In an era where we have unravelled history to an almost alarming extent – reconstructing the face of Tutankhamen or learning about the last meal of Otzi the prehistoric iceman – Stonehenge is very different – there are still more questions than we have answers to. Although we know the basics, such as roughly when Stonehenge was constructed and where the stones were from, there are many more mysteries, such as who exactly built it, how they transported the massive stones, and why it was seemingly designed to honour the winter and summer solstices.
I love both mysteries and history, so I’ve long wanted to visit Stonehenge, but it has somehow missed making the itinerary on my last three trips to England. I was convinced that this time, nothing would stop me from setting eyes on these mysterious stones!
A Brief History of Stonehenge
It is thought that the area around Stonehenge has been considered sacred for thousands of years, long before the massive stones were erected. Scientists believe that from about 8000 BC, the site of Stonehenge was used as a sacred burial ground for elite people. It wasn’t until about 5000 years later, in about 3000 BC, that Stonehenge began to resemble what we recognise today, although the exact date when the massive stones were transported to the site, some from as far away as Wales, remains contentious amongst scientists, but is thought to be somewhere around 2400 BC – 3000 BC.
Part of what has made Stonehenge so famous is how mysterious it is. We know rather little about it, although research is trickling in and gradually giving us a few more answers. On the day of our visit, research was released that indicates that many of the people buried at Stonehenge came from far away, so it is clear there was great significance of the site. Exactly why it was built, and by exactly who, continues to evade us, however.
There are many theories, from the preposterous (alien landing site) to the debunked (Druid temple, although its thought to have pre-dated the Druids by some 2,000 years) but perhaps the most compelling is that it was an ancient burial and temple site, given the many burial mounds that are scattered all around the area.
It is a good idea to pre-book your tickets from the Stonehenge website, although it is possible to buy them at the gate. There is only a limited number, however, and they give you a specific entry time – so if you are on a tight schedule or visiting during hotspots (such as on the weekend or during school holidays), it’s a very good idea to book ahead. If you’re a National Trust or English Heritage member, entrance is free. Adult tickets are normally £17.50.
We didn’t know, but there is a free audio tour app that you can download either at home or using the free wifi at the visitors centre. We are very annoyed that we didn’t know about this, and highly recommend that you download it before you go, to add in some extra information!
Stonehenge lies about an hour north of Tom’s parents’ house where we were staying. It was a leisurely drive with no traffic, until you round the bend on the final stretch and suddenly hit the Stonehenge Traffic Jam. Luckily, there’s a pretty amazing view to take in while you wait – just on the right of the road (for us) stands Stonehenge in all its glory!
To get to the car park, you have to drive past Stonehenge and then turn back on yourself and drive up to the car park. The car park entrance is usually 5 pounds (refundable on the purchase of a ticket), but it was free for us as National Trust members.
After arriving, we made our way to the entrance and presented our National Trust cards and pre-printed tickets. From there, you can either walk to Stonehenge – it’s about a mile – or you can catch the free bus that takes you right to it. We were running a bit late (as usual) so opted for the bus. They come very frequently, every few minutes, and there’s a bit of a commentary on the way in about Stonehenge, its history and the restoration works.
The journey is only a few minutes and we were soon at the site of Stonehenge. The stones were a little smaller than I expected, but still fascinating (especially with the added bits of information Tom and I found from Google to make our own little tour). Although we were only allocated 30 minutes, we were there for more like 45, and no one seemed to care. We saw some families having picnics in the area so I really don’t think the “time limit” is enforced.
The fact that the entrance is ticketed means that it is not too crowded, and there’s ample space to see the site and take lots of photographs before returning to the entrance. The site isn’t terribly well signposted, but there are a few interesting spots where you can learn tidbits of information, such as that the original highway passed just metres away from Stonehenge, and it wasn’t until about 1920 that it was decided that perhaps this funny assortment of rocks was worth putting a little more work into preserving!
Back at the visitor’s centre, there’s a great exhibition that sheds more light on the history of Stonehenge. Some highlights included a 360-degree video which shows what standing inside Stonehenge would have looked like before some of the stones crumbled, throughout the seasons (including at winter and summer solstice, when the sun lines up through the cracks in the stones), and a reconstruction of how one of the skeletons found at the site would have looked.
Final Thoughts about Stonehenge
I love historical sites so I was really keen to visit and explore Stonehenge. I enjoyed the 45 minutes or so that we spent there, however given there are so many ‘unknowns’ about the site, it wasn’t somewhere you would necessarily be able to spend hours and hours learning about. That said, I do think we probably would have stayed for longer had we known about the free app!