One of the world’s most famous prehistoric moments, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stonehenge is a five thousand year old mystery. Produced by a culture that left no written records, no one knows exactly what it is or why it was made. It is one of the wonders of the world, especially when viewed early on a quiet, misty morning – the best time to experience the desolate beauty of its Salisbury Plain setting.
Like many stone circles in Britain, the inner horseshoe-shaped stones are aligned to coincide with sunrise at the midsummer solstice, which some experts see as proof that the site was a kind of astronomical calendar. Its other possible uses were a burial site and a place for a regular memorial service. There is even evidence that Stonehenge was a place of pilgrimage; for example one skeleton found came from Switzerland!
One explanation of its name is ‘hanging stones’. Some of them reach 7.3m high, and the site is thought to have evolved in several phases over thousands of years. The oldest materials found close to Stonehenge are dated around 8,000BC, but the stones themselves came later. People marvel at how it must have been constructed, but look close and you can the stones have joints and sockets carved into them. Even the horizontal stones, forming the top of the distinctive arches, have been engineered so they sit flat on this sloping site. Lifting the stones into place would have been very difficult without modern machinery. The most common theory is that large ramps were made and the stones pushed over the top into prepared holes and pulled up to sit vertically.
Transporting the enormous stones to the site would have been an even greater challenge. For example, the large sandstone stones were cut from an extremely hard rock found on the Marlborough Downs, 20 miles (30km) from the site, and each one weighing 50 tonnes would have to be dragged across country. The inner circle of smaller 4 ton granite stones came from the Preseli Mountains in South Wales, 250 miles (400km) away. It is thought they used a system of ropes, sledges and rollers made from tree trunks to move them.
Stonehenge is best experienced as part of a visit to the south west English county of Wiltshire – a spacious, open place with soft, grass covered rolling hills, gentle vales and fresh flowing rivers – it is one of several remarkable ancient monuments nearby. Just 40 miles (50km) north east is the Uffington White Horse Hill, and 25 miles (40km) due north is Silbury Hill. Nearby is Avebury Stone Circle, and close to this is the historic town of Marlborough, said to be the birthplace of legendary wizard Merlin. The area is easily reached from London Paddington railway station, or you can take a coach tour from London or hire a car and head west on the M4.