Grand, centuries-old cathedrals distinguish Great Britain’s cities and towns, providing spiritual nourishment to those who visit. These places of worship seem ancient almost beyond imagination. But long before Gothic cathedrals … long before recorded history even, Britain’s stone circles were this land’s sacred spots.
Stonehenge is the most famous of these – and has a new visitors center to serve nearly 1 million annual sightseers. As old as the pyramids, this site amazed medieval Europeans, who figured it was built by a race of giants. Archaeologists think some of these stones came from South Wales – 150 miles away – probably rafted then rolled on logs by Bronze Age people.
Most believe stone circles functioned as celestial calendars, and even after 5,000 years Stonehenge still works as one. As the sun rises on the summer solstice (June 21), the “heel stone” – the one set apart from the rest – lines up with the sun and the altar at the circle’s center. With the summer solstice sun appearing in just the right slot, prehistoric locals could tell when to plant and when to party.
Despite the tourist hordes, Stonehenge retains an air of mystery and majesty (partly because smartly designed barriers, which keep visitors from trampling all over it, foster the illusion that it stands alone in a field).
While Stonehenge is viewable only from a distance, Britain is dotted with roughly 800 lesser-known stone circles. A favorite is Avebury. Just 19 miles north of Stonehenge, it’s 16 times as big. And Avebury is a megalithic playground, welcoming kids, sheep and anyone interested in a more hands-on experience. Visitors are free to wander among its 100 stones, ditches, mounds, and curious patterns from the past, as well as stroll in the village of Avebury, which grew up around and even within this fascinating 1,400-foot-wide Neolithic circle.
In the 14th century, in a frenzy of religious paranoia, Avebury villagers buried many of these mysterious pagan stones. Their 18th century descendants hosted social events in which they broke up the remaining stones. In modern times, the buried stones were dug up and re-erected. On a recent visit, enjoying the half-mile walk along the perimeter path, I tried to make sense of the earthen ditch and bank, grateful for the concrete markers showing where the missing broken-up stones once stood.
In the moorlands of southwest England, smaller stone circles composed of weathered craggy rocks are even more evocative. (Good local maps mark them.) Windswept and desolate, Dartmoor National Park has more of these than any other chunk in the country. On one visit, I trekked from the hamlet of Gidleigh through a foggy world of scrub brush and scraggy-haired goats on a mission to find a 4,000-year-old circle of stone. Venturing in the pristine vastness of Dartmoor, I sank into the powerful, mystical moorland – a world of greenery, eerie wind, white rocks and birds singing but unseen. Climbing over a hill, surrounded by sleeping towers of ragged, moss-fringed granite, I was swallowed up. Hills followed hills followed hills – green growing gray in the murk.
Then the stones appeared, frozen in a forever game of statue maker. For endless centuries they waited patiently, still and silent, as if for me to come. I sat on a fallen stone, observing blackbirds and wild horses. My imagination ran wild, pondering the people who roamed England so long before written history, feeling the echoes of druids worshipping and then reveling right here.
The Castlerigg Stone Circle is a highlight in England’s Cumbrian Lake District. While just off the main road near the town of Keswick, it feels a world away. With each visit I marvel at how the stones line up with the surrounding mountain peaks. Sitting alone (except for the sheep) in the middle of this circle of stones, drenched in lush and pristine Lake District beauty, I imagined dancing druids, and dancing flames, and the fear that winter would snuff out spring forever.
Scotland has its own breed of stone circles. At Clava Cairns, set in a peaceful grove of trees just a few minutes’ drive from Inverness, are the remains of three thought-provoking stone igloos, each cleverly constructed with a passageway that the sun illuminates, as if by magic, with each winter solstice.
Nobody knows for sure what these stone circles meant to the people who built them. But their misty, mossy settings provide curious travelers with an intimate and accessible glimpse of the mysterious people who lived in prehistoric Britain.
When in Britain, strive to find your own private circle – an obscure, weathered bit of 4,000-year-old mounds and ditches with a couple of surviving upright stones. Come just as darkness is chasing out the twilight, and imagine rituals from the dank and misty past. The chill and the wonder will combine to leave you with a lifelong memory.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook. Link: http://www.buffalonews.com/columns/rick-steves/stonehenge-is-a-tourist-mecca-that-still-retains-an-air-of-mystery-20140907
Join us on a Stonehenge guided tour and experience the mystery for yourself
Stonehenge Guided Tours
Stonehenge is one of the most speculated about prehistoric landmarks in the world and it is located right here in Britain.
Close to quaint countryside Wiltshire holiday cottages, it is easy to visit and many often base whole holidays around this most famed of attractions. With English Heritage having recently opened a brand new visitor centre, as reported in this previous article on our sister site, curiosity over Stonehenge has never been higher.
Following on from this article on Stonehenge we have asked the experts for answers to some of Stonehenge’s biggest questions.
Why is Stonehenge so important?
As mentioned earlier, English Heritage recently opened a new visitor centre. The centre has plenty of information about the site and the Druids that not only answer some of the questions visitors might have about the monument, but also provoke new questions. Their recently opened Neolithic Houses show reconstructions of how they think the people that built Stonehenge lived, provoking thoughts on the people of the times themselves. To read more about these fascinating houses see this VisitWiltshire article.
Here English Heritage themselves tell us a bit about why they think Stonehenge is so important.
• “Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated and only surviving lintelled prehistoric stone circle in the world.
It is a unique prehistoric monument that forms part of an extraordinary ancient landscape so rich and varied that it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1986.
It does not stand in isolation, but forms part of a remarkable archaeological landscape of early Neolithic, late Neolithic and early Bronze Age monuments. This landscape is a vast source of information about the ceremonial and funerary practices of Neolithic and Bronze Age people and helps to shed light on how prehistoric society was organised.”
– English Heritage
For more information on Stonehenge from English Heritage, see the StonehengeEH Facebook page where they regularly post the latest news and views on this fascinating site.
Further to English Heritage, Stonehenge.co.uk acts as the ultimate guide to the historic site. From how it was built to visitor information and resources on other ancient sites in the area, the independent website is a great guide for planning a trip to the Wiltshire area. Here they shed some light on the historic structure.
• ‘The importance of Stonehenge rests with its longevity, unique position, but above all its enduring enigma. We shall never truly know its origins or the thoughts of those clever people who designed, built, embellished and maintained the site. Experts may come and go, but their delving and surmise may be no better than that of any other. Long may it last.’
Why do you think people are still so intrigued by Stonehenge and its history?
VisitWiltshire have some fantastic current information of the Stonehenge site. Here is what they said about Wiltshire’s most famous landmark.
• ‘We think the reason people are so intrigued by Stonehenge is because of the mystery that still surrounds it. There are so many different theories about how it was constructed and why it is where it is. Continuous archaeological discoveries in the area keep the mystery alive too as bits of the puzzle are slowly unveiled.’
When visiting the Wiltshire area and staying in English country holiday cottagesit is definitely worth going to VisitWiltshire’s website for local information on what to do and see.
Are there any guided tours of Stonehenge?
For those looking to take a tour of the area the options are endless – whether you want to go it alone with the information provided in this guide or use one of the reputable tour guides in the area, both are sure to make for an unforgettable experience of this magical landmark.
Stonehenge Guided Tours are fantastic Stonehenge tour experts and have been operating small group guided tours of Stonehenge since the early 1990s. They offer a highly personalised and professional service that is ideal for individuals, families and groups. Here is what they said about Stonehenge:
• ‘Stonehenge – Britain’s Best Historic Site Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument without parallel. Voted ‘Britain’s Best Historic Site’ and ‘UK’s top wonder’ in a list of the country’s unmissable attractions, the ancient site also topped a survey of the ‘Seven Wonders of Britain’. Part of an ancient landscape, Stonehenge is one of the most thought-provoking and keenly debated ancient monuments in the world.’
– Stonehenge Guided Tours
Are there other historical sites to see as well as Stonehenge?
If you want to explore further afield once you have visited Stonehenge to gain a greater understanding of the area and its relevance to the site, there are some great tour operators that provide some fantastic insights. The Stonehenge Tour company is operated by Salisbury Reds and they cover a wide area and have plenty to offer their guests by way of information and views of the magnificent local landscape.
• ‘Stonehenge is a historical, famous landmark, over 5000 years old. It is truly magnificent and mysterious and many visitors are in awe of such a wondrous monument.
The tour is a unique way to experience Salisbury, Old Sarum and Stonehenge – tour bus visitors get priority upon arrival to Stonehenge and you don’t have to worry about booking a time slot. Our all-inclusive ticket includes Stonehenge admission and a cathedral donation.
There are fantastic views from the top deck as well as a knowledgeable commentary throughout the trip. Visitors can board the tour in the city centre at stop U in New Canal or from the rail station.’
– The Stonehenge Tour
What exactly are Druids?
In answer to this question we though it better to go to the people themselves and asked Aes Dana Grove or, as they are better known, the ‘Amesbury Stonehenge Druids’ if they could shed some light on their practices and tell us about their faith and traditions.
• “Druids are the priests of the native spiritual tradition ‘the old religion’ of the peoples who inhabited the islands of Britain and Ireland, spreading through much of Europe. It is increasingly understood, and within the Druid community acknowledged, to be of an older indigenous if ever-evolving religious tradition sourced within these islands.
As an ancient pagan religion, our belief is based on the reverential, sacred and honourable relationship between the people and the land. In its personal expression, it is the spiritual interaction between an individual and the spirits of nature, including those of landscape and ancestry, together with the continuities of spiritual, literary and cultural heritage.
Druids may be men or women, or any social class, and born to any race. In ancient times the Druids were an educated spiritual elite who coordinated resistance to expansion of the Roman empire into France and Britain and hence were outlawed under Roman law and vilified in some cases by this enemy who wrote many of the historical accounts.
In 2010 the Druids became once again a recognised religion in England and Wales ending nearly 2000 years of social exclusion.”
– Frank Somer, The Stonehenge Druids
You can find out more and see for yourself at www.stonehenge-druids.org.
Expert View: What is the most interesting question you have ever been asked about Stonehenge?
Kindly, Mike Parker Pearson of the Institute of Archaeology and a well-regarded English archaeologist specialist of Neolithic Britain provided us with his insight into the wonders of Stonehenge.
• “Ramilisonina, my colleague from Madagascar who I have worked with for many years, asked me in 1998 if I realized that Stonehenge was built for the ancestors. I laughed at first but it soon dawned on me that he had a really interesting insight. That led to the start of the Stonehenge Riverside Project 4 years later, and to a complete reinterpretation of Stonehenge.
Books of relevance are my paperback ‘Stonehenge’ published by Simon Schuster, and Marc Aronson’s ‘If Stones Could Speak’ (for younger readers) published by National Geographic. If you take a look at them, you’ll find plenty of information of interest to visitors.”
– Mike Parker Pearson
You can read more on Pearson’s views on the ancient site in his publications, ‘If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge’ and‘Stonehenge: Exploring the greatest Stone Age Mystery’.
Image Credits: Visit Wiltshire, English Heritage, VisitWiltshire/Paul Chambers, The Stonehenge Tour- Diana Jarvis, Aes Dana Grove
Article source: http://www.hideaways.co.uk/news/answers-to-stonehenge-s-biggest-questions
Hideaways offer a carefully chosen selection of english country cottages, country homes, farmhouses and apartments in rural and coastal settings and in historic towns and cities throughout the West Country, Wessex, the South East and the Heart of England: http://www.hideaways.co.uk/
Stonehenge Guided Tours