When I last visited Stonehenge some 30 odd years ago, visitors could still get relatively close to the stones. I remember gathering some “magic” dirt in a plastic baggie to take back to a friend who was obsessed with Druids and King Arthur’s Merlin. The things we do when we’re young! (And yes, I know Stonehenge has nothing to do with Druids or Merlin . . . ).
Visiting Stonehenge today, however, means viewing the stones from 20 feet away along a carefully paved path. So although Stonehenge is listed in Frommer’s 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, the actual experience of visiting the site would be a tad . . . hmm, what’s the word I’m looking for? . . . “disappointing” for my sons and not at all magical and mystical. And we won’t even go into the expectations of my hubby who is a fan of Spinal Tap (note: see the movie if you don’t get the joke!)
A little bit of research on Google, however, yielded an interesting factoid – you COULD see Stonehenge up close and personal if you were willing to visit before or after opening hours. If you fill out a booking form from English Heritage, go on certain days, and promise the soul of your first grandchild (okay, I’m kidding about that last one . . . ) you can get “Stone Circle Access” and see Stonehenge up close and personal.
But since I was a little wary of driving on the wrong side of the road and wanted the hard work done for me, I searched out tours with special access and found a perfect gem – Pat Shelley with Salisbury & Stonehenge Guided Tours. Small and intimate (there were only 6 of us), this tour was in a word – AMAZING!!!
An amateur archaeologist who has participated in several digs in and around Stonehenge, Pat Shelley not only took us to Stonehenge with its special “Stone Circle Access,” but also spent about two hours before we visited Stonehenge taking us to various sites to give us what is now believed to be the accepted hypothesis for Stonehenge’s purpose. (BIG HINT: It has NOTHING to do with the summer solstice and everything to do with the winter solstice).
We started our tour at Woodhenge, a series of rings made by wooden posts.
The posts are long gone and the British government, in their wisdom, has indicated the diameter and location of the posts with stumpy concrete ones. It’s a little hard to imagine huge 25-foot tall wooden posts in place of the concrete ones, but it was a great beginning to explaining the ancient Britons’ fascination with circles and rings.
Using maps and a satellite view of the area around Salisbury, Pat then explained the current theory of how Stonehenge was probably NOT used during the summer months (although they probably did have some solstice stuff going on . . .), but during the winter.
Tribes would gather about two miles away at a large henge known as Durrington Walls Henge, feast and celebrate, then make a day’s journey along the river Avon and a broad avenue to Stonehenge on the shortest day of the year to celebrate the journey between life and death and perhaps even visit their dead.
Why do archaeologists now believe this theory? Because they haven’t found any evidence of humans living in and around Stonehenge (like food scraps, tools, etc) but they HAVE found gravesites – a lot of them. And while Stonehenge is aligned with the rising sun on the summer solstice, it’s also aligned with the setting sun on the winter solstice – an ancient symbol of death.
Pat took us along the avenue these people probably took – a relatively flat approach – and all the better for their elders and children who might get tired from a harder journey. For a while you can’t see Stonehenge, and then WOW . . . there it is.
As our family walked the avenue, I have to admit I got goosebumps for although I don’t have any English/Scottish/Irish ancestry, my children through my husband do. They were walking in the footsteps of their collective past . . .
When we got to the top and it was finally time to go beyond the rope, Pat told us more about how the stones were erected and how they angled up toward the back in a gentle crescendo. We learned about the significance of the two rings, saw the carved out holes and grooves needed to create those table-top spans, and even felt the magnetic pull from a dowsing stick. Pat’s words flowed over and around me and I’m sorry that I can’t remember more . . . but I was walking amongst history. I was standing in Stonehenge.
76 places visited, 424 to go.
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