I’m standing on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, at Stonehenge – Europe’s most famous prehistoric site and one of England’s most mystical landmarks. It’s approaching dusk on an unseasonably balmy afternoon before the winter solstice and it’s eerily quiet – practically being in the middle of nowhere – and so it is easy to sit and wonder as to how and why these stones are here.
This is part of a loosely defined ‘Wessex’ – once an ancient kingdom but, now, probably more famed for being the setting of most of Thomas Hardy’s wonderful classic novels of the late 1800s. I can almost sense the tragic spectre of Tess of the D’Urbervilles as she tried to flee from the law and ended up here, amongst the stones, broken and in despair. All highly unlikely, of course; could she really have walked from the south coast to get here? It doesn’t matter though, the pathos and romanticism of the story amid such a spectacular and remote setting allow poetic licence and, indeed, furnish readers with extraordinary, and enriching, imaginations of the landscape here. I have to admit to thinking about Tess every time I drive past Stonehenge. If that’s not a wonderful legacy for any author to leave his readers then I don’t know what is!
Sat solitary, on the edge of a grassy hillside as it is approached from the east, one cannot fail to be intrigued by this curious circular arrangement of stones. The A303, running alongside and some 100 yards at its closest point, provides a stunning view as the brow of the hill is reached before drivers drop down into a small valley and then climb again on the westward route. The undulation almost animates the arrangement as one passes and, understandably, the inevitable slowing of traffic allows extra time to admire them and wonder – if at the expense of one’s journey.
Being on sloping ground it is obvious that the main stones are of varying height, to allow their upper lintels to form a perfectly level circular ring. The stones were variously hauled from Avebury, 20 miles away and another famed prehistoric site, and South Wales – a huge operation that one can only imagine. The whole site was built and re-built over a 1500 year period starting in about 3000 BC.
Why are the stones here, and arranged in such a fashion? Theoretical speculation, over many years, has surmised that the site was built as a temple in the midst of the pre-historic settlements that had developed here. What has been almost universally accepted – although we can never know for sure -is that the stones were arranged in such a manner as to align with the sun and the seasons for purposes of fertility rituals, human and animal sacrifice and burial ceremonies. Ancient barrows dot the perimeter around Stonehenge and it is thought that these contained the remains of members of the ruling class at the time. Ceremonial bronze weapons and jewellery have been discovered here, too, and can now be seen in the museums in nearby Salisbury.
It seems astonishing that these early people had enough knowledge of mathematics and astronomy to erect such a monumental seasonal, and physical, calendar – its emphasis placed on the midsummer and midwinter solstices. Modern research has determined that in neolithic times the axis of the building was correctly aligned to the midsummer sunrise – the sun reflecting a long shadow straight into the heart of the stone circle, and a source of great symbolism. Today, however, the earth’s angle of tilt has reduced by half a degree and so the shadow is slightly off track of centre circle. Pedantic maybe, but of crucial importance to some.
I don’t expect this would make any difference to the throngs of people that flock here for the solstices, however. On these the area is swamped with druids, pagans, New Age travellers, photographers, sun-worshippers, and just the curious who sit up for this short night until the sun rises through the stones. For some, this is a photographer’s dream, for others an event not to be missed, and for others a sort of out-of-body experience possibly enhanced by various substances. Dancing, chanting, praying and singing all find space here somehow. The growing volume of people here on this night in recent years has prompted some controversy as to the possibilities of man-made damage to the site – intentional or not.
Something of a conundrum has arisen in the need to preserve this most historic place, yet still make it attainable, for both people of today and the future. It is a place that most foreign visitors aspire to visit and, being only a 90 minute drive from London – traffic permitting, and certainly not on a Bank Holiday weekend – is a good day trip out through the English countryside. These are the days when the sight of a long line of coaches waiting to turn off to the car park just make one want to accelerate and speed quickly on. Unfortunately, it is a fact that the more the people the less the atmosphere and tranquility needed here to fully enjoy it all. But perhaps that’s just me again. It is a place that should be seen and one must take whatever circumstances present or miss out.
Stonehenge is a wonderfully inspiring place, full of mystique and a rather celestial ambience , no matter what the weather, and so very English both in its history and its superb position on these lovely green plains with views south and west across ancient Wessex. I’m lucky to have it on my virtual doorstep.
I like to see it also, as Hardy did, as a one-to-one visionary experience between the real and the fictional . Where sense meets sensibility.
For more information about Stonehenge, including its history and things to see and do, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk.