With winds howling beneath cloud-dotted skies, we walked in the sunshine – a rarity, said the folks around us – on a well-marked path up a hill to the world’s most iconic circle of stones, Stonehenge.
Despite the winds, despite being confined to a narrow path lined with rubber mats, despite people bumping into us as they walked by with audio guides pressed to their ears, we stopped. We stared. We took photos. And we stood, quietly, in awe. There is nowhere else in the world like this.
A Family Journey
Earlier in the year, John’s father suggested we join them on a trip to Europe. We’d spent a pleasant week in Panama with them the year before, and figured it would certainly be interesting, especially since John had never crossed the Atlantic. His dad started out with plans for a trip that included Russia, but as I dove into the complexities and quirks of getting us visas for a few days out of a two-week trip, I suggested we try something else.
He settled on replicating a package tour that he and John’s mom had done nearly twenty years earlier, to introduce us to the British Isles. Of all of the stops along the trip, Stonehenge was the one that John’s dad was looking forward to the most. As he narrated the changes to us that he was seeing as the bus pulled into the parking lot, the sun broke through the clouds, a rare and welcome occurance in May.
On Hallowed Ground
For midsummer solstice sunrise, massive crowds gather to watch the alignment of the sun through the stones. Although the meaning of Stonehenge has been debated for many generations, today’s researchers call it a temple of the sun. On the summer solstice, the sun rises close to the Heel Stone. On the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the sun sets in the gap between the two tallest stones.
It is hallowed ground. Within sight of the circle are more than 450 barrows, burial mounds built in a variety of shapes and sizes. Among them, the West Kennet Long Barrow is the largest chambered tomb in England. Nearby Avebury is Europe’s largest stone circle and also considered a part of this extensive World Heritage Site. Signs also pointed out the direction of lesser-known Woodhenge, a timber circle monument just two miles away.
For nearly half a millenia, Stonehenge – and its surrounding monuments – have been an archeological treasure trove for researchers to add to the understanding of the complexity of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures in England.
Circling the Stones
Stonehenge is no longer a perfect circle, not as it was first built. Many of the stones on the southwest side have been removed or broken. But the circular path around the stone circle provides perspective on every angle of Stonehenge, which when it was built, was ringed by a much larger circular ditch built around 3000 B.C.
Sarsen boulders – dense sandstone with silicia – form the uprights of the larger circle and come from the surrounding plains. Smaller bluestones were used in the inner circle. Most of the stones have been shaped in some way to fit together, either with holes, tongues, or grooves carved into them. Brought to this plateau from as far as 150 miles away, the stones that make up Stonehenge form the “most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world,” according to UNESCO.
The northeast side of Stonehenge is its most intriguing, likely the original entrance to the complex as envisioned by its creators. The Avenue, an earthwork that connects Stonehenge to the River Avon, enters the complex here. Archeologists discovered much activity in this area, with stones and wooden posts placed and removed over time.
On the northeast side, the 40-ton Heel Stone is thought to be one of the first stones stood up at the site, as it has no special marks and stands outside the circle on its northeast entrance. Near it lies the Slaughter Stone, which is a fallen sarsen, perhaps part of an arch that once led into the circle.
“It’s just not the same any more,” said our tour guide, as he led us from the tour bus dropoff point the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre, built by the National Trust. As a child visiting more than 50 years ago, he remembers playing beneath the stones and tossing balls through them while families picnicked on the great grassy slopes.
As John’s parents experienced in more recent times, tour buses would pull off along the nearby highway and their occupants would walk up the hill to take pictures of the stone circle. But you can no longer just show up and walk to the top of the hill, as past generations have done. Call it historic preservation, or crowd control, but access to Stonehenge is now tightly controlled. Reservations are required.
We almost couldn’t see the Stonehenge Visitor Centre at first. Split in two by a breezeway, the visitor center contains a large gift shop and restaurant on one side, with restrooms and a museum on the west side. Although its primary feature is a wraparound theater with a fast-paced movie of Stonehenge in all its seasons, the galleries within the museum showcase artifacts found by archaeologists over the centuries.
Behind the museum is a model Neolithic village and a standing stone on a wooden cart, to illustrate how it could have been moved across the miles required to get it to Stonehenge.
A line forms behind the visitor center for continuous trams that carry visitors up to a dropoff point. It’s just far enough away from Stonehenge that you can still experience the awe of seeing it in person for the first – or tenth – time.
As we finished our circuit of Stonehenge – which took us a leisurely hour – and started our walk down to the tram, we noticed a steady line of visitors hiking up into a nearby pasture to see some of the nearby barrows. We followed that path before realizing that, being there with a tour group, our time was too short to make the round-trip hike.
In the mile between the stone circle and the parking area, walking trails parallel the tram route, zigzagging through fields and passing through stiles to prevent livestock from following hikers who have the leisure time to enjoy the rolling landscape.
Stonehenge is located in Wiltshire, about 2 hours southwest of London. No matter whether you arrive as an individual in a car or with a group tour, it is now necessary to book a visit to Stonehenge in advance. Members of English Heritage and the National Trust receive free admission, but still must pre-book. The site opens at 9 AM daily, but your ticket will be time-restricted as to when you can visit the stone circle. According to the National Trust, you may wander the walking trails surrounding Stonehenge for free, for which they provide suggested routes. However, there is a parking charge to park at the visitor center.
Hand-held audio guides correspond to numbered stations on the walking loop around Stonehenge. However, standing around with hundreds of other people with a device pressed to your ear may not be your idea of an authentic experience. An alternative is to simply read the interpretive signs found along the trail. For an additional fee, special tours are offered before and after hours inside the stone circle.
Weather always plays a factor in a visit to Stonehenge. Perpetually windswept plains means a wrap or jacket is a smart idea. A rain jacket is a good choice, as it frequently rains here and umbrellas can’t handle the wind.