An Ancient Landscape Restored
The landscape around Stonehenge has been transformed. It's brilliant and it's about time.
If you visited Stonehenge anytime in the 30 years or so before December 2013, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.
You would have driven right past the monument - close enough for big vehicles to probably set up stone shaking vibrations, parked in a desolate, windswept, concrete parking lot and walked into a truly ugly hell of green painted Portacabins. Beside the ticket booth, there was a shop/visitor center with virtually no information, some toilets and an abysmal snack bar on a par with what you might expect to find at a fairground. Then you would have descended into a concrete tunnel, only to emerge close to the monument, within the sound of thundering traffic, with no context and no way to have a proper view of the World Heritage Site.
All Change At Last
The presentation of Europe's most important prehistoric monument had been a national disgrace for... the UK, and for English Heritage, who managed the site.
But after decades of arguing and negotiation between the organizations and the private landowners responsible for the site, a reborn Stonehenge was finally unveiled in the winter and spring of 2013/2014. The changes have made a world of difference.
A New Approach
The road that once passed within yards of the monument, is simply gone - plowed up and grassed over. You'd never know the old parking lot, the tawdry cafe, the tunnel under the road and the crowds of confused visitors ever existed.
Now, an almost silent electric train delivers visitors to the site from a dramatic new visitor center a mile and a half away and out of site of Stonehenge. If you choose to walk instead, you'll have a better chance to understand how the monument fits in its ancient, ceremonial landscape. Though I'd visited Stonehenge in the past, I'd never noticed all the prehistoric mounds scattered around the site. But, riding across the landscape, under the big skies of Salisbury Plain, it all seems like a fresh new experience.
The Stonehenge Visitor Center
The first thing you'll notice about the new visitor center is how little you notice it. The center, designed by architects Denton Corker Marshal, almost vanishes in the landscape. Its curving roof matches the rolling hills and seems to float on a forest of young trees - the artful poles that support it.
Inside, two pavilions house the center's cafe and shop as well as a small, excellent exhibition center. The display puts some real meat on the bones of a visit to the site, something that has always been missing in the past.
Among the highlights:
- - Real tools used by the makers of Stonehenge - among them a red deer antler used to dig the ditch and build the banks that were the first structures at the site.
- - A set of Neolithic tools including a flint awl, a saw and a "fabricator" used to strike a spark and make fire. The awl and saw look pretty much like tools used today.
- - A reconstructed head of an early Neolithic man, made using forensic techniques based on the skeleton of a man excavated nearby in the 19th century.
- - A bronze axe in the same shape as axes carved on some of the stones, 700 years after Stonehenge was built.
- - A map of Britain at the time that Stonehenge was in use, showing dozens of other, similar sites, stone circles and mounds being built all over the country at the same time. It suggests an elaborately organized society that shared customs, monuments and rituals and that spread from the far north to the English Channel.
Outside, a reconstructed Neolithic village (based on nearby discoveries) gives visitors an idea of how the builders of Stonehenge lived.
- - Admission is by time-limited ticket with advance booking required. For opening times, current prices and to book tickets, see the Stonehenge ticketing website.
- - Overseas Visitor Passes, good for 9 or 16 days and offering admission to more than 100 different English Heritage sites around the UK, are available online from only £30 (family tickets from £55). They can be collected when you get here at any staffed English Heritage property.
- - For visits to the Stonehenge Landscape, including suggested walks, see the National Trust.