During the autumn of 2014, I found myself travelling on a modern, state of the art coach to visit the prehistoric temple of Stonehenge in Wiltshire. I had visited this setting many years before as a schoolboy, but now I wanted to take something of a more intellectual interest.
After a two hour journey from central London, the coach pulled into the park at the brand new, 21st. century visitor centre. It was just a short distance from the ancient circle of massive rocks. I had caught a glimpse of the stones from the main road that approached them. The contrast between their primeval presence and the sparkling plate glass exterior of the reception centre was somehow a little curious. It was as though the present day construction and that from the Neolithic period, 5000 years ago, had always co-existed. The one complimented the other.
Stonehenge is the name given to the extensive remains of a temple that has its origins going back to 3000 years BC. It is probably the most famous primordial monument in the world and was declared to be a World Heritage Site in 1986. Despite centuries of research, the reasons for its construction and intended purpose still pose many uncertain mysteries. The imposing stature of the circle of immense structures, standing alone on the wide open, gently sloping Wiltshire countryside, remains awe inspiring.
The temple is a halo of massive, free standing stones capped by horizontal lintels of similar proportions. Within the outer ring, the remnants of a horseshoe structure constructed in the same way are still partially intact. All of these great boulders are called sarsens. Amongst these structures can be found smaller objects called bluestones arranged in a symmetrical order. The whole arrangement is surrounded by a circular ditch, or henge, with an inner and outer bank. The diameter of this undulation is about 100 meters. The henge was dug about 2500 years before Christ was born but you can still see it and walk around it.
The lintels resting on the vertical sarsens are all fitted by using precision, interlocking joints carved into the stones. These are the only examples of such ancient construction methods anywhere in the world.
The origins of the stones have been traced by experts to come from locations some distance from the Stonehenge site. The sarsens are massive but were somehow hauled from places nearly 20 miles away. Many of the smaller, yet still colossal, bluestones were brought from nearly 150 miles away. The labour intensive nature of the methods of transportation can only be wondered at. A number of present day simulations of the techniques that were maybe used have been presented by archaeologists. They are imaginative ideas but still leave many unanswered questions. Each of the individual sarsens are huge and can weigh hundreds of tons.
Stonehenge, as an assumed temple location, was used as an extensive burial location. There are over sixty indications of human cremations and the sign of over 150 other burials. The current foundations are now rather fragile and the small area between the stone circle and the surrounding embankment is now closed to the public. The visitor centre displays many examples of human excavations from the site in a beautifully presented museum.
The current, and generally most accepted theory of the purpose of Stonehenge, is all about the sun. On the summer and winter solstice, the sun shines exactly through prepared gaps in the stones. Finely casted and focussed light beams illuminate the base of the temple. Stonehenge is a calendar to indicate the changing seasons of the year. The people at the time would have observed the summer solstice knowing that darker, winter days were not far away. The days would get colder and food would be scarce. The winter solstice, marked by sunlight from a different direction, would herald that spring was not far beyond and life would get better.
Such a civilisation existed 5000 years ago. I could only marvel at their intellect from the way that they had learnt to make these astronomical observations. Such people did not have methods of measuring time and date as we nowadays take for granted. The observations that they made though, were exactly correct. Stonehenge confirms that today for us all, 5000 years on in time.
The autumn day that I visited though, did not remind me very much of the sun. I got off the coach by the visitor centre. It was pouring with rain on a dull, grey and darkish October morning.
I boarded a little shuttle carriage at a stop outside. This would transport me almost a mile to the Stonehenge position. I have to say that I found the spectacle of the ancient stone temple slowly emerging from the wet mist, low grey cloud and continual rain almost slightly alarming. It was as though primordial features from prehistoric time were still exerting their influence on us all. They are still here to remind us all of everything that we still do not understand. It was all still such a secret; perhaps we knew nothing at all about the workings of the world and the universe.
Stonehenge has become in recent years a curiosity for modern day Druid worshippers. Many imaginative people, young and old, meet up together at the ancient site to celebrate the summer and winter solstice. They join together in complete harmony to observe the sunlight still pouring in through the prepared gaps in the stones just as it did 3000 before the birth of Christ. They continue to find mystery and excitement in this astronomical event that they celebrate at Stonehenge. Perhaps their gathering reminds us all that the universe and nature still keep many secrets to themselves. I must attend this ceremony myself one day and join in with it all. It is always allowed to proceed in good order by the current custodians of Stonehenge.
Stonehenge was given to the state by a certain Cecil Chubb in 1918. His family owned the land on which Stonehenge is located but were unable to preserve it properly for all time. The stones are currently in the custody of the English Trust and the surrounding parkland is maintained by the National Trust.
On the very dull, wet day that I visited, there were still so many travellers from all over the world. I could tune my mind into so many different languages and observe how the continuous mystery of Stonehenge attracts the imagination of the globe. The entry ticket included a personal, electronic audio guide available in the language of your choice. I believe that a few years ago, the Japanese nation expressed an interest in the purchase of the stone circle. They wanted to transport it all, lock, stock and barrel, back to their own country. Britain politely declined the well intentioned offer.
I travelled to Stonehenge as a guest of Anderson Tours based in London and the Coach Tourism Council. Anderson Tours have a special arrangement at Stonehenge for private visits just for their own customers. I was not on one of these but visitors can easily join one. Go to them at www.andersontours.co.uk. The Coach Tourism Council can be found at www.coachtourismcouncil.co.uk