(Photos by me from my visits to Stonehenge.)
Stonehenge, with the possible exception of Big Ben, is Britain’s most recognisable monument. As a symbol of the nation’s antiquity, it is our Parthenon, our pyramids – although, admittedly, less impressive. Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, recalls that when he took a group of Egyptian archaeologists to see it, they were baffled by our national devotion to the stones, which, compared to the refined surfaces of the pyramids, seemed to them like something hastily thrown up over a weekend.
First are its lintels – the horizontal stones atop the great upright boulders. This act of placing stone on stone is what makes it Britain’s “first essay … in architecture”, as Samuel Johnson put it. (Its circular form inspired John Wood’s mid-18th-century Circus in Bath, itself the model for Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus, meaning, according to historian Rosemary Hill, it is the probably the ultimate ancestor of the British roundabout.)
Stonehenge is both a fascinating place and a site overwhelmed by tourists. I’ve visited Stonehenge twice. Once about 15 years ago, when you accessed the site through a tunnel, and again in September 2017. (I took the photo above during that visit.) You now get there via a small shuttle bus that takes you from the visitor center and parking lot to the site.
This article explains the many issues around this site, the biggest problem being the road that runs nearby. Much money has been spent to try to find a solution, but one has not yet been found.
It is a bit of a shame. Both that the road is there, and that the site is so overused. You cannot really get a feel for Stonehenge when you visit, because most of the people there simply want to view the site and take selfies.
It’s good that you cannot get too close to the stones, because that would make things even worse. But it’s a shame that you can’t get closer, because you miss out on appreciating the scale of the stones. When I visited 15 years ago, you could get a lot closer, but you still couldn’t walk among the stones.
As many people know, there is a very interesting stone circle in nearby Avebury, and this is wide open; you can wander among the stores, communing with the sheep that graze the grass.
Stonehenge is much more impressive, and the stones are massive compared to Avebury, but at least, at the latter site, you can experience it more intimately. And there’s a good pub right on the site as well.