December 2009


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Winter Solstice is today, Dec. 21, 2009, the day when the Earth tilts farthest away from the sun. It’s the shortest day of the year and the official start of winter. The word “solstice” comes from the Latin “sun stands still” and celebrations of the solstice pre-date Christmas. Stonehenge in England is the site of solstice festivals, apparently dating back some 4,500 years ago, when the site was in its proper cultural context. Some experts now believe that Stonehenge was the site of an ancient barbecue and midwinter celebration that culminated on the Winter Solstice, which also marks the beginning of longer days. From today’s Guardian: “Recent analysis of the cattle and pig bones from the era found in the area suggests the cattle used were walked hundreds of miles to be slaughtered for the solstice celebrations – from the west country or west Wales.”

And from English Heritage: “The monument we see today still inspires awe and admiration. Stonehenge attracts some 800,000 visitors a year and on the summer Solstice, thousands of people gather to watch the sunrise. Although thousands of years older than the Druids, the stone circle witnessed many druidic ceremonies, especially during the 19th century.”

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Sheffield University archaeologists believe enigmatic prehistoric monument was used for ritual banquets on special occasions.

Some 4,500 years ago, as the solstice sun rose on Stonehenge, it is very likely that a midwinter feast would already have been roasting on the cooking fires.

Experts believe that huge midwinter feasts were held in that period at the site and a startling picture is now emerging of just how far cattle were moved for the banquet. Recent analysis of the cattle and pig bones from the era found in the area suggests the cattle used were walked hundreds of miles to be slaughtered for the solstice celebrations – from the west country or west Wales.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield and his team have just won a grant of £800,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to answer some of the riddles about the enigmatic prehistoric monument.

The grant is to fund Feeding Stonehenge, his follow-up research on the wealth of material, including animal bones, pottery and plant remains, which they found in recent excavations at Durrington Walls, a few miles from the stone circle – a site which Parker Pearson believes key to understanding why Stonehenge was built and how it was used.

His team fully excavated some huts but located the foundations of scores more, the largest neolothic settlement in Britain. To his joy it was a prehistoric tip, “the filthiest site known in Britain”, as he dubbed it.

“I’ve always thought when we admire monuments like Stonehenge, not enough attention has been given to who made the sandwiches and the cups of tea for the builders,” said Parker Pearson.

“The logistics of the operation were extraordinary. Not just food for hundreds of people but antler picks, hide ropes, all the infrastructure needed to supply the materials and supplies needed. Where did they get all this food from? This is what we hope to discover.”

Stonehenge was begun almost 5,000 years ago with a ditch and earth bank, and developed over 1,000 years, with the circle of bluestones brought from the Preseli hills in west Wales, and the double decker bus sized sarsen stones.

It was too early for the Phoenicians, the Romans or the largely mythical Celtic druids. The Anglo Saxons believed Stonehenge was the work of a race of lost giants, and a 12th-century historian explained that Merlin flew the huge stones from Ireland.

It has been explained as a place of druidic sacrifice, a stone computer, a place of witchcraft and magic, a tomb, a temple or a solar calendar. It is aligned on both the summer and winter solstice, crucial dates which told prehistoric farmers that the time of harvest was coming, or the shortest day of winter past.

Although not all archaeologists agree – Geoff Wainwright and Tim Darvill have dubbed Stonehenge the stone age Lourdes, a place of healing by the magic bluestones – Parker Pearson believes it was a place of the dead, while Durrington Walls, with its wooden henge, was the place of its living builders, and the generations who came to feast, and carry out rituals for their dead, moving from Durrington to the nearby river and on by the great processional avenue to Stonehenge.

He found no evidence that Durrington was permanently inhabited or farmed, and the first tests on the pig and cattle bones support his theory that it was a place where people gathered for short periods on special occasions.

The pigs were evidently slaughtered at mid-winter, and he expects the cattle bones to back this. What the sample already tested shows is that they were slaughtered immediately after arrival, after travelling immense distances.

“We are going to know so much about the lives of the people who built Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson said, “how they lived, what they ate, where they came from.”

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“A Unique Experience!”

For those of you who have not visited this sacred site, I should mention that the complex is roped off. Visitors observe the stones from a distance and are not permitted within the temple complex……….special access tours allow you to be amongst the stones and to actually touch them. A guide will bring to life its many myths, legends and rich and fascinating history. All tours depart from central London and Salisbury. This truly is the best way to experience Stonehenge!

There are a number of companies offering this service (some better than others) and I will post their available dates and contact details on this blog first. Remember some tour operators only take small groups and demand is high, many filling up months before – you have been warned, book early!

Simply bookmark this page or ‘follow’ this blog and I will post all Stonehenge ‘inner circle’ tour dates in advance with details on how to book and get a discount………….

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Simon Calder from the Independant newspaper took a Stonehenge ‘inner circle’ tour recently – here are his comments:

You know Stonehenge, of course: a haunting silhouette from the past that stands gaunt and defiant on the chalky grassland of Wiltshire, just where the busy A303 and A344 meet. This inspirational stone circle, a triumph of the human spirit, was bequeathed millennia ago. It is now protected by English Heritage and forms part of a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Last year, almost 900,000 visitors stepped from their cars and coaches to get closer to the neolithic wonder. An enriching experience, set to become better still when a new visitor centre opens next year. It is tantalising, though, to be so close to the stones, yet unable to wander through them and wonder at the forces that brought them here. Since 1978, they have been off-limits because of worries about vandalism and erosion caused by rising visitor numbers.

How much more rewarding it would be to be able to walk unfettered beyond the “velvet rope” that keeps visitors at bay. Well, an average of 1,000 people a month are lucky enough to get up close for a personal experience of the stone circle. On a range of days throughout the year, people who book ahead can get access to the heart of the site, in groups no larger than 26.

I signed up for the last such tour in September – which is why at dawn on Monday, I could be seen cycling north from Salisbury station in order to make the appointment of 8am sharp.

A brief history of Stonehenge, I mused as I huffed and puffed, is an impossible task. Suffice it to say that around 5,000 years ago, a circular ditch and mound was created. The site’s initial purpose seems to have been as a cremation cemetery. Perhaps half a millennium later, around 2500BC, standing stones were introduced – including the massive slabs topped by lintels that give Stonehenge its popular profile.

By the time the Romans arrived, the site had long lost its ceremonial significance – and spent most of the Christian era being regarded as about as much use as a pile of old stones. Yet in a remarkable early 20th-century conservation effort, a campaign succeeded in preserving the site, removing latter-day buildings and saving the signature site for the nation.

The 21st-century explorer needs the Ordnance Survey Landranger map 184, “Salisbury & The Plain”. The place names provide a mix of excitement (Old Sarum, Druid’s Lodge, Longbarrow Cross Roads) and foreboding (Breakheart Bottom). A gothic font pops up a lot, highlighting a remarkable density of earthworks created by ancient Britons as gifts from the living to the dead.

Stonehenge is just one element in an elaborate network of ceremonial sites scattered across Wiltshire, but it is by far the most prominent. When first they appear on the horizon, the raw reality of the stones makes you gasp – especially if you happen to be on a bike: Stonehenge is about 300 feet above sea level.

Everyone else on my tour had the good sense to arrive by coach: a company called Premium Tours has a regular day-trip schedule from London, which also includes Laycock and Bath. With a moment of trepidation, I stepped past the “No admittance” sign and on to the soft, springy grass, unwittingly triggering a faint mist of dew.

Like latter-day pilgrims, we followed the tour leader, Jason Ridgley, to the “altar stone” at the centre of the circle. Up close, you are overwhelmed by the scale of the construction: blocks of hard sandstone from 25 to 50 tons, quarried from the Marlborough Downs and dragged by weight of numbers and sheer determination around 4,000 years ago, to form a circle of 30 massive stones. They were topped, thanks to primitive but effective inventiveness, with huge lintels. Many of them have fallen, but here in the centre of the circle you can easily envisage its completeness.

The brute physical achievement is matched by remarkable sophistication about the workings of the cosmos. The stones appear to have been aligned so that at dawn on the summer solstice, the sun rises directly in the line from the “heel stone”, set beyond the circle close to the road, and the altar stone.

“It’s my favourite tour,” says Jason, who conducts a wide range of trips. “Everyone has planned their visit months in advance, and is psyched up for something they have waited their whole lives to see.”

The noise from the traffic seems to evaporate with the dew, with the silence broken only by the staccato of shutters. You feel strangely awed, reverential even, at being in the heart of such a profoundly mystical monument. Some places in Mayan Mexico and Guatemala feel like this, but they are tougher to reach, and much younger.

Time to take in the detail: the lichen in the tones of autumn that clings to the stone, bestowing texture and colour on sandstone worn pale by the elements. Early tourists painstakingly and shamefully carved their initials on one of the tallest stones, which – just below the waist-high messages – also bears ancient carvings of axe-heads.

The smaller slabs of bluestone within the circle are remarkable more for their provenance than their scale: the Preseli Hills in Wales, about 200 miles away – or, possibly, brought closer by glaciers. The more we know about Stonehenge, the more there is to know.

“It’s exactly as I thought it would be,” said David Gray from Manitoba in Canada, as we reluctantly walked back to the 21st century. Is that that a good thing, I wondered?

“Yes, it’s a very good thing,” he replied.

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Beware……….
Many London ‘unscrupulous’ coach tour operators are offfering tours to Stonehenge on Christmas Day. English Heritage CLOSE the site during the festive period and you will NOT be able to enter the site. The visitor centre is closed and you will be forced to view Stonehenge from a distance beyond the fences – dont go on Christmas day, you will be dissapointed! You have been warned……………

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To mark the end of the International Year of Astronomy, Stonehenge, with its 5,000 year long astronomical connection, is hosting a series of celebrations in December. The attractions include a free public astronomy exhibition, as well as the opportunity for Stonehenge visitors to ask the experts on the relationship between the sky and the ancient stone circle.

From 16th December to 3rd January 2010 visitors can enjoy a stunning exhibition – ‘From the Earth to the Universe’, which features incredible images of objects across the Universe- from stars to planets to nebulae and galaxies, all created using telescopes.

In the run up to the Winter Solstice, from 16th to 19th December leading specialists – both archaeologists and professional astronomers will be on hand to answer any questions you might have.

For further information on the International Year of Astronomy, Royal Astronomical Society and celebratory events at Stonehenge visit the event’s website.

Free talks and tours by leading archaeologists and astronomers

An opportunity to view the sunset itself

See the night sky from the stones (advance bookings only)

“From Earth to the Universe” exhibition

It is well known that there is a connection between Stonehenge and sunrise and sunset on the longest and shortest days of the year. To celebrate this connection between the stones and the sky, in the International Year of Astronomy 2009, a special event has been organised by the Royal Astronomical Society together with English Heritage.

Visit the website – Click here

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I frequently get requests from tourists wishing to visit Stonehenge requesting who to travel with – here we go…………..

The best way to visit Stonehenge is on a guided sightseeing tour. The majority of visitors are from overseas and do not have their own transport, therfore the best way to see Stonehenge is on a scheduled tour. Most tours depart from central London and usually include other destinations i.e Windsor Castle, Bath, Salisbury, The Cotswolds – not all in the same day I hasten to add. This is because Stoneheneg is almost 2 hours from London and the tour operators tend to do a circular tour taking in other tourist attractions. I have listed the options below:

1.Stonehenge, Salisbury and Bath Day Trip from London
2.Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and Bath Day Trip from London
3.Small Group Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and Bath Day Trip from London
4.London to Stonehenge Shuttle Bus & Independent Day Trip
5.Late-morning Departure to Stonehenge and Roman Baths
6.Private Viewing of Stonehenge including Bath and Lacock
7.Two-Day Trip: Stonehenge and Bath Overnight

Sadly not all operators offer a great experience. I am familiar with the good and the bad and have provided a link to a Stonehenge tour website that has managed to negotiate special discounts and only use the best companies and approved guides. The advantage of booking through them is that you get ‘real time’ availability and instant booking confirmation.
Stonehenge is the most visited attraction in Britain and by far the most popular tour so booking well in advance is essential, especialy if you are tring to join a ‘Stonehenge special access’ tour where there are very limited dates.

Click here to view all the Stonehenege Tours avaialble – enjoy and good luck!

Should you prefer a more personal experience and would like to visit Avebury Stone circle, Old Sarum, buriel mounds, Silbury Hill and even some crop circles please contact me for a private tour – I’m not greedy and a garantee a truly memorable day.

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