At first it was a blur on the horizon, a small, grey silhouette rising softly into the haze. Grassy meadows dotted with cowslips and grazing sheep rolled around me.

As this prehistoric monument prepares for the summer solstice, Ellie Ross joins a new tour offering an authentic view of the site

As this prehistoric monument prepares for the summer solstice, Ellie Ross joins a new tour offering an authentic view of the site

The silence was broken only by birdsong and the occasional scuff of our boots. The path dipped down into a valley before veering left – and the blur came into focus as that familiar stone circle and one of Neolithic man’s most astonishing achievements, Stonehenge.

Standing proud on the skyline, it was magnificent to behold as I followed the remnants of a parallel pair of ditches and banks. I was walking up The Avenue, the ancient ceremonial approach which once connected Stonehenge to the River Avon and which is aligned with the sunrise of the summer solstice. This is the view people would have seen more than 4,000 years ago, when they trekked up here on the final leg of their journey.

My own journey on foot had begun eight miles south, in the Woodford Valley, where the River Avon criss-crosses verdant wheat fields and dense forest. I had arrived with a group of four other walkers accompanied by David Howell, guide and local historian from the walking specialist Foot Trails.

“We’re out here to enjoy the countryside,” he said, hoisting on a hefty backpack as we prepared to embark on Journey to the Stones, a new monthly guided walk. “Please switch off your phones.”

Within moments my surroundings seemed to burst into life – the smell of wet nettles, the chirrup of skylarks, a butterfly flitting next to my elbow. We crossed a footbridge over the Avon, a tranquil, blue-black stretch that flows from Salisbury Plain to Christchurch in Dorset, 38 miles away.

“The river was an important transport route for ancient man, and played a vital role in the construction of Stonehenge,” David explained.

Not only was the Avon a highway for transporting fish, it is believed the river was used to carry the dolerite bluestones of the inner ring, which came from Wales. Although the exact origins and purpose of Stonehenge have been lost, theories as to why it was built range from human sacrifice to astronomy. But what remains is not what the original builders would have seen, as it is at least the third monument that has stood on this site.

Around 2150BC, it changed from a henge – a ditch and bank of earth – to a monument of growing importance, featuring the bluestones and later huge Sarsens from the Marlborough Downs. Work stopped around 1500BC, leaving the stone circle roughly as it is today.

Shadowing the river, we dropped into dense forest peppered with wild garlic, crossed Lower Woodford with its pretty cottages and thatched cob walls, then paused beside a field of flint.

“There was something special about the position of Stonehenge,” David said, offering around a tin of barley sugars. “We are in a chalk landscape – the flint in these fields is compressed chalk. In prehistoric times, it was easier to travel on the chalk downs than in dense valleys. Stonehenge is a natural junction for England’s chalk downs, where you can move in all directions, but remain high. Being at the heart of this superhighway meant it was an ideal meeting point for people who were dispersed around the landscape.”

We pressed on, taking in views of Lake House, the Elizabethan home of Sting, who recorded “Fields of Gold” there after apparently being inspired by the surrounding barley fields. Climbing steadily, we entered what David called the “sacred heart of the landscape”, punctuated with barrows, or burial mounds, which would once have been white.

As we climbed, a dozen grassy lumps rose out of the downs around us, expanding and contracting as our perspective shifted. Then, a gap on the horizon opened to reveal the distant but unmistakable outline of Stonehenge, bathed in sunlight, about half a mile away. The monument is false-crested, set slightly below the summit, to make it visible both from the valley and from afar.

fter half a day on David’s route, avoiding the busy national trails, we had passed no other walkers, and now I felt like we had the stones all to ourselves. It was the perfect spot for a picnic.

“Most people go straight to the stones or simply drive past them on the A303,” David said, producing a blanket and wonderful bread, cheeses, tea and cake from his backpack. But you don’t see the significance of these barrows without walking through them. As a monument, Stonehenge is so much about its landscape. It was designed to be seen from afar, as well as from inside the stone circle.”

Refuelled, we skirted a wide semi-circle around the stones to see them at different angles. Each time I paused and looked towards them, they appeared different, first short and fat, then tall and thin. But all the while they were mesmerising, a dramatic display of human ingenuity that took more than 30 million hours of labour to create.

After a busy but brief crossing of the unavoidable A303, we traversed a field to join The Avenue bending up from the Avon, turning south-west for our final approach.

Standing in the stone circle, as the shadows hugged the ground, I looked out towards the fields with their lumpy barrows, and down the chalk-strewn Avenue, where the sun will soon rise, marking the summer solstice.

Walking there

Foot Trails (01747 820626; offers ‘Journey to the Stones’ on the first Thursday of every month, until 6 October. The guided day walk costs £75, including return transfers from Salisbury railway station, picnic lunch, entrance to Stonehenge, the services of a guide – and the occasional fortifying barley sugar. Private guided tours can be organised on request.

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Stonehenge Guided Tours
The Stonehenege Experts

From Neolithic stone circles to gothic cathedrals, history is all around us. So hit the road and get up close to the ancestors

Stonehenge is an important stop on any tour of historic sites. Photograph: Getty Images

Early civilisation
Next year marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215, the basis of our modern democracy. Only four copies remain of the Great Charter, one of which is in Salisbury cathedral. Start your journey here and climb the country’s tallest spire. Walk out into the Meadows to gaze back at the cathedral as John Constable did when he painted Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows in 1831.

It’s a short drive out into the Wiltshire countryside to Stonehenge. The ancient stone circle has a new visitor centre, which explores the many theories surrounding its mysterious creation, possibly as long ago as 2500BC. Don’t miss the nearby village of Avebury, which is surrounded by three circles of standing stones, and the Neolithic chambered tomb of West Kennet Long Barrow, which dates from about 3650BC.

Drive on to Bath, your final stop, to see the Roman Baths and experience the healing geothermal waters for yourself at the fabulous Thermae Spa. Here you’ll find an open-air rooftop pool to contemplate it all from.

Hadrian's Wall

Visit the longest continuous section of Hadrian’s Wall still standing. Photograph: Getty Images

Along the wall
Carlisle has long been strategically important, close to the border with Scotland, and was once on the very outermost edge of the Roman Empire. As a result there is plenty of history here. See the city’s timber-framed Guildhall and visit the 12th century cathedral, one of England’s smallest, before taking a walk around Carlisle Castle, which has 1,000 years of military heritage and is also where Elizabeth I kept Mary, Queen of Scots, as her “guest” in 1568.

Drive out of the city on the A69, which hugs Hadrian’s Wall all the way to Newcastle upon Tyne. Stop first at Birdoswald Roman Fort, where you can see a model of the wall as it appeared when complete, as well as the longest continuous section of it still standing today. Next up is Vindolanda, home to the Vindolanda tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain, and a world-class museum of Roman objects.

From here, it’s just 45 minutes to Newcastle upon Tyne, with its 12th century castle keep and ancient cathedral. It is better known, though, for its vibrant cultural scene, so don’t miss Baltic, a contemporary art gallery housed in a converted flour mill.

Skara Brae

The ancient village of Skara Brae on Orkney. Photograph: Getty Images

Ancient treasures
History doesn’t get more potent than on Orkney, where a cluster of hugely important Neolithic sites stand against a dramatically beautiful landscape.

Pick up a car in Kirkwall and make the short drive out to Maeshowe, the most impressive Neolithic burial chamber in a landscape dotted with them. The guided tour is fascinating, with tales of 12th-century Viking raids (and graffiti) and the jaw-dropping explanation of how at the winter solstice the tomb is aligned perfectly to the rays of the sun.

The nearby lochs of Stenness and Harray are separated by promontories that once formed the heart of Orkney’s Neolithic ceremonial complex. Today the standing stones of Stenness remain, along with the Ring of Brodgar – originally 60 stones, now 27.

Drive on west to the Bay of Skaill and the amazingly well-preserved village of Skara Brae. This 5,000 year-old settlement was buried until a fierce storm uncovered it in 1850, revealing dwellings with everything from beds to fireplaces, cupboards to tables. Add a roof and you could happily live here.

Oxford's dreaming spires

Oxford is home to some of England’s finest architecture. Photograph: Getty Images

Spires and spies
Oxford is known for its “dreaming spires” and the university city is home to some of England’s finest architecture. Top pick is Christ Church College, where Christopher Wren’s imposing Tom Tower lords it over the city’s largest quad, surrounded by honey-hued stone buildings that are photogenic from any angle. Don’t miss seeing the Radcliffe Camera, an 18th-century rotunda that forms part of the Bodleian Library, the country’s largest after the British Library.

From Oxford, it’s an easy drive to Bletchley Park, once Britain’s best-kept secret and today home to the world’s largest collection of Enigma code-breaking machines. Explore the Second World War code-breaking huts and discover the life and work of pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing in the exhibition.

Drive on to Cambridge, where yet more spires and college quads await. The most imposing is King’s College, where the chapel represents the zenith of gothic architectural design, with four spiky turrets and copious stained-glass windows.

Article source: The Guardian –

Stonehenge Guided Tours