Stonehenge-it’s probably smaller than you were expecting

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Photo by DJ Cooper

I’ve always been fascinated with Stonehenge. It’s probably the mystery and the unanswered questions that still surround the stones. As someone who grew up in England and who likes ancient things, Stonehenge was always going to be more accessible to me than, for instance, the pyramids in Egypt.

Our first glimpse of the stones was on our journey to a cottage on the first day of our holiday. If it’s daylight, apparently there is always a queue of traffic on the A303 leading past Stonehenge. It’s just like a queue of traffic where people gawp at a road accident, only not as grisly. As soon as you can no longer see the stones the traffic speeds up. You do get a pretty good view from the road. There is a plan to build a tunnel to take the traffic as the road wasn’t built to accommodate the volume of vehicles which currently use it. (You know, just like almost every other road in England, it seems!)

If you’re visiting Stonehenge, plan ahead and book in advance. As English Heritage members we get free entry. We visited twice, the second time we remembered to ask for the audio tour handsets. The audio tour download for iPhone doesn’t run on iOS 11 so my iPhone told me. As a hypermobile woman with a walking stick and a blue badge for parking, I was pleased to find most of the disabled parking spaces available just after opening time. By lunch time, the carpark was full, and the queues were impressive. Our second visit succumbed to ‘second week of our holiday syndrome’- about forty-seven thousand people turned up. (Might be an exaggeration.) So, book ahead and go in the morning!

A bus will take you either all the way to the stones or halfway, allowing for a fifteen-minute amble up a long road with the stones growing larger in the distance. At the halfway drop off point the alternative longer walking route is through fields for those who want a longer run-up. We went the short way because I only have short legs.

As we didn’t have the audio tours on our first visit and because I’m a contrary bugger we walked around the stones in reverse to the numbered tour.

To give you a pathetically small amount of information I’ve gleaned from the audio tour and the guidebook: Stonehenge is an ancient monument and a UNESCO world heritage site. What you might not know is it hasn’t always looked the way it does today. All those iconic photos you see online are of a fairly recent construction. The site was given back to the nation from its then owner Cecil Chubb in 1918. Some of the stones were lying on the ground, some of them were leaning. Restoration work began to move the stones into a more likely position, using cement to hold them in place.

Around 3000 BC, before the famous stones were in place, a larger circular ditch was dug into the chalk. You can see it in the photo. Modern carbon dating has shown some of the bones found in the ditch are hundreds of years older than the first Stonehenge. Crossing over the ditch, a set of holes were found in a larger circle than Stonehenge itself. They’re known as Aubrey Holes, after John Aubrey a 17th century antiquary who first discovered them. Whether these holes originally contained stone or wooden posts is uncertain. Evidence the chalk at the bottom of the holes had been compressed by something heavy (like a massive stone) means the debate carries on. However, these holes did contain cremated human remains. Therefore, the site was a burial ground before the stones you and I recognise as Stonehenge arrived.

The stones arrived around 2500 BC. That’s even before I was born. The inner bluestones came from Preseli in Wales and according to folk tales were thought to have healing powers. The larger, outer Sarsens didn’t have as far to travel, but the mind still boggles at the ways Neolithic man managed to move them in the first place. To my knowledge, there have been no excavations of very large yellow cranes or motorised heavy lifting equipment, so they probably shifted them with boats, logs, rope and whatever else they could create by hand. If that wasn’t impressive enough, later, around 2200 BC the stones were rearranged-somehow. Maybe they used telekinesis.

Stonehenge has been associated with Druids, this is largely because of the writings in and 17th and 18th centuries. Stonehenge predates even the earliest Iron Age Druid equivalents by around a thousand years. It was probably built by the people living in the area. The question of why Stonehenge was built-dunno. Evidence shows it was used for the burial of cremated human bones. The stones also align with the sun during the winter solstice, so one theory says people worshipped there on the shortest day of the year looking forward to longer days and the hope of growing crops leading to the possibility of their own survival.

Whatever the reason for its construction, it’s been on my list of must-see places for many years. Tick! And yes, it probably is much smaller than you were expecting.

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