Upon our arrival in England we have been trying to carve out a trip to see Stonehenge, and this past Tuesday (3/29/17) we finally made it. We had been hearing from everyone that we knew that had been there that it wasn’t much to see, just some big stones stacked out in a field on the side of the road. And that you could only see if from behind a roped off area as people aren’t allowed in the circle anymore. This left us a little put off from making it a priority trip, however we still felt like such a wonder deserved to be seen.
So I started keeping an eye out for things and I saw something for inner circle tours. After a little additional research I found out that through the English Heritage group it was possible to book a one hour Inner Circle Access for personal reasons. The idea is that some people come in and do meditation, or druids can come do their worship, or curious photographers like me can come get up close and personal with the stones. To visit this way costs £35/per person, which is twice the cost for the standard admission, but I figured if I was going to Stonehenge once in my life I was going to do it right. Additionally, if you can’t swing an inner access tour but still want to visit, check out our post on ways to save while visiting England as we have a whole section on the English Heritage group and ways to get discounts on their locations.
We booked our tickets in advance, as is recommended, and ended up on the 6pm tour. The tours are done after hours, so that you don’t have to fight the crowds and really get the place to yourself. They allow up to 30 people in the circle at a time, but we only had around 18 people on our tour making it that much more intimate. The special access tickets include general admission, but we had to be sure and arrive by 3pm to collect our tickets if we wanted to get visit the visitor center or go up to the stones before our hour of special access, as they close admissions at that time. We arrived just before three and after a small amount of confusion we got our tickets. Since we had spent the morning exploring Oxford on three nights in a row of terrible sleep we ran into the snack area and grabbed some coffee to keep us going before entering the visitor center.
The visitor center here is small, but VERY well done, it felt like a mini-museum. I have previously watched various programs about Stonehenge and usually all I took away was that they don’t really know why the stones are in that location, or much else, other than that they are a type of calendar and a solstice party spot for the druids and the people before them. This is why this visitor center is so great. The amount of information they display, and the variety of mediums used like artifacts, bronze reconstructions, and videos were incredible. They provide detailed information on what the story behind Stonehenge actually is, and they have many of the artifacts on display that lead them to these findings. It turns out initially Stonehenge didn’t have any stones at all, but instead was a circle of wooden posts and inside the post ring was a burial ground for ancient peoples. By keeping their dead here they knew where to find their souls and could go in and communicate with them at certain times of the year. Over time the stones were brought in, burial mounds were added around the site, and the sophistication of the sites engineers really took off. If you are at all curious about Stonehenge and want more details than I can give you on its fascinating history, please check out the English Heritage website as they have done a fantastic job of curating the information.
Our hour in the stones flew by! It was incredible to stand in a spot where people had stood over 5,000 years before. And that these same people looked very similar to us today, and were capable of engineering feats we never thought possible back then. To see the sophistication of their designs up close gave me a much greater appreciation for the site and made me really happy we visited. No one in our group could contain their smiles as we walked around the staggeringly large stones. And as an added bonus the security team member Ollie, yes they have a security team on-site 24/7 to keep people out, kindly took some photos of Sera and I together. You could feel they were more relaxed with so few people, and it made the whole mood of the visit cheery and fun. We laughed so hard with Ollie listening to his stories about some of the strangest things he had seen that our faces hurt. The best was how he told us about the druids camped down the road from the stones, and how they would try to sneak in every night to collect moss off them and smoke it.
Another story he, and one of the docents in the visitor center told us, was about how the architect Christopher Wren, the man who designed the domes for Christchurch College and Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, had grown up nearby. And if you looked around you could see someone had carved his name into one of the stones, they aren’t sure it was actually him who did it or not, but as an additional clue the radius of St. Peters Dome is exactly that of Stonehenge’s. You’ll notice in the photo below it says “Wren” but the first symbol is actually that of St. Christopher’s; apparently saint’s symbols were used as shorthand by people during that time period.This really hit home how the history of this place didn’t stop in the Neolithic Period, but contains stories from the recent past too.
In short, I would highly recommend making the trip to see Stonehenge, and the Inner Circle Access tour especially. I would also suggest either doing a little reading before you go, or spending at least an hour, if not two, in the visitor center before heading up to the stones. Be sure and talk to the docents in the exhibit, they are passionate about the place and love sharing the history with you. Much of the information they know adds nicely to the displays and is not just a regurgitation of the information in the exhibits, thus enhancing your overall visit. So while some people may tell you it is just a pile of stacked rocks by the side of the road, Stonehenge is much, much more than that and not a place you should only see from the inside of your car.