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HOME AT FIRST's

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ENGLAND
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THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN APRIL 2006.           MOST RECENT UPDATE: OCTOBER 2015.

          It has stood as silent and as old as the Sphinx lo these several millennia, mocking us with its riddles, defying us with its unfathomable logic, captivating us with its fearful symmetry. Scattered ruins in a circular cluster draw upwards of 1 million pilgrims annually to a triangle of land wedged between two rural roads on the Salisbury Plain of Wiltshire, England. We don’t know why it was built or who built it. If Stonehenge was built to bring people together to wonder in metaphysical awe at the magical mysteries of Nature, God, and Man, it triumphs still.

Many things we know conclusively about Stonehenge:

• WHEN STONEHENGE WAS BUILT. It was built and altered in several stages over a period of 1500 years between 3000BC and 1500BC. When the Romans arrived in Britain 200 years ago, the newest parts of Stonehenge were already 1500 years old and the monument was a partial ruin.

• HOW STONEHENGE WAS BUILT. Archeological evidence indicates that Stonehenge was originally an earthwork circle that evolved into a more complex structure, first with wooden posts and later with huge stones set in phases over hundreds of years.

• WHERE THE STONES CAME FROM. The original 80 monolithic bluestones weighing several tons each were brought with great difficulty over land, sea, and inland via rivers and portage from 240 miles away in the Preseli Hills of southwestern Wales. Later in the Bronze Age even larger sarsen stones of 25+ tons were dragged in from northern Wiltshire almost 20 miles from Stonehenge. Modern experiments have shown how prehistoric people could move and erect such large stones with precision using only simple tolls and no wheels.

The massive stones for Stonehenge came from quarries in Wales and north Wiltshire. Photo © Home At First.
BLUESTONES & SARSENS
The massive stones for Stonehenge came
from quarries in Wales and north Wiltshire.

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

• STONEHENGE DOES NOT STAND ALONE. It stands in a broad local landscape loaded with dozens of other prehistoric monuments: earthworks, circles, burial chambers, mounds and barrows, each significant, each mysterious, each somehow related to all the rest. Together with a second major prehistoric landscape at nearby Avebury, Stonehenge has been a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.

Two great mysteries remain:

Who built Stonehenge? and Why was Stonehenge built?

          Over the last 2000 years many scholars (and at least as many crackpots) have offered theories that attempt to solve the mysteries. Here’s a sampling:

Who built Stonehenge? Why?

• Ancient Welsh texts credit Merlin the Magician with the magical transporting of the bluestones thought to have magical healing powers to Stonehenge to form a symbolic Round Table for a Wiltshire Camelot.

Stonehenge imagined by Inigo Jones as a Roman temple.
Stonehenge imagined by Inigo Jones
as a Roman temple

Great English 17th century architect Inigo Jones could not believe that such a sophisticated structural array as Stonehenge could be designed and built by primitives. He posited the idea that the Romans built Stonehenge — and drew up complex plans of how a Roman temple would have looked at Stonehenge.

   

• John Aubrey, who first discovered and analyzed the ring of "post holes" at Stonehenge that bear his name ("Aubrey Holes") was the first modern to suggest that Druids were responsible for building Stonehenge as a temple for their Celtic religion. Aubrey had read of Roman accounts of the Druid priesthood from the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC. What Aubrey didn’t know, however, was that Stonehenge was already 1500 to 3000 years old at the time of Julius Caesar, and already

Stonehenge imaged in a painting from 1820. Was it a place of ancient Celtic ritual performed by Druids?
Stonehenge imaged in a painting from
1820. Was it a place of ancient
Celtic ritual performed by Druids?

in partial ruins. The people who populated

 

Britain long before the Celts arrived with their Druid priests were likely the actual builders of Stonehenge.

• Recent archeological scholarship suggests that the "Beaker People" of the New Stone Age began the earliest construction of Stonehenge sometime around 3000BC. Pottery and tool artifacts unearthed at Stonehenge support the idea that these primitives were on the site and were the likely builders. The design of the henge (an earthen ditch and bank circle) with a northeastern orientation in line with the exact point of the rising sun on the summer solstice suggests that Stonehenge was more than a simple temple or burial ground for important priests or Celtic kings, queens, and nobles. Some theories suggest Stonehenge was a center of ancestor veneration, or a place with magical healing powers for the sick and injured. Indeed, as has been suggested in other ancient sites in Egypt, Mexico, and Peru, Stonehenge may have been designed on an intricate mathematical plan as an astrological calendar that could accurately predict the seasons, the phases of the moon, and even ellipses.

MODERN DRUIDS AND STONEHENGE
          Of all the proposals tendered one has best caught the public imagination. Not long after John Aubrey first suggested that Druids were the likely founders of Stonehenge, Druid societies began popping up in Britain, the USA, and Australia. So popular were these semi-secret organizations in their Ku Klux Klan like white robes and hoods that their annual ceremonies on "mid-summer" have drawn great crowds to Stonehenge at dawn on the morning of the summer solstice for well over 100 years. Among the members of the Ancient Order of Druids one of the more mystical groups dating from the Victorian era was none other than
Winston Churchill, who joined while a young man at Oxford.
          Modern Druids popularized Stonehenge as a tourist destination. Much damage was caused to the monument by the throngs who swarmed over its stones, until in 1984 Stonehenge became the charge of
English Heritage, England’s public/private agency set up by Parliament to oversee and care for the country’s most important historic and prehistoric sites.

 

Stonehenge has become such an international attraction that it must now be cordoned off from
the Throngs who want to touch it, walk among its stones, and photograph it at close range.
IT REMAINS POSSIBLE, HOWEVER, TO FIND A FEW MOMENTS TO ENVISION STONEHENGE AS A LONELY,
RUINED ENIGMA SET ON THE WINDSWEPT , GREEN SALISBURY PLAIN BACKED WITH A CONSTABLE SKY.

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

STONEHENGE TODAY
          In the last two decades Stonehenge has become tightly controlled, with entry by advance ticketing only, organized parking 1½ miles from the site at a large visitor center with a museum, an exhibition, a souvenir shop, and audio tours, shuttle bus transfer from the visitor center to Stonehenge itself, where there is very restricted access to the stones. When you visit today during normal operating hours you are required to stay on grass or paved pathways that keep you from getting closer than about 25 yards from the stone circle. It is possible to gain access to the stone circle itself, but such visits are possible only before and after normal visiting hours, require being vetted by an advance application process, and your dates may not be available due to high demand.
          Controlled accessibility may not be the only disappointment in store for visitors. In years past, it was possible to walk, take a public bus, or go with a guided day group from London to Stonehenge on the spur of the moment. But crowds, security, and visitor shenanigans have brought about the new rules and access restrictions. Two busy rural roads, the A344 and the A303, still flank the property on oblique angles, still bringing car noise and exhaust fumes to less than the length of a football field from the monument. The circle itself, after the build-up in your imagination, lacks the presentation of places like the Eiffel Tower, and many castles and other attractions of Britain. Your first impression of Stonehenge may be that of a seedy tourist trap. Your second impression — once inside the entrance gate — is that the circle is smaller than expected and very exposed to the blustery, wet weather that washes over the plateau of the Salisbury Plain. Bring a sweater, a hat, gloves, a jacket, and rain protection. The third impression is the disappointment that you must walk past the monument in a procession more appropriate for an expired world leader lying in state. It is a pity one cannot any longer wander among and touch the stones — they beg for it.
          It’s the fourth impression of Stonehenge that’s satisfying. Find a break in the line of visitors at a point along the pathway away from the stone circle 30 or more yards, enough to minimize the human presence, enough to put the circle into its natural presence caught between the England’s solid green earth and the drama of its John Constable sky. Spellbinding.

IF YOU GO
Opening Times, Admission, Reservations, & Tickets:

ACCESS TO STONEHENGE CONTROLLED BY THE ENGLISH HERITAGE PRESERVATION GROUP.

OPEN DAILY:  March 16 through May 31: 9:30AM – 7PM
      June 1 through August 31: 9AM – 7PM
      September 1 through October 15: 9:30AM – 6PM
      October 16 through March 15: 9:30AM – 5PM (Exception: Stonehenge closed Dec. 24-25)

ADMISSION: £13.90/adult, £12.50/senior/student, £8.30/child, £3610/ family (2 adults + up to 3 children)

TICKETS: If you wish to visit Stonehenge on your own (not as part of a guided tour group), you must order entrance tickets in advance at ENGLISH HERITAGE'S TICKET SALES SITE.
(Exception: access to Stonehenge is free on the days of the summer and winter solstices.)

Getting There: Stonehenge is within day trip range of Home At First lodgings in three regions of England:

BY CAR FROM THE SOUTHERN COTSWOLDS:

From Home At First’s cottages in/near Tetbury, take the B4014 south to Malmesbury, then the A429 south to Junction 17 of the M4. Don’t enter the M4. Instead continue south on the A350 for Chippenham. Take the A420 into Chippenham, then the A4 southeast to the A342 direction Devizes. (Canal enthusiasts, stop at Devizes to see the 16 consecutive locks stepping up Caen Hill bringing the very much functioning Kennet & Avon Canal into Devizes from the west. Stop for lunch at the Caen Hill Cafι at the top of the lock ladder.) From Devizes, take the A360 south across the Salisbury Plain toward Amesbury and Salisbury. At the Airman's Cross

The 16 stepped canal locks on Caen Hill at Devizes. Photo © Home At First.
The 16 stepped canal locks at Devizes

roundabout find the the entrance to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Park there, visit the center and use the free shuttle bus to get to/from Stonehenge. Total one-way journey time: under 90 minutes.

BY CAR FROM THE NORTHERN COTSWOLDS: From Home At First’s cottages in/near

Chipping Campden, take the A44 and A424 southeast to Stow-on-the-Wold, then the A429 southwest to Cirencester. At Cirencester take the A419 SE to Swindon, then the A346 south to Marlborough. At Marlborough turn SW on the A345. Take the A345 south to the A303 at a roundabout just north of Amesbury. Follow the A303 west past Stonehenge (it will be on the right in a field) to the A 360 north. Follow the A 360 north a short distance to the Airman's Cross roundabout and the entrance to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Park there, visit the center and use the free shuttle bus to get to/from Stonehenge. Total one-way journey time: under two hours.

• BY CAR FROM DEVONSHIRE: From Home At First’s Devonshire cottages in/near Tavistock

by Dartmoor, take the A386 north to the A30 near Oakhampton. Follow the A30 east to Junction 31 of the M5 near Exeter. Take the M5 north two exits to Junction 29, then the A30 east toward Honiton. Five miles beyond Honiton pick up the A303 northeast across Dorset and into Wiltshire almost all the way to Amesbury. Four miles west of Amesbury at the A303 junction with the A360, turn left on the A360. Follow the A360 a very short distance north to the Airman's Cross roundabout at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Park there, visit the center and use the free shuttle bus to get to/from Stonehenge. Total one-way journey time: under two and one-half hours.

• BY RAIL FROM LONDON: From Home At First’s

Apartments at St. Katharine’s Marina by the Tower of London walk 5-8 minutes to the Tower Hill Underground station. Take the District or Circle Line subway train west 6 stops to Embankment station. Change at Embankment to the Northern Line southbound one stop to Waterloo BritRail station. (Total journey time to Waterloo from St. Katharine’s Marina: 35 minutes.)
Or from The Brewery Apartments, walk 5-8 minutes to the London Bridge Underground station. Take the Jubilee Line 2 stops west to Waterloo BritRail station. )Total journey time to Waterloo from The Brewery Apts.: 25 minutes.)
        At Waterloo, catch an express train for Salisbury. Service is half-hourly, currently departing Waterloo at 20 minutes and 50 minutes past each hour. Journey time to Salisbury is less than 90 minutes, with current arrivals at 20

Salisbury Cathedral — another English treasure just minutes from Stonehenge. Photo © Home At First.
Salisbury Cathedral — another English
treasure just minutes from Stonehenge.

minutes and 42 minutes past each hour. Round-trip fares from Waterloo to Salisbury: start at about £39/person (off-peak travel times).

        At Salisbury train & bus station look for your pre-arranged tour bus or mini-van, such as the orange double-decker buses of The Stonehenge Tour. Important: pre-reservation is important for any visitor to Stonehenge on a tight schedule who does not wish to wait for an available opening time to see the stones. See this website for ideas: http://www.thestonehengetour.info/. (Note: this information is provided as an example, only. The website and tour company are not endorsed by Home At First nor does Home At First receive endorsements or commissions if you book and reserve their tour products.)
        Some tours include visits to Salisbury Cathedral, one of the world’s great gothic cathedrals with its magnificent pointed steeple before returning to the rail station for your journey back to London.
        Trains back to London Waterloo depart half-hourly at about 27 minutes and 47 minutes past each hour. Journey time to London is about 90 minutes. Depart Salisbury as late as 7:25PM and be back home at your London apartment by 9:30PM.

 

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from Home At First lodgings in the England.
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