Today I’m travelling in both space and time. A mere seventy miles west of home in the car, but a momentous 5,000 years back into our history. A few miles on foot too. Anyone who thinks they can park up at Stonehenge and do a quick loop around the circle is in for a shock.
Stonehenge in Wiltshire is probably one of the world’s most recognisable sights. Obviously, I’ve seen a million photos of it over the years, but I really need to see it for myself and find out what all the fuss is about. What’s so special about a bunch of old stones?
Arriving at the rather swish visitor centre, opened in 2013, I receive a cheery welcome and am directed towards a pathway stretching away into the distance. No stones to be seen, for the very good reason that they are well over a mile away. Panic not, there is a shuttle bus for those of a lazy disposition. Not me, I stomp off happily down the track, pretty much on my own. It’s 2020, and once again I seem to have a major monument to myself.
It’s a nice walk anyway, through countryside that’s been considered sacred by humans for around 10,000 years. There are monuments here that date back to 8,000 years BC. Why this area was so special is a mystery – there are no written records to enlighten us – but it could have been chosen initially because the chalk plateau of Salisbury Plain stood out amongst the woodlands surrounding it.
As Stonehenge comes into view I can’t help feeling a frisson of excitement. The mean and moody weather just makes it all the more atmospheric. It’s such an iconic sight, and yet we know so little about it despite many years of study. Who built it? We don’t know. Why was it built? There are various hypotheses, but no-one knows for sure. How was it used? Again, mystery surrounds the site and what happened here.
By the time construction of Stonehenge began in 3100 BC, the surrounding area had been used for ceremonies and burials for thousands of years. The monument itself was built over several centuries, becoming more complex with time. It started as a simple set of earthworks – a henge consisting of a circular ditch and raised banks with an entrance at each side. Within the circle, pits were then dug, probably for wooden posts supporting some sort of structure. At this time, burials occurred here of adult males, so it seems to have been a place where the ruling elite were interred.
Around 2500 BC the henge entered another phase when someone (no, we don’t know who) decided that it required a complex arrangement of standing stones. Now, bear in mind that each of the stones in the Stonehenge circle weighs around 25 to 50 tons, and they weren’t exactly sitting around nearby waiting to be used. Some of them came from Wales, 240 kilometres away.
So let’s think about this. Imagine you’re prehistoric man living on Salisbury Plain. All communication is verbal. How on earth do you find out that there are some really good monumental stones going spare in Wales? The only way to travel is on foot, so how do you get there to check them out for yourself? The wheel hasn’t yet reached Britain, so how do you transport the massive stones back home? And when, unbelievably, the stones arrive on Salisbury Plain, how the heck do you get them to stand up in a sophisticated configuration of circles aligned to the movement of the sun??????
No, I can’t work it out either. This was a mammoth task, requiring huge amounts of planning and organisation. Getting them in place was clearly of vital importance to the people who directed and carried out this work. If only we knew why! Religious site, astronomical observatory, festival location, place of healing, funerary monument – perhaps Stonehenge was all of these things. The effort that went into its construction shows that it was supremely important. It’s really quite miraculous. I’m starting to understand the fascination it has for 1.6 million annual visitors (although not this year of course).
Most visitors to Stonehenge seem to walk around the circle and then head back to the exhibition at the visitor centre. They’re missing out. Over time, the National Trust has acquired the land around the henge and allowed it to revert to chalk grasslands. There are around 400 ancient monuments sprinkled around the fields here and you can simply walk around them, getting a feel for how important this whole area is. It’s not just about one stone circle, astounding though that may be.
The number of burial mounds sprouting up from the ground gives this place an otherworldly atmosphere, particularly when there’s not a soul to be seen. Unless you count the cows. I keep a wary eye on them. Cows may look placid and even cute, but in the UK they do have a tenancy to crush unsuspecting walkers with worrying frequency.
I walk along the Stonehenge Cursus, ancient earthworks following the route of a processional pathway. It’s 3km long and up to 150m wide, but we’re not sure what it connected nor exactly how it was used. No surprises there then! The cows are still innocently chewing the grass as they survey my explorations, but I walk quickly. There’s no-one here to hear me if I scream…
I’m pleased to report that I make it back to the car park without the slightest bit of bovine molestation. So, there we go, another ‘must-see’ ticked off my list, and I’m not at all disappointed – Stonehenge and its surroundings are astonishing. 2020 hasn’t been a complete write-off – I doubt if I would have got around the country so much in an ordinary year. And even if I had, I would have been fighting the crowds. As it is, I had the privilege of experiencing the magic of this sacred site in peace and quiet. As it should be seen. Lucky old me!