I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that Stonehenge is one of those places that sits high on many people’s list of life’s big disappointments, but with the right mental attitude and a bit of forward planning it can still be somewhere that you’ll be glad to say you’ve seen.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site lies about nine miles north of Salisbury and can be reached by the useful ‘Stonehenge Tour Bus’ which does a circuit between the city, Old Sarum, and Stonehenge.
The first obvious detraction from this iconic site is its proximity to the main A303 trunk road which has been constantly debated about ever since I can remember.
Not so long ago the A360 road to Devizes and the inadequate visitor centre were also bones of contention, but were both rectified by the closure of the road and the re-positioning of a new modern visitor centre 1½ miles away.
The new visitor centre has all the facilities you would expect, including an exhibition with artefacts on loan from the museums in Salisbury and Devizes and a re-creation of some Neolithic huts – but I’m still not convinced about the centre’s design if I’m honest.
This is also where you buy your tickets if you haven’t already pre-booked them. English Heritage and the National Trust jointly manage the site on behalf of the Crown, and to try and offset the problem of too many visitors arriving at the same time, people are encouraged to book a time-slot. The web site makes it sound imperative, but in reality, out of season at least, it’s not necessarily the case.
The website also says that last admission is 2 hours before closure, but I think it depends on the circumstances whether that’s enforced or not. It wasn’t when I was here last.
You can walk from the Visitor Centre to the ‘Stones’ if you like but a shuttle bus service constantly transports people back and forth to make life easier.
Long gone are the days when people were able to freely walk among the stones. As the numbers of tourists increased then I suppose it was inevitable that things would have to change, but what really changed it all was the Hippy gatherings at the Summer Solstice which occurred each June from 1972 to 1984. Known as the Stonehenge Free Festival it attracted thousands of ‘Hippies’ from far and wide and often ended up in chaos, and so in 1985 the barriers went up – and stayed up.
To describe Stonehenge in detail requires an expert, but basically it’s a large prehistoric stone circle that grew from a simple circular ditch and earth bank into four sets of stones – two circles and two in a horseshoe shape. The larger stones are known as Sarsen stones and found in the Stonehenge and Marlborough Downs area, but the smaller stones known as Blue Stones were transported from the Preseli Hills in Wales – but what makes this circle so different from any other is the lintels that cap the Sarsen stones.
As regards the question as to when Stonehenge was built, it’s widely regarded that the first enclosure was constructed sometime between 3,000 and 2,900 BC. Carbon dating suggests that the first Sarsen stones were set around 2,500 BC and the final Bluestone settings around 2,300-2,000BC.
So how was this circle constructed? This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Stonehenge conundrum. The early ditch was dug using things like deer antlers, and you can see some of the ones that were found here in the exhibition at the Visitor Centre. There’s a possibility that a wood henge was constructed here before the arrival of the stones, but there’s been no conclusive evidence as far as I can tell. The real intrigue of course, is how these stones were brought here and manhandled into position, especially those from Preseli. There’s a host of theories about how this could have happened, or whether indeed it did at all, but the evidence seems to point to the possibility of the stones from Wales being transported by water for at least part of their journey.
The most baffling question of all is why was it built? This wasn’t a place where our ancestors lived, but it was more than likely to have been a place where they were buried, and experts believe that the alignment of the stones have given it a more spiritual reason for being here.
It has to be remembered that Stonehenge is only one of many prehistoric remains in this area. ‘The Avenue’ leads from the River Avon to the stone circle and meets up with it at the ’Heel Stone’. The axis of Stonehenge runs in a deliberate south-west/north east direction so that it can determine the movements of the sun. On the longest day of the year the sun rises behind the Heel Stone and shines its rays into the heart of the stone circle. This Summer Solstice is an annual event for many different people who regard this phenomenon as a spiritual meaning. For a long time it was believed that the Druids were responsible for building Stonehenge, and even though it’s unlikely, there are still a number of modern day Druids who regard this event as the highlight of their calendar year. It has to be pointed out though that the same phenomenon also occurs in mid -winter, and is just as likely, if not more so, that it could have been more significant for the people who built it.
Zillions of words have been written by historians, archaeologists, astronomers, and others who still haven’t reached any real conclusion about the need to build this monument on Salisbury Plain, and that is one of the reasons why the mystery of these stones have captured the imagination of so many people for so long.
It’s understandable why so many people have been fascinated by Stonehenge and why so many people want to come and see it, and therefore it’s important to try and come here at a time when you can still ‘feel’ something.
I’ve been here first thing on a winter’s morning when the site’s just opening up, but it’s also possible to book a Stone Circle Access out of hours visit for an extra cost.
The solstice and equinox dates allow free access I believe, but I’ve not been here at those times myself, which I would like to even if there are plenty of other people around.
The site is open every day (except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) but times vary throughout the season.
There’s no doubt, that if you’re able to be here at the right time it will be a much better experience, but whether you’ll be able to catch a sunrise or sunset, or even be able to see the sun at all is another matter altogether.