Stonehenge, the irony
I find it most ironic that at this juncture in my blog journey with you, I have not written about Stonehenge. It is after all one of the most iconic images imaginable, and synonymous with Great Britain. Of course the reason for this is very straightforward in my mind. When I first started writing this blog, I was concentrating on Dorset alone, a very purist attitude. This eventually gave way to me relenting that there were too many other wonderful places, just across county borders, that also warranted a post or two. Somewhere in that transition, the visit to Stonehenge got overlooked. With all the excitement and activity of all the other visits, I completely forgot to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to write about this, one of our very first visits. So without further a-do, here goes…..
I was very excited about a visit to Stonehenge with Es. As an American, even he knew of this epochal piece of history. A prehistoric monument it sits up there with the likes of the Easter Island Moai. Instantly recognisable and shrouded in mystery, it is a ‘must see’.
Set in the neighbouring county of Wiltshire, it is a site which I drive by on a very regular basis on route to various site visits. During the summer months the road past here can get very congested, and only today I was sat in stationary traffic. There used to be two main roads which went by Stonehenge, the A303 and the A344 but the A344 was closed which has added to the congestion. What you don’t see from all the beautiful photos is how close to the road this monument actually sits, and you could quite happily park up in one of the few pull-offs and walk over the adjoining land to see the monument. After all, its only a collection of stones, set in the middle of a field.
Entrance to site is via the roundabout just off the A303 and then right at the next roundabout into a gargantuan car park. The site itself is run by English Heritage and has a huge visitors centre selling everyting from tea towels to jewellery. There is also the obligatory cafe, chock full of soups, sandwiches and cakes. However, a visit to the stones itself is not going to take you more than an hour, unless of course you wish to wander around all the extra ‘add on’ facilities which presumably help you feel that the £16.50 entrance fee (pre-booked or £19.30 walk in) was worth it. This alone was reason for us to join English Heritage as the savings on a yearly membership, providing you are going to use it regularly, were worth it.
Access to the stones is not permissible any more. Since 1977 they have been roped off from the general public due to fears of erosion. There are however a small number of opportunities to visit the stones without access restrictions, if you know when to go. These are mostly member only events, (another reason to purchase membership). The dates are publicised on the website and are generally conducted out of normal visiting hours.
Then of course there is the Summer Solstice.
As a spiritual site, English Heritage have been operating a managed open access event for the past 16 years on each summer solstice. This was largely as a consequence of the ‘Court of Human Rights’ ruling, and rightly so. Whilst I understand the need to protect our heritage, our heritage also includes some of the oldest religions in the country and freedom to celebrate in an area which has always been associated with spirituality. This year approximately 13,000 people attended the site to celebrate the longest day of the year. Druid and Pagan communities are all represented at this event and access during this period is free of charge. The site also opens to celebrate the winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinox.
The history of the site extends as far back as 8000bc with a nearby wooden henge. The stones themselves as we see them today have a very convoluted and complex background. The henge did not look this way when it was originally constructed and its current iteration has occurred over a period of thousands of years. The reasoning behind its use or its intention is still unclear and many theories have been postulised. For those interested in the history, the visitors centre has a great deal of information including a number of recent ground penetrating radar investigations.
The best time to visit in my opinion is in the winter months and earlier in the day. This was when we had our visit. Not only do you get lovely filtered light for your photos, but the crowds are much less, although with a site this popular, you are never going to get around the crowd issue. As far as photos go, the site looks different every time you visit. sitting in the middle of a field, capturing fantastic cloud formations and different forms of light can create a different ambience on every visit. It is for this reason alone that we will make many visits throughout the year.
The boring blah, blah about access etc. can be found on English Heritage site. From my perspective it is a must see. It’s very easy to be complacent and blase about our own heritage, yet many of us would boast inexorably about a visit to the Amphitheatre of El Jem or similar. We should value what we have in this great country of ours and it should be on your bucket list.