On Friday of last week Andy and I visited Stonehenge which is only about 40 miles away from where we live. Surprisingly, since it is so close, we have not visited for years.
As far as I was aware, the stones themselves were no longer accessible and a perimeter fence kept tourists some distance away on the guided tours. Recently however, Stonehenge has started offering the ‘Stone Circle Experience’, which is an opportunity to spend time inside the tranquil circle. Visits last for an hour and a limited group of guests are accompanied by a very knowledgeable guide. We booked the early tour at 8am on this particular day, but they also run at 6pm. Both of these are outside normal opening hours.
On arrival we were shown to a shuttle bus and hopped on for the short journey up to the stones themselves. Our guide Wendy, had carefully and thoroughly explained that under no circumstances were we to touch the stones, or to stand on any of the fallen stones. Interestingly, the site is patrolled by security guards 24/7 and we were introduced to the two that were patrolling that day. It is sad I suppose that such security is necessary, but Wendy told us that unfortunately people will continue to deface and damage the stones, given the opportunity.
Stonehenge is approximately 5000 years old and was built in stages. It is the largest known late Neolithic cemetery in the UK, with about 150 individual burial sites and the largest surviving stone circle in the world.
Stonehenge is a monument that aligns to the midsummer sunrise and the midwinter sunset and the site is primarily known for its activity around the times of the summer and winter solstice. The stones were shaped and placed precisely to frame these two important events in the annual solar cycle.
Traditionally about 10,000 people gather at the stones on 21 June, to mark midsummer. The sun rises behind the Heel Stone, the ancient entrance to the Stone Circle, and rays of sunlight are channelled into the centre of the monument. It is a truly spectacular sight and is no less awe inspiring today as it would have been thousands of years ago.
On the day of the northern winter solstice, (always around 20 December), the sun sets in the midst of three great stones – known as the Trilithon – consisting of two large vertical stones supporting a third, horizontal stone across the top. It is possible that the winter solstice was actually more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the summer solstice. When you see the light strike the stones it’s easy to see why.
Stonehenge was built in several phases. The first work took place around 3000BC but the site continued to be built on and added to until at least 1600BC.
The first phase of the work began with Neolithic Britons using very primitive tools, possibly carved from deer antlers, to dig a massive circular ditch and bank, or henge, on Salisbury Plain. There are deep pits dating back to that era in the circle, which are known as ‘Aubrey’ holes after John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian who first discovered them. It is believed that these holes may have once held a ring of wooden posts.
A few hundred years later, the next stage involved Stonehenge’s builders hoisting an estimated 80 bluestones, 43 of which remain today, into standing positions and placing them in a horseshoe pattern. Scientists have traced the origins of the bluestones to the Preseli Hills in Wales, some 200 miles away.
During the third phase of construction, which took place around 2000BC, sarsen sandstone slabs were arranged into an outer ring; some were assembled into the iconic three-pieced structures called ‘trilithons’, that stand majestically in the centre of Stonehenge. Some 50 sarsen stones are visible on the site, which may once have contained many more. Radiocarbon dating show that work continued at Stonehenge until roughly 1600BC with the bluestones in particular being repositioned many times.
Interestingly, the origins of the sarcen stones have only very recently been traced to an area 15 miles (25km) north of the site near Marlborough. They were transported and then carved, erected and secured with highly sophisticated joints, using very basic tools and mechanisms. The seven-metre tall sarsens, which weigh about 20 tons, form all fifteen stones of Stonehenge’s central horseshoe shape, the uprights and lintels of the outer circle, as well as outlying stones. It really is quite an incredible feat of architecture and engineering considering the tools that were available at the time.
Quite why Stonehenge was built is still something of a mystery. We don’t know whether it’s original purpose was an astronomical site, a burial ground or a site of worship, because all have compelling evidence supporting their cause. While many modern scholars now agree that Stonehenge was probably first a burial ground, they have yet to decide on what else it was used for, and how a people without any modern technology transported and hoisted the mighty stones into place.
A study of the markings of the stones today shows the various graffiti and other human inflicted damage the site has suffered across the years, some of it much older than others. Soldiers took pop shots at the stones in the earlier part of this century and the bullet holes can be clearly seen. On some of the stones, graffiti of a much earlier nature, notably depictions of axes have been carved into the stone work and date from the Bronze Age, whilst the famous Sir Christopher Wren carved his name in one of the stones ( he lived only a few miles up the road). See pictures below.
Even Stonehenge’s history ownership is interesting. The site had been privately owned since being confiscated from a nearby abbey during Henry VIII’s reign, but was surprisingly put up for auction in 1915. Cecil Chubb paid £6,600 for the monument at an auction in Salisbury. It happened, he said, “on a whim” and was apparently a surprise present for his wife Mary.
Mary was apparently less than impressed, possibly because the price equated to as much as £680,000 in today’s money. “It’s said that Mary wanted Cecil to buy a set of curtains and some dining chairs at the auction,” says Stonehenge’s curator, Heather Sebire. “And he came back with something rather different.” Chubb held on to Stonehenge until October 1918, when he gifted it to the nation.
If you are thinking of visiting, the site is very COVID aware and although the shop, cafe, toilets and exhibition centre are all open, there are social distancing measures in place and masks must be worn in indoor areas.
I can’t recommend a visit enough, especially the Stone Circle Experience visit. To stand in and amongst these stones is a privilege as well as a unique tranquil experience and you are easily transported back millennia as you imagine the life and times of our ancestors who lived and died here. The atmosphere is simply charged with the history of the people of this nation and is quite, quite magical.
We visited Stonehenge on Friday 4 September 2020 and booked the Stone Circle Experience Visit. Book here: