"What monstrous place is this?": Hardy, Holmes, and the Secrets of Stonehenge

I’ve returned from my weekend excursion to Sussex, England, which took us to the market town of Chichester. Considering that Patricia Routledge will soon perform there in two short plays by Alan Bennett, I would not mind a return visit. Even the local cinema can boast a distinguished cast of supporting players, Kenneth Branagh and Maggie Smith being among its vice presidents. The hilarious For Your Consideration aside, we only got to dunk our heads into Darren Aronofsky’s murky Fountain, which might as well have been scored by Yanni for all its new-aged bubbleheadedness.

On to things more solid—and more intriguing to boot. Yesterday, on our drive home to Wales, we made a little detour to Stonehenge where, dodging hordes of tourists, I managed to take the above picture. The sun was just breaking through the clouds on that cold March afternoon, as I, along with dozens of sightseers, walked round the fabled circle. Some of the mighty bluestones were transported here from Mynydd Preseli, Welsh hills lying 240 miles to the west. By whom? And why? Which fallen heroes or forgotten deities were being commemorated or worshipped here?

Perhaps, the legendary Sherlock Holmes was able to solve these mysteries, when, on 19 March 1945, he tackled the “Secret of Stonehenge” as one of radio’s New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, Dr. Watson has long been silent about this particular case, transcription disks proving fragile by comparison to the stones from which such popular fictions are being ground by the sheer force of ingenuity and imagination.

As Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles reminded me, those rocks are not silent, even though it might take rather more effort these days to hear them amid travelers’ prattle or the traffic on the road. No matter how muffled the motors might be by the wind or how muted the multitudes by the audio tour guides they press to their ears, the place looks less than serene. How different it must have been for Tess when she and Angel Clare, running from the law under cover of night “almost struck themselves against” this “heathen temple” in the “open loneliness and black solitude” in which it once stood, unfenced and unguarded:

“What monstrous place is this?” said Angel. 

“It hums,” said she. “Hearken!” 

He listened. The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it, and lifting his hand and advancing a step or two, Clare felt the vertical surface of the structure. It seemed to be of solid stone, without joint or moulding. Carrying his fingers onward he found that what he had come in contact with was a colossal rectangular pillar; by stretching out his left hand he could feel a similar one adjoining. At an indefinite height overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally. They carefully entered beneath and between; the surfaces echoed their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors. The place was roofless. Tess drew her breath fearfully, and Angel, perplexed, said— 

“What can it be?” 

Feeling sideways they encountered another tower-like pillar, square and uncompromising as the first; beyond it another and another. The place was all doors and pillars, some connected above by continuous architraves. 

“A very Temple of the Winds,” he said. 

The next pillar was isolated; others composed a trilithon; others were prostrate, their flanks forming a causeway wide enough for a carriage; and it was soon obvious that they made up a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain. The couple advanced further into this pavilion of the night till they stood in its midst. 

“It is Stonehenge!” said Clare.

While Clare would no doubt be able to recognize this “Temple of the Winds” today, well signposted as it is, the surrounding landscape has changed considerably, as has its soundscape. Currently, plans are under way to remove or conceal two of the roads leading to and past the site, in an effort once again to place Stonehenge in a grassland setting, free from present-day visual and aural distractions. However grateful I am for the roads that led us to this place, its secrets and solitude should not be sacrificed on the altar of convenience.

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