King Arthur Pendragon at Stonehenge
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I went over to see King Arthur Pendragon at Stonehenge.
It was a blazing hot day and Arthur was wearing his biker’s uniform: a battered leather cowboy hat, a leather jerkin, tee shirt and shades. He was as ruddy as a hazelnut from several summers spent out here in the open air, his normally prominent tattoos fading into the overall tan. He was leaning on the fence as I arrived, behind a rack of banners emblazoned with slogans, talking to a couple of well-wishers who had just left the entrance queue to the monument to sign his petition.
His first words to me were, “it wasn't a raven, see? It was black and white.”
It took me a second or two to work out what he was talking about. “Raver?” I thought. “Black and white?” And I had a picture of some girl at a rave party dancing all night in a black and white feathered cape.
It wasn’t till he showed me the picture that it made sense.
It was a photograph of a large, black bird with white flashes on its wing.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It sits here on the fence. We’ve tried looking it up, but we can’t find out what it is.”
That’s when it became clear to me. He was talking about the mythology of his own life.
It was back in 1986, before the name change. He was still plain old Johnny Rothwell then, a crazy-arsed barbarian from the Farnborough and Aldershot area, head of a gang of outlaw bikers, a death-defying trouble-maker, a rebel and a fighter, known as “King John” at the time, not because he had any aspirations to royalty, but because he was famed for throwing full-moon parties at nearby Odiham Castle, also known as King John’s Castle.
He’d had this weird revelation about his true identity – about his once, true and former name, as he describes it - in a run-down squat in Farnborough while sitting with another member of the gang called the Whippet. It was a year or two after his parents had died, both of them in the space of two weeks, and he’d had been on a bender ever since. But he was bored with life. He’d started doodling on a white laminated board in black marker pen. He’d put “King John” in the middle, with a three pointed crown above the K – which is how he always signed himself – and then around that a circle of names: Bacardi, Viet, Johnny Reb, Mad Dog, Ace, his social security number, his army number, a whole host of names and identities that he had adopted over the years.
“I’m bored,” he said, and handed the Whippet the board.
The Whippet had been reading occult books at the time. Something must have been going on in his head. He said, “no you’re not King John, you’re King Arthur.”
And that was how it started. Somehow those insane words buried themselves in his skull and set light to his imagination. He and the Whippet got into an intense debate lasting into the small hours, at the end of which he decided that it was all true, that he really was King Arthur. That was the revelation.
He said, “you know if I go for it, I go for it all the way? No turning back.”
And the Whippet said, “I know.”
The following day he went to the solicitors in order to change his name. Always an extremist, his biker motto was “No regrets!” Not content with having had a revelation about his identity, he wanted to make it a declaration to the world. He also wanted to ensure that he couldn't go back on his decision in later life.
But then the doubts had set in. He realised immediately that if he went round telling people he was King Arthur, they would call him crazy. Indeed, he had some doubts about his own sanity too. So he decided to test the strength of his belief by looking for a sign, and he and another bunch of mates had driven over to Stonehenge.
Why Stonehenge? Because he was a biker. Because the biker’s festival, the Stonehenge free festival, had been held there from 1974 to 1985. Because he had attended most of them. Because what he was looking for was confirmation of an ancient truth, and Stonehenge seemed the only place venerable and sacred enough to meet his needs.
It was only a year since the festival had been banned. Stonehenge was alive with security guards, deployed to stop any stray hippies from accessing the stones. Nevertheless he managed to hop the fence and to make it into the centre of the circle.
And that’s when it happened: the sign. A large black and white bird had burst out from under one of the lintels, and had hit him in the face.
Or that’s how he had perceived it at the time. A black and white bird like an omen offering him confirmation of his identity. When he got back home to his caravan in Aldershot – having persuaded the police not to arrest him - he saw that there was a magpie in the tree under which he was parked, so assumed that the bird at Stonehenge must have been a magpie too. He took this as another sign, received the Change of Name Deed, and has been Arthur Uther Pendragon ever since.
That was on the 11th of June 1986.
Later it became clear that the birds roosting at Stonehenge weren't magpies. None of them were black and white. Later again, I’d laced raven imagery as a metaphor throughout the book we’d written together, so had made the bird a raven. It was a conceit, but a useful one. Later again, people had pointed out that the birds weren't ravens either, but jackdaws.
So the mystery of the black and white bird which had hit him in the face in June 1986 remained.
Until someone saw the very bird sitting on the fence and took a photo and he showed it to me last year.
It’s still a mystery though. It’s not a raven, it’s not a magpie, but it’s not a jackdaw either; unless it’s a mutant jackdaw, with white flashes on the underside of its wings. The only bird it even vaguely resembles is the White Winged Chough, but that hails from Australia, so it can’t be that either.
Just one more mystery in a life full of mysteries.
My relationship with Arthur started around ten years after this. I was writing a column in the Guardian Weekend at the time, called Housing Benefit Hill. It was about the Underclass. A friend of mine, who lived on a council estate in Cardiff, had told me some stories about this crazy guy who was going round calling himself King Arthur, and I was intrigued. I spent the better part of 1996 on a quest to find him. If anyone could be described as the King of the Underclass, I thought, it was Arthur.
This was the year of the Criminal Justice Act, which, amongst other things had attempted to outlaw rave parties, and had introduced the concept of trespassory assembly into British law, and of the Newbury bypass, at that time the largest road building scheme in Europe. Arthur was very prominent in protests against both. He was living in a makeshift bender made of hazel switch and tarpaulin on the route of the Newbury bypass, along with a number of his knights, in a squatted patch of land they were calling Camelot, naturally enough.
You see, this is what caught my imagination. It wasn’t only that he was going around calling himself King Arthur, it was that he was doing something with it. Saying you are King Arthur is one thing. That probably just makes you a nut-case in most people’s eyes (and Arthur was always aware of this, anticipating the insult by calling himself “the nutter who thinks he’s King Arthur”); but using the myth for political ends, using the media interest in him as a means of publicising causes that were important to him, standing on the front-line of the eco-wars in defence of the landscape of sacred Britain, getting himself arrested time and time and time again, spending months in gaol challenging this or that unjust law, taking on the police, the authorities, the legal system, the courts, the government… that was something else.
There was no doubt that Arthur was a warrior for justice. Whether he was the actual reincarnation of an actual King called Arthur seemed irrelevant. He never tried to convince anyone either way. He called himself Arthur. He was a biker and a druid. He liked a drink. He fought for justice. He put himself on the line and sometimes he even made a difference. Wasn’t that enough?
We finally met at Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire in August 1996, and we’ve been friends ever since.
On the way over to visit him I’d stopped off at Solstice Park. It’s this new development off the A303 just before you hit the Countess roundabout at Amesbury. There’s a large banner with a neo-classical image of the sun flapping at the entrance to the slip-road, and an odd sculpture like an upside down helicopter with wings perched on a column by one of the mini roundabouts. The sculpture is called “dragonfly”. Then there are all the proprietary food outlets, hotels and supermarkets which crowd around its sweeping tarmac roads - a Pizza Hut, a KFC, a petrol station, a Holiday Inn – on a flat patch of land scoured out of the folds of the otherwise sensuously undulating landscape.
The whole space has a sort of dead look. Maybe this is because it’s all fairly new. There’s very few trees or plants there as yet and a fine, white dust from where the fragile chalk has broken down covers everything, giving the whole place a sort of washed-out, pale look. Or maybe it’s that it really is dead. A dead place in a living landscape. Culturally dead. A form of colonial occupation in this ancient place of mysteries.
The idea of colonial occupation is very important here. We grow used to things by seeing them. We become inured to their presence. But earlier on, hissing by amidst the clamour of traffic on the M3, I‘d spotted a McDonald’s “Golden Arches” sign and found myself singing the McDonald’s theme tune in my head: “Der-de-de-de-der: I’m Loving It”. So the colonial presence is a psychic presence too. It has taken occupation of the mind.
It’s about seven miles to Stonehenge from this point. On the day of the summer solstice the police will cut off one of the lanes of the duel carriageway and there are tailbacks. Lots of people pull off here to go and get themselves refreshments before continuing on to the stones.
The banner at the entrance is a cipher: it is meant to represent the sun. It’s as if all those well-known brands are laying claim to the Solstice by these means, claiming proprietary rights at the gateway to the sacred landscapes and their hidden astronomical mysteries beyond.
After this you hit the Countess Roundabout marking the turn off into Amesbury - the first hold up since London - and then, six miles further along, Stonehenge itself heaves into view.
There are usually queues at this point, depending on the time of year, this being the main route to Devon, and very busy in the holiday season for people heading for the coast. It’s no wonder there’s been talk of improving it.
Highway 12, known as "The Drove", is an unmade road coming off the A303 just beyond the Stonehenge enclosure. Actually it stretches for miles through the Wiltshire countryside, which is criss-crossed with many ancient byways such as this. This is where the Stonehenge revellers used to meet on the nights before the solstices and the equinoxes. They parked up along the verges in their live-in vehicles and lit fires and sat around and talked and drank and smoked and played instruments. There was an attempt to close it in 2011 and a public enquiry, at which Arthur argued that the closure would violate his human rights to gather on the eve of the festivals, and, as it happened, the planning inspector agreed.
Arthur used to have his caravan parked up here: until he was evicted that is, not once but several times. They would tow his caravan away and then try to charge him for it. He would refuse to pay, and then drag another old caravan there to take its place. This went on for three years, until they got an injunction out on him not to park on the drove. The injunction was for a year. He moved the caravan around the corner, to a lay by on the road to Amesbury and, when the year was up, moved it back on to the drove again. Eventually, having won the protest, he gave up the caravan. These days he lives in Salisbury and rides over on his motorbike every day to stand guard at the monument.
After the picture of the bird he showed me another.
It was in a book called Stonehenge: A History in Photographs by Julian Richards and was dated Autumn Equinox 1990. It showed Arthur in this exact spot, in a rough and ready sackcloth robe, with his sword and his staff, with an iron circlet about his head - his hair darker and thicker than it is now, and his beard fuller - looking every bit the Dark Ages battle chieftain. English Heritage tried to evict him then as well and, when he refused to move, they attempted to bribe him by offering him Tintagel Castle in Cornwall as a substitute. He declined. He lived in a hole in the ground in the nearby woods, where a fallen tree had uprooted itself, under a tarpaulin strung between a live tree and a dead tree, throughout the winter of 1990 and into 1991, living off food donated by the tourists and cups of coffee provided by the staff at the cafeteria, standing here for the whole winter holding a sign saying, “Don’t Pay, Walk Away”.
“This is how old the picket is,” he said.
Back then he was protesting against lack of access to what he called his “temple” and against the four mile exclusion zone which the police had thrown around the monument for the solstices. Later he continued his protest by stepping through the police lines on the eve of the summer solstice and getting himself arrested. This went on for ten years. He spent every solstice night in Salisbury gaol. The arresting officer had said to him, “you’ll never win you know Arthur,” and he’d said, “you just wait and see whether I win or not!”
In 1998 he took the British government to the European Court of Human Rights, on the grounds that the exclusion zone breached his human rights under articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention: the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right of freedom of expression, and the right of freedom of assembly and association. He didn’t win the case, though it was a majority decision against him, not a unanimous one. Arthur always says that he did win it, however, as there has never been an exclusion zone around Stonehenge since. In 1999 limited access was granted to the druids by ticket only (Arthur boycotted that) and in the year 2000, for the first time in more than fifteen years, access was allowed to the stones for members of the public to celebrate the solstice. It’s been that way ever since.
We’d been sitting here for about fifteen minutes by now, talking about this and that. He has a couple of camping chairs which he hides in the hedgerow and which he uses to sit down on while he’s on the picket. The sun was like a furnace and I was having to hide myself under an umbrella to avoid its searing heat. Every so often people would spot the banners and come up to the fence and he would go over to talk to them. Various types. Hippies. Pagans. Bikers. Religious people. New Agers. Tourists. Often they would ask to have their photographs taken with him. He’s had thousands of photographs taken in this spot over the years. He’d give them his spiel and get them to sign his petition before sitting down with me again.
His latest protest is about the cremated human remains which were removed by archaeologists in 2008 and which Arthur refers to as “The Guardians”. They were originally exhumed from the circle of chalk pits surrounding Stonehenge, known as the Aubrey Holes, during a dig in the early 20th century, but then placed back all together into one of the pits, before being re-exhumed again in 2008. Arthur is asking that the remains be returned to their original resting place, while the archaeologists want to keep them out indefinitely for further examination.
Prior to that he was protesting about access to the drove.
Prior to that he was protesting against the government’s failure to agree plans on the future of the monument.
Prior to that he was protesting about the proposed cut-and-cover tunnel for the A303 – now thankfully abandoned - which would have destroyed a large number of valuable archaeological sites.
Prior to that he was protesting about the exclusion zone.
Stonehenge has been his battle ground. It is where he has chosen to make his stand. It is also, not coincidentally, a suitably mythic backdrop to the grand drama of his life.
When I asked him what he was doing all this for, he stood up. “Come on,” he said, and waved me to follow. We circled past the huts housing the visitor’s centre and the cafeteria, passed some shrubs and bushes piled up against the fence, around the corner and through a field, till the ancient form of Stonehenge came into sight. “There,” he said triumphantly, indicating the structure, “that’s what I’m doing it for. This is what I look at every day.”
It’s as if by observing the monument on a daily basis he is absorbing some of its meaning; as if, by playing out his role in front of it, he is adding depth and authenticity to his own character; as if its timeless presence is seeping into him through this daily act of obeisance.
I realised then that he was doing a unique thing.
Everybody wants to own Stonehenge.
It is managed by English Heritage on behalf of the British Government. It was bought by Cecil Chubb in 1915 and donated to the nation three years later on condition that the entrance fee would never be more than a shilling, and that local residents would have free access. Currently it attracts around 900,000 visitors a year, who are charged £7.80 for entry, and are never allowed to go anywhere near the stones. It is English Heritage’s principle source of income, alongside Dover Castle. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is at least 5,000 years old. No one really knows what it is for, though various people over the years have made various suggestions. It is an observatory. A calendar. A place of healing. A temple. A place of the dead. A place of celebration. A place of meditation. A place of art. A place of music. A place of human sacrifice.
Perhaps it is all of these things at the same time. Perhaps it is none of them. Perhaps it has some other purpose entirely which no one has figured out yet.
Arthur has stepped into the middle of all of this, and by dint of sheer bloody-mindedness and stubborn persistence, has made his claim upon it. Only where English Heritage see it as a cash-cow, exploiting the tourists with their entrance fee, Arthur wants free and open access. And whereas the archaeologists want to study the monument as something which tells them about the past, and which they can keep in the realms of academia, Arthur sees it as a living temple, as a place where worshippers and revellers can come, four times a year at the solstices and the equinoxes, to freely mingle amongst the stones and take inspiration from them.
The guards and the fences are meant to stop that, to infiltrate another idea between the people and the stones: the idea of money. So for the rest of the year you have to pay to get in. You wait in a queue which leads to a turnstile, and then through a 60s style underpass, into the compound, where you are led around a gravel path, separated from the stones by a rope. You cannot get close to the stones. You look at them from afar, not really understanding, listening to the voice on the headset which you’ve hired from the visitor centre, telling you some Disneyfied version of the history. The stones have become a kind of commodity in the heritage industry: a product, a brand-name. And now we’re back to SolsticePark and that McDonald’s theme tune again: a colonial power which has set itself up at the gateway to the mystery, forbidding entry except on the most superficial level, turning it into a theme park.
“Der-de-de-de-der, I’m Loving It.”
In contrast to that, every year at the summer solstice tens of thousands of people come to Stonehenge, to sit amongst the stones, to touch them, to embrace them and be embraced by them, to mark out the significant moments of their lives with the witness of ritual, to sit in quiet contemplation beside them, to compose poetry and song, to celebrate with their friends, to sing, to dance, to laugh, to cry, to love and be loved, to play drums and to chant, to roar out in their raw humanity an affirmation of their lives, to draw strength and meaning from their presence. To bring their children here. To bring hope for the future.
Entering the stones on that night is to be bathed in a kind of living electricity. You can almost hear the stones humming. It’s like they are waking up and welcoming us, their guests, into their heart, as if the presence of the human throngs were imparting new energy into them, bringing them back to life.
If that was Arthur’s only legacy, it would be enough.
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Pendragon was born (as John Timothy Rothwell) to working-class parents, May and Wilfred Rothwell, in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1954. The family later moved to Aldershot, Hampshire, where Wilfred Rothwell, a sergeant in the British Army, was stationed.
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