party laughed, at which we turned round. She was pointing to the henge, which we had walked past. And we laughed too. It is everything the paper said it was except big. It is 21 feet across. The tree stumps stand no more than a foot or so above the ground. What I had taken for an aerial photograph was in fact the view from a standing position.
So much for my unmediated glimpse of the Bronze Age. The values of the newsroom, the landscape glass of the wide-angle lens the disingenuous inverted commas had already done for Holme-next-the-Sea what William Stukeley did for Stonehenge, not least by invoking the comparison. The other people drifted off and my friend and I sat on the sand well back from the peat in the last of the light and looked at what we had found, which was not what we came to see. Small and tough, the tree circle is quite unsublime and unromantic. I have no words to describe it; others will find them. We will conserve it. We will call it sacred architecture and talk of altars and bind it into the antiquarian tradition. That is the only way it can inhabit the future. My friend and I walked thoughtfully back, quiet but elated. Holmes parish church stood outlined against the fading blue sky. Originally xxx, St Marys was in Mr Holley's day much in decay and about to be pulled down in part and otherwise repaired. It is now, according to the Buildings of England, Internally without any character.
On 5 May, the Independent ran an insignificant six-line item on an inside page on the conclusion of the Seahenge story. The circle is to be moved to dry land and the timbers submerged in special water tanks at the Flag Fen archaeological centre near Peterborough.