It was the day after the Summer Solstice and the field next to Stonehenge was still full of the camps of New Age Druids who had been present for the rising of the sun the morning before. There was even a Druid wedding ceremony underway in the car park when our tour group emerged from its bus.
Stonehenge, and the plain on which it is located, has seen the passage of history for over four millennia. What it consists of now is just the remnants of a large ceremonial centre come celestial calendar which appears to have attracted visitors from as far afield as the Mediterranean.
Evolving over centuries of usage by the ancient Britons of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, Stonehenge reached its apogee in approximately 1930 BC – 1600 BC before falling into gradual disuse and decline.
Contrary to the belief fostered by early antiquarians, there is no historic evidence of Druidic ritual practices having been conducted at the man-made structure. Their preference was for oak groves deemed sacred to the gods. However, that doesn’t stop their modern-day counterparts from turning up in the hundreds for the traditional seasonal occasions.
Regular visitors can book tours to enter the stone circle at dawn or sunset at certain times of the year. Our visit though was in the early afternoon, after lunch and a tour of Salisbury Cathedral.
Salisbury is the perfect introduction for overseas visitors to the picture post-card English country town. The landscape is gloriously rural and undulating, dotted with livestock and adorned by thatched cottages.
Within the actual church there are many wonders to behold – soaring stained glass windows of myriad colours, towering columns, the great vaulted ceiling high overhead.
There is a medieval clock in a glass case, the pennants of ancient regiments adorning the walls, many burial crypts of historically notable figures, and, in the Chapter House, the best surviving copy of the Magna Carter in existence.
For those seeking a quiet place within the vast Cathedral for personal prayer and reflection, at the time of our visit the Chapel of St Michael the Archangel was signposted as being specifically reserved for this purpose.
Back out in the streets of the town, we could be forgiven for thinking we had walked in on a scene from the famous Midsomer Murders TV series. That was what Salisbury looked like to this Antipodean visitor. I expected to see Inspector Barnaby hop out of an unmarked police car and go into one of the quaint shops or pubs to investigate yet another mysterious death on his patch. Midsomer is fiction, of course, but Salisbury has the right appearance to induce flights of fancy in the first-time visitor.
However, these creative imaginings were quickly dispelled by the delicious smells of our pub lunch at one of the historic old inns. There is nothing like a good feed to bring you back willingly to the here and now. It was after tucking into our traditional roast, fish and chips or seasonal vegetable pot pie (followed by apple crumble for dessert) that we continued on in our coach to Stonehenge. The first glimpse of it on the plain just off the modern highway is unforgettable.
In addition to the Stonehenge monument itself, walking trails in the area wind amongst ancient burial mounds (burrows) that dot the surrounding hillsides. It is an amazing landscape for the amateur archaeologist and history enthusiast.
Of course, experts in the field have long explored the mysteries of Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain, and new discoveries continue to be made. Reinvestigation of old ones also reveals new information about the place and the people who came here – some travelling vast distances in the process.
Even without access to the inner circle of the stone temple, by walking the path around Stonehenge, you can get surprisingly close to the giant stone blocks. A low fence suggests rather than prevents access to the circle, and this is certainly no impediment to taking unobstructed photographs of the monument – and plenty of them, from every possible angle.
Sitting back by the roadway, all by itself, but seemingly pointing towards the main structure is the Heel Stone, which has been known by various names throughout Stonehenge’s later (i.e. recorded) history. This is as far as the path goes before being stopped by the boundary fence that borders the A334. But from here you get a good view back at the ring of standing stones.
It’s a lot to take in, and there is no peace and quiet to be found in the visitor centre or gift shop, which are full of fellow customers. Better to find a quiet spot at the top of the walk and sit down to contemplate one of ancient Britain’s most famous enigmas.
Take a deep breath and inhale the stuff of legends… they don’t come much bigger than Stonehenge, whatever its original purpose (or multi-purpose) may have been.
This article was originally written for publication in my brother’s on-line magazine ‘Travelscene International’ which sadly no longer exists. I found the draft buried in a folder of documents on my work computer and, since my fascination with Stonehenge still remains (I returned for another visit in October 2012 – see photo of little MJ with the monuent, above) as do my memories of Salisbury and its magnificent cathedral, I decided to polish it up and publish it as a Note on Facebook. Now it has been transferred to WordPress for easier access by a wider audience. I hope you enjoy it.
11 February 2017