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Stonehenge is the most architecturally complex Stone Circle in Europe, and arguably the most famous Prehistoric monument in the world.
The sheer size of the stones, the planning that went into its sophisticated design, the effort and expertise it took to shape and position the huge chunks of rock is awesome, especially considering that it was built before the invention of the wheel. Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2 miles west of Amesbury and 8 miles north of Salisbury, owned by the Crown, managed by English Heritage and on land owned by the National Trust. It was on President Obama’s “bucket list” – he visited in 2014 and was suitably impressed!
History and Mystery
More than just a monument, it is the myths and legends surrounding Stonehenge that form a large part of its appeal to visitors today. Was it an ancient burial site, where ancestors were worshipped, a giant astronomical calendar for predicting eclipses and marking the summer and winter solstice, or were the stones believed to have of healing powers and therefore a place of pilgrimage, similar to Lourdes? Did the acoustic properties of the stones make it a perfect venue for early “rock concerts”? Maybe it’s been all of these things over the ages. There are more questions than answers, and even modern archaeologists rely on speculation to interpret Prehistoric finds.
Over the centuries, many wacky theories have emerged. It was a Druid Temple, even though it predates the Druids by thousands of years or it was created by the sorcerer Merlin, in the Days of King Arthur. One “New Age” Druid suggested that The Avenue was a landing strip for people flying in on dragons – he was having a laugh, of course! A little help from aliens has even been suggested! See the exhibitions at the Visitors Centre, then view the mighty stones and decide for yourself.
The Stonehenge Experience in the 21st century
The Stone Circle
Walk around the Stone Circle and you are walking in the footsteps of your ancient ancestors. Absorb the atmosphere and imagine the age old rituals and ceremonies that took place there. Take some time to stand and stare – a rare occurrence in today’s busy world – and see how the appearance of the stones changes with the light.
The brooding, enigmatic monument of Stonehenge is a photographer’s dream, and a dreamer’s inspiration. To avoid further damage to the stones, access to the inside of the stone circle is restricted to special occasions like the solstices that are marked by religious groups, and some special access tours outside of opening times, but a walk around the perimeter is still awe inspiring.
The New Stonehenge Visitor Centre
The new Visitor Centre has been built 1.5 miles away from the stones so that its presence does not intrude on the surrounding landscape. A landrover pulling small carriages takes visitors to the site, and you have the option of getting off half way if you prefer a more gradual approach. Inside there is a time-line which explains in great detail the various stages of the building of Stonehenge – 3 phases spanning 1,500 years.
A 5,500 year old skeleton of a young man, discovered in a nearby long barrow burial site is on display, and his face has been recreated by Oscar Nilsson, who works with the Swedish police to help identify murder victims. His appearance, based on the skull’s fine bone structure, is strikingly modern – looking more like a Shakespearean actor than a rough hairy Stone Age man! Also on display are two rare 14th century manuscripts with drawings of Stonehenge, jewelry, human remains found at the site, roman coins and ancient “tool kits”.
To compensate for not being able to stand inside the stone circle, there is a 360’ virtual display that uses laser-scanned images to transport visitors through history and show dramatic views if solstice sunrises and sunsets. Unlike outdoors, the experience is never marred by the weather! Until March 2016 you can also see the Wish You Were Here exhibition, showing historical guidebooks, postcard, souvenirs and photographs.
The recent addition of 5 replicated Neolithic Houses has proved a great success with visitors. Just outside the visitor and exhibition centre, they are a reminder that Stonehenge was built by real people with real lives. Forget theories of supernatural help from Merlin or alien intervention, these are the ones who made it happen – the stonemasons, wood workers, and tool makers all needed somewhere to live, and a warm fire and a hearty meal to come home to. Dedicated volunteers learnt the necessary skills of Neolithic house building, pottery, grinding grain to make flat bread, basket weaving, rope making and stitching goatskins together to make clothes. Neolithic men were dab-hand at DIY – they were builders after all – and houses have wooden furniture, beds, seating and storage shelves! The walls of the simple one roomed houses were daubed with chalk to reflect sunlight and absorb the heat from the fire in the centre of the room, and smoke escaped through a hole in the thatched roof.
Gift Shop and Cafe
Hungry as an ancient stonemason? How about a rock cake? The cafe has a good variety of locally sourced food – soups, sandwiches, pasties, sweets and ice cream. Hot drinks and cool beers are available – eat indoors or outside, or stock up on supplies for a picnic later.
The shop has a wide range of souvenirs, books, gifts, jewelry and clothing – you’ve seen the stones, now buy the “Stonehenge Rocks” T-shirt!
The preservation of Stonehenge for future generations
Damage caused by visitors in the past and erosion through traffic fumes have both posed a threat to Stonehenge. During WW1, the No.1 School of Aerial Bombing was sited to the west of the monument, and a major road junction, cottages and a cafe were built. In the late 1920’s a nationwide campaign to preserve Stonehenge and return the land to agriculture was successful, although the road remained. Between 1972 -1984 the Stonehenge Free Festival took place on the site during the summer solstice, run by New Age travellers and Neo-Druids, but this was stopped in 1985 after clashes between the police and the travellers in the notorious Battle of the Beanfield.
In recent years, the ugly security fencing and the dilapidated 1960’s visitor centre and car park have been removed. The new centre, car park and recreated Neolithic dwellings are not visible from the Stones, and part of the A344 has been closed and grassed over so the visitors can now approach the monument from the Avenue, much as they did in ancient times. There are plans to divert traffic on the A303 underground, to cut down on noise and pollution. New discoveries are being made in the area as the attempt to unravel the mysteries of Stonehenge goes on.
The best time to visit Stonehenge
Stonehenge is open year round, except on the 24th and 25th December. Opening times vary according to the seasons – it’s not a place to stumble around in the dark! Between 1st June – 31st August it is open until 20.00, and between March 16th and 31st May until 19.00. The usual winter closure time is 17.00 (one hour earlier between Christmas and New Year) Last admission is 2 hours before closing time, and you need to select a 30 minute entry time before your visit, unless you choose to go on one of the many available coach tours to Stonehenge. The site is exposed to the elements, so go prepared for the weather. The good news is the Bluestones look even better after a heavy shower! In warmer weather you can enjoy the enhanced landscape and have a picnic, or do one of the walking trails. Visits to Stonehenge can be combined with trips to Bath, Oxford, and Windsor Castle, and there are frequent day trips from London.
If you have been to Stonehenge years ago, and decide to revisit, let us know your views on the recent improvements to the site.