Thirteen kilometres miles north of Salisbury at the
A303 roundabout, I motor west, and 1.6 km past the roundabout, there it is - looming in all of its gargantuan glory for us to try to apprehend on a typically overcast afternoon in England. The same country that produced the Rolling Stones provides us with stones of a much more stable nature, fixed in place for centuries; albeit these stones were actually moved some distance. Stonehenge, a 5,000-year-old stone circle puzzle, is
the most famous prehistoric site in Europe. I park the car, amazed at how this mammoth entity suddenly manifests itself amidst the English plain.
And for what purpose? Theories include an astronomical observatory, religious site, burial locale and a healing centre akin to that of Lourdes. Unfortunately, Stonehenge was created by those who left no written records; thus, many aspects remain subject to debate. Whatever its purpose, the precise design does include an observatory function. The two inner horseshoes are aligned along the rising and setting of the sun at the midsummer and midwinter solstices. Accordingly, the configuration allows for accurate predictions of eclipse, solstice, equinox and other celestial events.
These granite stones, some of which weigh as much as 4 tons, were reportedly dragged all the way from Marlborough Downs (North Wessex) and South Wales, 400 km (250 miles) away! Erected in pairs, each is topped by an equally huge stone lintel. Within the inner circles stand two horseshoe-shaped arrangements, one within the other, and at the centre lies what is known as the Altar Stone. Further stones are to be found here and there within the site, which is surrounded by barrow mounds.
Years earlier, there was relatively easy access to the site, but that has changed. The stones can still be seen from the main car park, and can be viewed quite clearly from the roadside. Unlike the other monuments in the area however, it's necessary now to pay for an up close look. An entry fee of £7.50 for adults and £4.50 for children includes an audio guide and takes you through a tunnel under the road to the site. Generally, there is no direct access to the stone circle itself; visitors are guided around the monument by roped pathways and on-site attendants. The audio guide is available in several languages and lasts approximately 45 minutes. English Heritage and some tour operators from Salisbury can arrange early morning or evening visits that allow you to walk amidst the stones. There are also daily tours of Stonehenge from London by coach.
From about 2500 BC, Neolithic and Bronze age man started to amass the Bluestones and Sarsen stones from Wales and the Marlborough Downs. It was not until 1600 BC that the complete structure of Stonehenge was finished. Most of the other monuments in the area such as Durrington Walls and Woodhenge date from the same period. A nearby hill fort was built during the Iron Age, and there is evidence to suggest that the area was extensively settled by the Romans. The nearby town of Amesbury was later settled during the Saxon reign in 979AD.
If you enjoy books the size and scope of War and Peace, to better understand Stonehenge, try reading Sarum, historical fiction by Edward Rutherfurd which I have almost finished! Sarum, in the south-western part of England, is the location of the ancient cathedral city, Salisbury, and a close neighbour of Stonehenge. Rutherfurd was born there, so he knows the place well, and in his first novel, he delves into Sarum's prehistory to follow five families through the centuries in epic style reminiscent of James Michener.
Stonehenge is a World Heritage site. I'm not given to Druid superstitions and strange dreams about ritual sacrifice, but it gives me a weird sensation each time that I see it.
When to visit
If you wish to play amateur Druid and check out Stonehenge during an actual solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the longest day and shortest night of the year occur at the beginning of summer around June 20 or 21 when the sun is directly overhead at noon at the Tropic of Cancer. At winter solstice, about December 22, the sun is overhead at noon at the Tropic of Capricorn and this marks the beginning of winter.
Courtesy of Visit Britain
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.