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Fodor's England 2014
Mysterious and ancient, Stonehenge has baffled archaeologists for centuries. One of England's most visited monuments, the circle of giant stones standing starkly against the wide sweep of Salisbury Plain still has the capacity to fascinate and move those who view it. This World Heritage Site is now enclosed by barriers due to incidents of vandalism and growing fears that its popularity could threaten its existence, and visitors are kept on a paved path a short distance away from the stones. But if you visit in the early morning before the crowds have arrived, or in the evening, when the sky is heavy with scudding clouds, you can experience Stonehenge as it once was: a mystical, awe-inspiring place. English Heritage arranges access to the stone circle outside of normal hours. These tours require a payment of £16.30. Book well in advance.
Stonehenge was begun about 3000 BC, and it continued being changed until around 2500 BC; it was in use until around 1600 BC. It was made up of an outer circle of 30 sarsen stones, huge sandstone blocks weighing up to 25 tons, which are believed to have originated from the Marlborough Downs, and an earlier inner circle of bluestones that was constructed around 2500 BC. Within these circles was a horseshoe-shape group of sarsen trilithons (two large vertical stones supporting a third stone laid horizontally across it) and within that another horseshoe-shape grouping of bluestones. The sarsens used in the trilithons averaged 45 tons. Many of the huge stones were brought here from great distances before the invention of the wheel, and it's not certain what ancient form of transportation was used to move them. The bluestones, for example, are thought to have come from the Preseli Hills on the Atlantic coast of Wales, and may have been moved by raft over sea and river, and then dragged on rollers across country despite weighing as much as 4 tons each—a total journey of 149 miles as the crow flies. However, every time a reconstruction of the journey has been attempted, it has failed. The labor involved in quarrying, transporting, and carving these stones is astonishing, all the more so when you realize that it was accomplished about the same time as the construction of Egypt's major pyramids. Stonehenge (the name derives from the Saxon term for "hanging stones") has been excavated several times over the centuries, but, the primary reason for its erection remains unknown. It's fairly certain that it was a religious site, and that worship here involved the cycles of the sun; the alignment of the stones on the axis of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset makes this clear. The Druids certainly had nothing to do with the construction: the monument had already been in existence for nearly 2,000 years by the time they appeared. Some historians have maintained that Stonehenge was a kind of Neolithic computer, with a sophisticated astronomical purpose—an observatory of sorts—though evidence from excavations in the early 20th century shows that it had once been used as a burial ground. Excavations at Durrington Walls, another archaeological site a couple of miles northeast (off A345), have unearthed a seasonally occupied settlement dating from around 2500 BC, which may have been built and occupied by those who constructed Stonehenge. Another possibility is that this Neolithic village was home to those who performed the religious rites at Stonehenge, where people gathered from far and wide to feast and worship. The finds show Stonehenge not to be an isolated monument, but part of a much larger complex of ceremonial structures. It's no longer possible to closely examine the prehistoric carvings, some of which show axes and daggers, so bring a pair of binoculars to help make out the details on the monoliths. To fully engage your imagination, or to get that magical photo, it's worth exploring all aspects of the site, both near and far. It has a particularly romantic aspect at dawn and dusk, or by a full moon. Your ticket entitles you to an informative audio tour, but in general, visitor amenities at Stonehenge have been limited, especially for such a major tourist attraction. An improved visitor center 1.5 miles aways is scheduled to open by early 2014, with improved exhibits, a café, and a shop. In addition, traffic on a busy road nearby will be re-routed by mid-2014.
- Address: Junction of A303 and A360, Amesbury, SP4 7DE | Map It
- Phone: 0870/333–1181; 01722/343830 for private tours
- Cost: £8
- Hours: Late Mar.–May and Sept.–mid-Oct., daily 9:30–6; June–Aug., daily 9–7; mid-Oct.–mid-Mar., daily 9:30–4. Last admission 30 mins before closing
- Website: www.english-heritage.org.uk
- Location: Stonehenge
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