Our hire car crested a steep hill bringing a panorama of the sunlit West Country through the windshield. The wide green and brown fields spilled across the horizon. It was a beautiful sight for two city dwellers more used to soaring concrete and glass but something caught our eye that seemed quite out of place; a circle of stones surrounded by hundreds of people. One word came to our lips: ‘Stonehenge!’
I turned onto a side road that knifed away from the motorway and pulled into a car park just opposite this ancient place. It was an unexpected detour on our way to Somerset where we planned to indulge in a few days of bucolic splendour. We were keen to get there as quickly as possible, but there is something about Stonehenge that is hard to resist. We paid £3 for parking and £7.80 each for entry (the parking fee is refunded when you pay to get in) and made our way down a tunnel that takes you under the busy motorway.
We emerged on the other side blinking in the afternoon sun and there it was, standing as it had done for at least 5,000 years, though looking a little shabbier than when it was first built. Our free audio guides told us all about the history and mystery.
Why was it built? There are a lot of theories. As a symbol of power, a way of telling the time, there is no correct answer. One popular theory was that it was used as a pagan site and inside the circle of stones once stood a sacrificial altar.
How was it built? Again, there are many theories though they all say it would have been hard yakka for the poor blokes enlisted to do it. And they do know that the site was first founded around 3100 BC… more than 5,000 years ago!
I had been to Stonehenge before, as a 16 year old on a grand tour of Europe with my grandfather (who I called Parma). He was somewhat obsessed with the place, and I remember him simply standing alone looking at the stones deep in thought. They have that effect. People speak in hushed voices, as though in a library. The rolling land surrounding the stones is covered in ancient burial mounds, adding to the eerie atmosphere. Stonehenge is a strange place that makes you think of life and death; a place where you can contemplate the changing of the seasons and the march of time.
The most interesting part was finding out that at certain times of the year the stones line up with the rising and setting of the sun. Every year thousands of people gather at Stonehenge to celebrate the summer and winter equinoxes, the longest and shortest days of the year. It’s said that this ritual has been observed at Stonehenge probably for as long as it’s been standing. It must be an incredible thing to see the sun rise up in perfect alignment with the ancient stones, although simply standing before them on a Thursday afternoon was enough to raise a few hairs.