On an island awash with ancient monuments, stone circles, barrows and hillforts, there is still one particular site which captures the imagination more than most. Arguably it is one of the most famous landmarks, ancient or otherwise, in Britain. Drawing visitors from around the world for millennia, Stonehenge is a place that inspires awe to this day. With its origins shrouded in mystery, many theories have arisen about who built Stonehenge, and for what purpose. Giants and aliens feature in some of the more outlandish tales. Archaeologists say otherwise, but even scientific investigations have only uncovered a fraction of the truth.
Remarkably, despite having a healthy enthusiasm for prehistoric Britain and all things standing stones, I had never visited Stonehenge before this summer. In all honesty, I had been rather put off by reports that it was crowded and tatty. And conservation measures meant that the stones themselves were inaccessible. However, on visiting Wiltshire for a few days with a new English Heritage membership, I really had no excuse not to go. Fortunately, my host in Wiltshire was local artist Chris Down. His extensive knowledge of the area’s history proved an invaluable primer for my visit.
Stonehenge, it turns out, is so much more than just a stone circle.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site covers a comparatively small area. There is barely a field for miles around that doesn’t contain some sort of ancient earthwork. New archaeological discoveries are being made all the time. The wider prehistoric landscape connected to Stonehenge in ways we are only just beginning to unravel. Seeing the density of ancient sites surrounding Stonehenge really showed just how central it must have been to the lives of our ancestors. We know from the archaeological evidence that the henge evolved over centuries. Different earthworks and rings of wood and then stone created, removed or altered. Many of the barrows surrounding Stonehenge are of a much later date. There is layer after layer of human activity going back thousands of years at Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape.
Now I am not an archaeologist so I will refrain from trying to explain the intricacies of Stonehenge’s evolution and its possible uses here. Thankfully, there are many excellent books available which examine the area in detail. The Stonehenge visitor centre also contains some excellent interpretation. This includes a 360° projection which whisks viewers through millennia of change, through the seasons and solstices. It can’t, of course, replace the experience of being inside Stonehenge for the midwinter sunrise several thousand years ago, but it has a pretty good go. The solstices and equinoxes are some of the few times when people are still allowed access to the henge today. However, you must brave the crowds to be there.
So how was my experience of Stonehenge?
We got there early, but already there were an abundance of cars and other visitors milling about. Deciding to go straight to the stones we boarded a shuttle bus along with a surprisingly diverse collection of accents and nationalities. It seems taking a look at Stonehenge is high on the itineraries of many tourists. A path circles the stones at quite a distance, yet not so far it feels completely remote. Although it means you cannot get properly close it allows you to have a full view of the stones all the way around. It also has the happy advantage that the crowds on the other side of the circle are far enough away to not overwhelm the view.
On the day we visited dark clouds threatened rain, giving a dramatic backdrop to the stones. I’d gone to Stonehenge feeling perhaps a little cynical. However, as I slowly walked around the path I began to understand why people were so drawn here. There is truly nothing quite like it. The sarsen stones are vast, even at a distance. With the added enchantment of a moody sky and rooks flying lazily about the trilithons, it was really quite spellbinding.
Yes, it is very busy and the shop is filled with all manner of themed nonsense. The visitor centre is all very tidy and imposing. There is little evidence of wildness, aside from a flurry of wildflowers alongside the bus stop. A barrier prevents access to the henge…
…And yet, the power of Stonehenge in undiminished. It is a privilege to gaze upon a place so evidently special to our ancestors. A place that has endured the changes wrought by the centuries. A place that, with careful stewardship and sensitive investigation, will continue to cast its enigmatic spell for centuries to come.