Everyone loves a good puzzle and 5,000-year-old Stonehenge, in southwest England, is certainly that. Online reviewers who claim it’s just a pile of rocks are missing the point. The trick is to look beyond the Neolithic stone circle and ponder the unanswered questions. What was its purpose, how long did it take to complete and how did the builders find, transport and position the 20-ton slabs? And why was the site chosen? Archaeologists theorise that a dog tooth found recently near Stonehenge suggests people were visiting the area 2,000 years before the monument was even built.
Construction conundrums were solved without access to modern tools or even the wheel. For example, Stonehenge was built on sloping ground but the architects buried the uprights at different depths to ensure the capping lintels were horizontal. Scholars have long believed that primitive log sledges were used to drag the stones 30km from the Marlborough Downs and 220km from west Wales although another school of thought holds that the rocks were transported on an ice-age glacier 20,000 years ago.
In 2013, the visitor centre underwent a £27 million (HK$260 million) revamp and was moved a mile from the site. There’s a shuttle service between the two but it’s better to walk. The stones appear small at first but you get a sense of context and an appreciation of how they are positioned upon Salisbury Plain. The rolling grasslands are a great place for a picnic. The (Windsor, Oxford and Stonehenge in one day) coach-tour crowds will look at you in bemusement but that’s because they have less time at the site than you’ll spend eating your sandwich.
Stonehenge is the most popular visitor attraction in Britain outside London, a statistic only slightly devalued by the fact that Peppa Pig World is the sixth. Pagan ceremonies were conducted at the site throughout the 20th century and in the 1970s an annual free festival drew large crowds, culminating in a record 70,000 people attending in 1984. These days the monument is usually roped off to the public but, since 2000, English Heritage has opened the area for the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes. At these times you can stand among the stones and rub shoulders with mystics in spiritual robes, yogis, barefoot hippies, modern druids and even the odd tourist.
A handful of TripAdvisor reviewers complain about the £15.50/HK$150 admission fee but it’s easy to book online and save a few quid. Download the free audio tour app and listen on your smartphone rather than coughing up for the English Heritage version. Some people don’t bother to pay at all. In 2014, United States President Barack Obama made an unannounced helicopter stop at Stonehenge in order to knock it off his bucket list. If you’re in a hurry but don’t have access to a helicopter, it’s possible to view the prehistoric wonder from the A303 road, which skirts the site. In fact some visitors reckon that views from the perimeter fence are more impressive than being up close.
Visitors might pair a visit to Stonehenge with Europe’s largest ancient stone circle, at Avebury. Better still, if you have a couple of days to spare, consider walking the 60km Great Stones Way footpath that links the two Neolithic monuments.
The reason so many people choose to view Stonehenge through the fence is because even if you pay, you’re not allowed to touch, lean against or sit on the stones and must stay on the footpath, which is still some distance away. You could take advantage of those four free entry days when members of the public are allowed up close but large crowds rob the site of its magic. You might get to witness a pagan ceremony but scholars mock the rituals, claiming there is no connection between ancient religions and the modern druidic movement.
One senior druid will be notable by his absence at the next solstice, however. King Arthur Pendragon is taking legal action against English Heritage over increased parking charges which he says unfairly target his religion. The pagan priest argues that the “pay to pray” policy is unlawful under the European Convention on Human Rights. Stonehenge curators say they’re just trying to encourage more people to travel by bus or car share.
Talking of cars, detailed planning for the A303 expressway project, which includes a 2.5km tunnel under Stonehenge, has begun amid strong criticism and claims that the site could lose its World Heritage status. The British Archaeological Trust has been especially vocal, warning of irreparable damage and calling instead for a bypass.
Stonehenge may be the most popular attraction in Britain outside London but it also makes it into many “overrated and disappointing tourist destination” lists. Perhaps the problem for some hard-to-please sightseers is that the place just isn’t what it was. In Victorian times people set about the stones with hammers, farmers have chiselled and broken lumps off for their buildings and walls and as recently as the 80s, visitors, including those attending the free festival, chipped off souvenir chunks to take home.
Twelve months after the 1984 festival, English Heritage gained a High Court injunction preventing revellers from entering the site. Hundreds disobeyed the order and violent clashes with police, dubbed the Battle of the Beanfield, led to 537 arrests and 24 people ending up in hospital. Crowds have been increasing again in recent years (23,000 in 2015) but it’s hoped that a newly introduced alcohol ban will curb drunken and disrespectful behaviour, including vandalism of the stones. Needless to say, King Arthur Pendragon is fighting the ban.
A study by an insurance firm revealed that rubber-necked motorists who slow down on the A303 to admire and photograph Stonehenge are responsible for more accidents than those perusing any other British landmark. Research suggests that the distracted drivers take their eyes off the road three times for an average of 3.74 seconds which is long enough to cause a pile up.