|When is a henge not a henge?
||[Dec. 8th, 2016|01:29 pm]
As you know, Bob, we made the most of a weekend in the south-west by inserting a detour to Stonehenge. I have visited before, long, long ago as a child, when you could still wander among the stones; and we drove past, long but not quite so long ago, when you still had a view from the A344 which passed close to the stones. Neither of these things is now the case. English Heritage has been getting very excited about its new arrangements and new visitor centre, and I was curious to see how it would work out. Our last trip to France started at the Mont Saint Michel, where we were very impressed with the new approach road; the rebranding of "the Heart of Neolithic Orkney" has likewise lengthened and enhanced the aproach to the Ring of Brodgar, though my attention seems to have been elsewhere last time I wrote about it.
First, though, on the advice of one of our dinner companions, we went to Avebury. I'm glad we went, though we only had time to learn that we wanted to return when we had more time. Avebury is a village built in among the stones of a circle - the world's largest prehistoric stone circle, according to its website - so one way and another you never see the whole of it at once. And there's more, earthworks and Silbury Hill (though I only know this from the information board between the car park and the village) and a museum which we did not visit, where we might have found a map and suggested walking route. As it was, we never rediscovered the sight of the village and the stones intermingled which I had barely glimpsed as we drove through, following the signs to the car park. Despite all of which, a worthwhile detour:
The landscape around Stonehenge is rich in prehistoric remains, and perhaps if you know more than we did, this is obvious. But what we saw was green rolling countryside (Salisbury Plain is not flat) dominated by the presence of the miliary, all red flags and tank crossings. THe first sign of Stonehenge is the car park, which is huge, and packed (surprisingly so in November, even on a crisp, sunny Friday) and then the visitor centre, also bigger than I had expected. We lunched on coffee and sandwiches at the café, all relentlessly branded: pictures of the stones on all the wrappings, biscuits in the shape of the stones, with cryptic prehistoric decorations, and then took the shuttle bus up to the stones.
Not to spin this out, the approach to the monument is functional, a solution to a problem, but not in any way an experience in itself. The bus is crowded, and it trundles past fields and a patch of woodland, up the road to the point where it ends, and where roadworks are still in progress. From here you get your first sight of Stonehenge.
You could walk, instead of taking the bus, but you would be walking on a narrow road with no distant views to tempt you onwards. There is a drop off at the plantation on the way up, and possibly if you dismounted here you could get more sense of the landscape, but we didn't put that to the test. Instead we took the line of least resistance, up the track, past the Heel Stone and onto the path which takes a wide loop around the circle:
For most of the circuit, this is as close as you get. There's a constant noise of traffic on the A160, far below, and there are always other people (though the real crowds with their selfie sticks cluster at the point where the path allows you within the outer circle). Nonetheless, it's impressive, of course it is. It has impressed itself on our imaginations as the perfect example of what a stone cirlcle looks like, although that combination of uprights and lintels is unique. Likewise, I was charmed to learn, the name 'Stonehenge' ('the hanging stones') has given us the word 'henge' even though archaeologists have now narrowed the type of monument to which this applies to a point which excludes Stonehenge itself (a henge has the bank outside the ditch).
Equally impressive close up.
If we had timed this better, we could have been at the stones as the sun was setting. But we had allowed more time than we needed, and the sun was bright, but not warm, especially up on the exposed hilltop. Instead we took the bus back down to the museum (mildly interesting, with a clever video presentation which surrounds the viewer and places you at the centre of the stone circle through time and round the seasons). Also provided to delay the crowds on their way to the stones, a reconstructed Neolithic village: this provided us with the setting for a sunset selfie, reflected in the window of the museum: