Just before Whitsun I went to see Stonehenge, staying a couple of miles away in Amesbury. Oddly, although I have always lived towards the west of the UK, I had never got round to visiting.
It was wonderful weather when we went. I had not expected there to be much atmosphere, given that if you go at a normal hour you are fair way from the stones. Oddly enough, despite the crowds and distance, I could still pick up on one, which I felt must be very intense, both at the rising and setting of the sun. The site is surrounded by grazing, staring sheep, and we saw two leverets dashing across the grass, a sight that made me very happy, hares being so scarce these days. The visitor centre was not as incongruous in the landscape as I had feared.
I also thought how wonderful the surrounding Wiltshire countryside was. In a truly parochial way, I have always assumed that countryside of Buckinghamshire and Denbighshire as the most beautiful in the UK; Now I thought that the rounded hills of Wiltshire easily rivalled them. I have read that the chalky hills in the surrounding countryside meant that in the Neolithic era, when the whole of the UK was forested, this area was less so, and it was perhaps for this reason that it was used as a site for the monument.
It seems to have been a hill fort besides, and there are pits that were thought to have held great totem like structures dating perhaps from 8,000 BC, long before Stonehenge itself was built in 2500 BC in the early Bronze Age. Oddly enough, it was not until the nineteenth century that the great age of the structure was understood. It was blithely dismissed as having been built in the Iron Age, shortly before the Roman occupation. In the Middle Ages, the problem that has always haunted researchers – however those great stones were transported from perhaps as far away as Pembrokeshire in South Wales— was explained by Merlin’s magic.
Various theories have been advanced over the centuries as to its original use. Some have thought it a giant astronomical computer, some a religious site, and it is, of course, of great religious significance to Druids for the festival of the summer solstice.
Privately owned after the crown ceased to own the lands, it was once in the possession of the various landowning families, and in fact auctioned by Knight, Frank and Rutley Estate Agents, in Salisbury on 21 September 1915 as ‘Stonehenge with about 30 acres…of adjoining downland’.
After the National Trust acquired the monolith and the surrounding countryside, it was freely open to the public until 1977, when the need to protect the site led the organisation to erect the surrounding fence. Old sketches and photographs illustrate how much the site had fallen into decay before the restoration work began.
It seems typical of we British, somehow, that for so many centuries we should have neglected this marvel of antiquity on our doorstep, while overawed by the ruined of Ancient Greece.
It will certainly surprise no-one to read that after visiting Stonehenge and Wiltshire, I have decided to locate the concluding part of the work I am drafting at the moment in Wiltshire, with the final scene played out near Stonehenge – which has long been surrounded by myths about time.
In this, I am just about as unoriginal as I could be, of course. Countless novels have been centred about Stonehenge, particularly historical fantasies, while others have used the monolith as a dramatic backdrop to pivotal scenes or their grand finale, from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of D’Ubervilles’ onwards.
Interestingly, it was in Peter Ackroyd’s brilliantly evocative tale of horror, human sacrifice, and time defying synchronicities,‘Hawksmoor’ – which only mentions a trip to Stonehenge in passing – that I found the most riveting description. The antagonist, and in fact satanist Nicholas Dyer, an architect commissioned to build London churches following the 1666 Great Fire of London, goes with Sir Christopher Wren to see the monolith:
‘The latter part of the journey from the entrance to Wiltshire was very rough and abounded with Jolts…and so it was with much relief that we left the Coach at Salisbury and hired two Horses for the road across the Avon to the Plain and Stone-henge. When we came to the edge of this sacred Place, we tethered our Horses to the Posts provided, and then, with the Sunne directly above us, walked over the short grass which continually cropt by the flocks of Sheep) seemed to spring us forward to the great Stones. I stood back a little as Sir Chris. walked on, and I considered the Edifice with steadinesse; there was nothing here to break the Angles of Sight, and as I gazed I opened my Mouth to cry out but my Cry was silent. I was struck by an exstatic Reverie in which all the surface of this place seemed to me Stone, and I became Stone as I joined the Earth which flew on like a Stone through the Firnament. And thus I stood till the Kaw of a Crow roused me; and yet even the call of the black Bird was an Occasion for Terrour, since it was not of this Time. I know not how long a Period I had traversed in my Mind, but Sir Chris. was still within my Sight when my eyes were cleared of Mist…
Then the Rain fell in great Drops, and we sheltered beneath the lintel of one great Stone as it turned from gray to blew and green with the Moisture. And when I leaned my Back against that Stone I felt in the Fabrick the Labour and Agonie of those who had erected it…’
That description of Stonehenge as it must have been in the eighteenth century would be pretty hard to beat.