A Visit to Stonehenge

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Stonehenge is Quite Literally One of the Wonders of The World, and It Was About Time I Visited It.

As you can tell from the blog I'm a big history fan and I live in England, so there was really no excuses for why - at 26 - I hadn't been to the monument before. It always seemed a little bit out of reach down south and there was always the anticipation that - after all the hype on TV - it would be a disappointment. So, if like me you've been curious to give it a try, I thought I'd share my experience of travelling to view these famous 5,000 year old rocks.

Oddly, one of the most impressive views of the monument is from the motorway.

When you only see stone henge through the lens of TV and movies, it's hard to get a sense of scale or importance of the monument. You're told all about how it was a ritual and sacred site, and how near-impossible a task it must have been for ancient peoples to haul these stones out from as far as Wales, but it's all absorbed without any real context. For this reason my first impression of the Stones as glimpsed by the motorway will always be what wowed me the most.

Stonehenge from the car heading back out -
I couldn't quite get a view from the entrance in
which was more impressive due to the elevation
Situated somewhere above Salisbury, in the middle of a field, modern life has built up around Stonehenge but left it still quite remote. First you have wide open, flat fields and modern roads for miles around and then all of a sudden the ring of stones is picked out in the distance, bizarrely exposed amongst the vast flat rural landscape. The sharp contrast made it magnificent and from this distance you can see the real scale of the place as a colourful outer-ring of tourists swarm around the structure. Also, at this distance, you can see the little ghosts of bumps and notches in the fields which, when you finally get closer, can be identified as burial mounds and barrows, which give a real authenticity to the countryside as a sacred space - equal parts peaceful and slightly eerie.

Keep on driving and, about a mile away, you finally get to the visitor centre.

Visitor Centre
In a running theme, this too is stuck oddly in the middle of a field that happens to have a car park. The centre was a hub of tourists from all nationalities, often in coach parties, and held a cafe, tiny museum, gift shop and a cluster of reconstructed neolitic houses that you could explore. Technically, as Stonehenge is a protected world monument you can go visit it for free. The cafe, toilets and gift shop were all open access and you could easily walk the mile or so across the fields to the stones themselves on your own for free without being hassled by anyone. As it happened, we ended up paying for entry into the museum part (which was a little underwhelming if you'd already picked up the far more detailed visitor's guide). The price also included the use of the frequent shuttle-buses to the site.

One bus ride later and we were at the stones

One of the biggest criticisms that I'd heard about Stonehenge was that you are "soooo far awaaaaay" from the stones themselves that it renders the visit pointless, which is a load of rubbish. While on all days apart from the solstice festivals you are restricted from going too close to the stones, the walkway was a ring that still brought you quite close to them, crossing between the iconic 'Stonehenge stones' and the other smaller bluestones, 'slaughterstone' and heel stone that make up the site. You could appreciate the size and texture of the stones very easily and the exposed nature of the site made everything feel very natural.

The stones themselves were beautiful, with huge crows around them like sentinels and butterflies in the fields around them. The stones were both a part of the landscape and impressive alien. What blew me away most of all was the notches that you could see on the disassembled stones, which had been carved out in order to effectively click the lintel stones to the pillar stones - a little engineering detail that you never really see on TV. There were signs showing suggestions for how they were transported, either on wooden rollers and then through a mixture of creative ditches to lever the stones into place and wooden scaffolding, which was fascinating. Also explained was how the site was made up of layers, each more ancient than the last.

First, there was a large circular ditch and bank that was cut into the chalk landscape which was built at around 3,000 BC, shortly followed by upright timbers or small stones situated within 'Aubrey holes', joined by smaller pits of unknown function. The central cluster of the main stones were brought in at around 2,500 BC and arranged in circles and horseshoe-shaped layouts. Other stones were gradually added and, as time passed, the older stones were pulled out into new arrangements as the use was updated and the main large stones were brought in and completed at around 2,200 BC.
Interestingly, this final period of building syncs in nicely with the date of completion of the great pyramids in Egypt and shows us some of the difference between the two cultures that held similar ritualistic and religious goals in mind.

Once we'd toured the stones we decided to walk back the mile or so across the fields
Remains of a barrow burial displayed
at the Stonehenge museum

By taking this route you could get closer to the large burial mounds which cross periods known as the 'Normaton Down Barrows'. These were mainly studied by William Cunnington and his team in the 1800s. The earlier ones that match with stonehenge's construction period held no signs of wealth but their situation indicated those buried within were wealthy or important. The second set, a little later and known as the 'Wessex Burials' were part of a new society that valued displays of their wealth in death and contained bronze, gold, jet, incense and amber within them. Some of the finds from the barrows, including some of the skeletons and ashes of their residents, are displayed at the visitor centre's museum.

As it was a hot day we didn't go exploring too closely, but the walk back was worth it if only to give you a real sense of the remoteness and special pilgrimage that visitors to the henge would have made. While there was evidence of some settlement here it was only of a temporary nature and people on the whole travelled to visit the sacred space. To this day people still make the little pilgrimage to appreciate the feat of engineering and faith that our ancestors constructed, which is very fitting.

So, should you visit Stonehenge too?

Stonehenge really is one of those 'bucket list' places, constantly referenced throughout our culture and with good cause. While in the end the museum and setting is quite humble, there are few places from the neolitic era of history that are quite so evocative. If you ever find yourself near Salisbury I would definitely take a detour and give the famous stones a look and learn more about them.

- Pictures of the Stonehenge Stones by me: Instagram PixelMagpie
-Pictures of the visitor centre     

Also, if you see yourself in any of my tourist-heavy pictures: A- Awesome! I'd love to hear what you thought of the henge, but more importantly B - please feel free to let me know if you'd not like to be in it and I'll happily either blur you out or remove the picture entirely. You can contact me at PreludesBlogOfWords@Gmail.com
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