I was approached to write Stonehenge late last summer by the Commissioning Editor of a relatively new publishing house called Head of Zeus. At first I have to admit I was slightly sceptical: books on Stonehenge aren’t exactly hens’ teeth. And besides, how could I, a specialist in the Fens, contribute anything even remotely original, or interesting? But the nice man at H of Z was very insistent. And then he offered lunch.
I have to say, I have always been a sucker for a free lunch, especially if it comes with a reimbursed rail fare. So I said yes.
To be quite frank, I can’t remember much about the meal, except that it was in the bar of a local pub in Clerkenwell – about a twenty minutes walk from King’s Cross station. When I lived briefly in London in the late ‘60s it wasn’t a particularly salubrious district, but now it is very different: pop-up bistros and sandwich bars everywhere and people sipping coffee in the dappled late summer sunlight. Nobody could possibly have guessed that in less than a year the country would decide to commit collective suicide and leave the EU – so the atmosphere was relaxed, cosmopolitan and yes, remarkably Continental. I suspect the vibe is rather different there today.
I found the publisher’s offices and was met by Richard Milbank, Head of Non-Fiction Publishing. He told me about their Landmark series and produced the first book on Magna Carta, by Dan Jones. And I must admit, it was very handsome: a compact hard-back, in full colour throughout, but it didn’t seem at all dumbed-down. There were footnotes and detailed explanatory appendices. I was beginning to warm to the idea. Over lunch and a pint of London Pride (Richard drank orange juice), he explained that they were after a book on Stonehenge that put the site in its setting and which brought it alive. They didn’t want something dry and descriptive.
I started reading Dan’s Magna Carta on the train, and had finished it by the time I went to bed. In other words, I couldn’t put it down. It was a real page-turner – and I learnt so much. Since then, Suzie Lipscomb has published the second in the series (on the Will of Henry VIII), and it too, is a cracking good read – and like Dan’s, beautifully written. By now, I was on my mettle. My Stonehenge had better be good.
I had originally reckoned that a book of 30,000 words would take me a couple of months to write. I normally produce about 1,000 words a day, so that would allow me a month or so to catch up with current research, visit the site (again) and produce a working manuscript. Or so I thought. Even with the help of Mike Parker Pearson and Josh Pollard – two of the current leading researchers into Stonehenge – it took me the best part of six months to produce something, which I hope can stand alongside the first two books in the series.
Obviously I have drawn heavily on the mass of recent research, but I have also used my own experience of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age sites, too. While we were starting work at Flag Fen our team were also excavating a causewayed enclosure at Etton – which predates Stonehenge by several centuries, but which has many intriguing parallels with it. Before we dug Etton we had excavated a massive timber henge at the nearby site of Maxey, and in subsequent years we dug three small henge or henge-like sites. So I did have a certain amount of relevant experience.
I think my main problem with the way Stonehenge has been perceived in the past has to do with how we envisage the development of ancient sites. We tend to see them as the prehistoric equivalent of modern construction projects, with fixed phases of development and re-development. This structures the way we interpret the radiocarbon dates and gives a misleading impression of rigid planning and synchronicity – which I’m fairly sure didn’t apply in prehistoric times. Prehistoric shrines were not like medieval churches or modern buildings. They were built for different purposes entirely. In some respects, their construction was their use. It’s a complex topic and intimately bound-up with the development of the landscape and the way people perceived their lives within it.
Anyhow, I’ve tried to touch on some of these issues in the book, which doubtless explains why it took so long to write. Addressing complex themes in clear language can be challenging – and I’ve tried to eschew obfuscation (my favourite phrase of all time), and to avoid academic jargon, too. So it was hard work and took several drafts. But it was fun to do, and it was great to meet old friends and talk about their work. All I can say is that I do hope you enjoy it (and at a list price of just £16.99 it’s incredibly good value!).