Stonehenge in Amesbury, UK

Before Visiting Stonehenge, Learn a Bit of its History

The grey stones covered with greenish and orange lichen look like a giant child’s play area.

Some stones still stand upright, in a circle. Others are on the ground, as if knocked down in a moment of frustration. There are gaps in the circle as if some pieces were taken away, or have not been put in yet.

Bright green grass separates the stone circle from a rounded path along which people walk around the monument, their faces turned toward the stones.

Beyond the path a herd of sheep pays no attention to stones or humans, concentrating on finding the juiciest bits of grass.

sheep grazing in the field next to Stonehenge
sheep grazing in the field next to Stonehenge

This is Stonehenge.

An ancient place of … well, we don’t really know what.

Located in the middle of a vast flat area Stonehenge’s purpose certainly was not defensive. It also was not a place of daily life, at least not in close proximity to the site.

It could have been a place of worship, but we don’t and will probably never know if it was.

Here’s what we do know:

What kinds of stones were used in Stonehenge?

The large stones in the outer circle are called sarsens, and the largest of them weigh over 40 tons. The biggest sarsens seem to have come from an area about 30km (19 miles) north.

The smaller stones are called bluestones, and what’s surprising about them is the fact that these stones came from over 240km (150 miles) west of Stonehenge, in the Preseli Hills of Wales. Some scholars suggest that the bluestones were part of a stone circle in Wales, and were transported such great distance because they were considered special.

distance from Preseli Hills where Stonehenge bluestones originated to Stonehenge
distance from Preseli Hills where Stonehenge bluestones originated to Stonehenge

How was Stonehenge built?

The sarsen stones might have been dragged on a wooden sledge on wooden rails. The bluestones might have been transported by land, but could also have been transported down river Avon. The scholars still disagree about that.

At some point, either before transport or after, the sarsens were carefully chiseled into rectangular blocks.

Originally there were 30 of them. Only 17 remain.

Archeologists discovered that the holes where the upright stones were placed have one sloped side that was filled with chalk, fragments of stone and other debris. The stones might have been pushed into the hole and rested at an angle first before being positioned upright.

They upright stones were capped by horizontal lintel stones, and the horizontal and vertical stones were joined together by the mortise and tenon method.

Each upright stone has a peg on top, while the lintels have a hole or mortise to fit the pegs.

one of Stonehenge's upright sarsens showing the peg into which a lintel was positioned
one of Stonehenge’s upright sarsens showing the peg into which a lintel was positioned

 

The short sides of lintels are also carved to interlock with the next stone through a tongue and groove method.

There are many theories on how the lintels were lifted, but none confirmed.

How old is Stonehenge?

The first stones were erected around 2,500 B.C. Over the next 800 to 1,000 years additional stones arrived, and many stones, especially the smaller bluestones were repositioned.

Stonehenge Position and Orientation

What most fascinates people about Stonehenge is its orientation in respect to sunrises and sunsets. When the sun rises on the longest day of the year, its rays shine past the entrance to the circle and directly into the center of the structure. Because of that, many scholars assumed that the henge was built to celebrate the summer solstice.

However, an observer standing at the entrance at the sunset of the shortest day of the year would also see the sun set exactly in between the two upright stones of the central trilithon in the center. That is why some scholars think that the builders of Stonehenge constructed it to celebrate the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.

One thing is certain – as the guidebook we bought at the giftshop says:

Stonehenge does not appear to have any obvious practical purpose.

Stonehenge still holds a lot of mysteries, and new discoveries overturn previous hypotheses. For instance, in 2014 scientists uncovered an encampment dating back 6,000 years, which contradicted claims that the area where Stonehenge was build wasn’t used much before 3,000 B.C.

Lichens of Stonehenge

The Stonehenge stones are covered with 77 different species of lichen.

What’s interesting is that buellia saxorum, a type of lichen that’s very widespread at Avebury, can’t be found on Stonehenge stones at all.

On another hand, several lichen species found on Stonehenge stones can generally be found only on exposed coastlines, and it’s a mystery how they ended up on Stonehenge stones.

enhanced photo of Stonehenge, emphasizing the lichen
enhanced photo of Stonehenge, emphasizing the lichen

Visiting Stonehenge

Stonehenge lies in Amesbury, United Kingdom, about 88 miles (a bit over 140 km) southwest of London.

If you are arriving by car, there’s parking on site, and a visitor shuttle will take you from the parking to the site.

You can also take a Stonehenge Tour Bus from Salisbury rail and bus stations.

Guidebooks and Tours

You can buy a beautiful, full color 48-page guidebook offered in eight different languages for just £4.99. I got one when we visited Stonehenge back in January 2013, and have used some of the information from this guidebook while writing this post.

You can also download a free audio tour to guide you.

The official website suggests to allow at least two hours to explore Stonehenge. If you want to listen to the whole tour and stop at every stop, and also explore the visitor centre that opened in 2013, that sounds about right.

Before you visit Stonehenge, try to find a copy of Smithsonian Channel’s Stonehenge Empire – a fascinating documentary about the structure, enhanced by computer graphics to show you how the area might have looked originally, and about the recent Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project, which discovered that Stonehenge was actually surrounded by similar shrines that might have acted as “local rural chapels” according to one of the scientists, and that later on it was surrounded by burial mounds filled with highly intricately crafted gold pieces.

If you want to see the simulations of how the sun rose and set on summer and winter solstice respectively, and watch simulations of possible ways how the stones were moved, try to find PBS NOVA’s Secret of Stonehenge.

I would strongly suggest you watch both movies, because because if you don’t know anything about Stonehenge when you visit, you might find the stones a bit disappointing.

Your reaction will be completely different, however, if you see Stonehenge knowing its history and the mystery that surrounds it.

How did the kids like Stonehenge?

Our son, who was in fifth grade when we visited Stonehenge, had wanted to see it since second grade, when he had to do a school project about it, and build a model out of clay. We watched the PBS NOVA movie back then, and got a couple of books from the library, and he got really fascinated by the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why. So when we planned a trip to the U.K. we had to include Stonehenge in the itinerary, of course.

Our son with Stonehenge in the background
Our son with Stonehenge in the background

Our daughter, who was just in Kindergarten, didn’t really understand why this place is so special, since it doesn’t really look that impressive, but she insisted on listening to the audio tour with me. When we talked about the trip a couple days later, it turned out she actually remember a couple of facts from the tour.

Jolanta with her daughter with Stonehenge in the background
Jolanta with her daughter with Stonehenge in the background

Now, if Stonehenge is ever discussed in their class for whatever reason, both of them can say, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been there.” :)

Tickets

Stonehenge has timed tickets and the official website suggests advance booking,

to guarantee entry on the day and time you want to go there.

However, when I was writing this post, the online ticket sale portal did not seem to be working.

The walk-up prices are: adult £15.50, student or senior £14.00, child £9.30 and family £40.30.

365 Tickets

If you’re planning to visit not only Stonehenge, but also Windsor and Bath or Oxford, check the combo discount offered by 365 Tickets: (sponsored link)

Where to Stay in Stonehenge

When we visited Stonehenge, it was just in passing, during a one-day road trip, but there are a few hotels and guesthouses available in the area, should you wish to stay overnight.

Other Blog Posts about Stonehenge

If you are looking for more comments on Stonehenge to make up your mind whether to see the stones, read also:

Beyond the Circle of Rocks: Our Tour of Stonehenge” by The World is a Book

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” by Face2FB

Stonehenge: Is It Worth Seeing?,” by Buddy The Traveling Monkey

Visiting the Mysterious Stonehenge,” by Curious Claire

Have you been to Stonehenge? What did you think about it? If you haven’t I hope my post made you want to see this fascinating place.

Invitation to #WeekendWanderlust Link Up

#WeekendWanderlust, hosted by Chris & Heather from A Brit and a Southerner, Jessi & Tara from Outbound Adventurer, Ashley from A Southern Gypsy, Justin and Lauren from Justin Plus Lauren, and yours truly, is a collaborative effort to share travel blog posts, and to discuss all travel-related things.

The hosts organize each week a link up through which travel bloggers from around the world can promote their posts, in exchange for a promise to give some attention to other travel bloggers. (One of the rules for linking up is to comment on three linked up posts.)

If the link up is still open, feel free to add a link to one of your posts below, then comment on three linked up posts. And I welcome comments as well, of course!

#WeekendWanderlust link up logo
#WeekendWanderlust link up logo


19 thoughts on “Before Visiting Stonehenge, Learn a Bit of its History”

    1. Thank you for reading, Kelly! I had to look up the “American Stonehenge” to see what it’s about. :) Thanks for telling me about it.

    1. Thank you for reading, Katrina! I’ve never heard of Foamhenge! I’ll have to go visit it next time we’re in Virginia!

  1. I’ve visited Stonehenge a few years ago, after visiting Bath, so it was kind of in my way back to London. It’s a mystery indeed, but I was disappointed because in the photos the stones look bigger and the site much larger than it actually is!
    Anna recently posted…Cherry Blossoms in Washington, DCMy Profile

    1. Thank you for reading, Anna! Yes, some people are disappointed in Stonehenge when they see it, because it’s not that big, really. That’s why I think it’s important to know a bit about it before the visit. I think it’s the mystery that’s the allure in this case, not what it looks like.

  2. One day I’d like to visit Stonehenge. It’s such a fascinating place. It’s really interesting that the stones were transported so far. I wonder what it was that made it so those particular stones had to be moved to that particular place. Such a mystery.
    Erin recently posted…7 Must-See Historic Places in EuropeMy Profile

  3. How fascinating! I have wanted to visit Stonehenge but I must admit I knew little about its history. I had no idea that some stones were retrieved from so far away. There must have been a strong motivating factor to go through all that trouble of transporting supplies and the building.
    Valerie recently posted…Day 2 in Hong KongMy Profile

  4. This is a superbly-written post, Jolanta, it’s so cool to see some of the history of Stonehenge here! It is absolutely on my list of “must-visit” sites in the UK, I love the mystery and the solstice component that makes it so very Celtic and earth-bound.

    Too cool. Thanks for sharing this great post! Now, to visit someday soon!
    Tara Lepore recently posted…The Absolute Best Citizen Science AdventuresMy Profile

  5. I love stone circles. I haven’t been to Stonehenge, but I find the history (and mystery!) behind them so incredibly fascinating. When I was in Ireland a few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a few ruins of uncertain purpose, and it’s always really interesting to listen to the different theories — also impressive to consider how painstakingly they were constructed without modern tools to help!
    Jessi recently posted…The Absolute Best Citizen Science AdventuresMy Profile

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