diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 14, 2013

On the hottest day of the year, I headed west to a place of sun worship. To Stonehenge, the prehistoric stone circle, via Salisbury, the medieval city. The heat was unrelenting, the shade was minimal, but this entire corner of Wiltshire was most pleasant.

My Stonehenge/Salisbury gallery
There are 20 photographs altogether. [slideshow]

Stonehenge: You can see the stones from the A303. From the traffic jam on the hill, just before the fork with the A344, many's the holiday-bound journey enlivened with a cry of "blimey, it's Stonehenge!" But a line of cars is not the best way of enhancing the visitor experience at a World Heritage Site, so long-term plans are underway to tidy up the surrounding infrastructure, with 2013 the year everything changes. The A344 was stopped-up three weeks ago, with the aim of returning this road past the stones to grass, and a new life as a permissive footpath. Now road access is only possible from the west, via the Longbarrow Roundabout and Airman's Corner, as Stonehenge temporarily becomes a diversionary dead end. And not a moment too soon, if the current visitor experience is anything to go by.

The existing Visitor Centre, if you can call it that, is a cluster of prefabs burrowed down below road level out of sight of the stone circle. Cars and coaches pull into an extensive car park on the plain, then disgorge their hordes towards the ticket booths. The crowds are mostly foreign tourists, what with Stonehenge being on the international tourist trail, many of them youth parties or far Eastern snappers. They queue restlessly on the slope - yesterday in beating heat - to pass through an inadequate number of turnstiles at the bottom. Arrive in an organised party or on the tour bus and you can overtake, else you may be waiting here for some time. Refreshments are provided by the Stonehenge Cafe, which might sound romantic but is in reality a cramped counter service with a tiny kitchen behind dispensing limited beverage and baked options to a disorganised queue. As for the shop, on the other side of the barrier, that's tiny compared to the numbers trying to cram in and buy magnets, postcards and pop-up Stonehenges. It's not been possible to build anything better, or more permanent, this close to the circle, due to incredibly strict planning regulations, but thankfully this circle of hell has less than six months to live.

Access to the stones is via a subway beneath the road that's no longer a road. That's the only shelter on site which isn't great if it rains or, as yesterday, in unrelenting 30° heat. Beyond is the first "woo" view of the stones, which are now revealed as a ring of rocks in the middle of a grassy field. It used to be possible to walk up to and into and around the stones, but they were roped off in the 1970s (except for special occasions such as solstices and early morning visits). Now only the first section of path curves inside the original earthwork circle, allowing visitors to get sort-of close, and with the added advantage that it's possible to take photos without backpacking teenagers clogging the shot. Everyone stops to take a photo, more usually a dozen, because that's the true reason they're here. Some want the stones untainted, whilst others are more keen that every single shot features themselves, their friends or their family. Indeed it's hard to walk far without some international tourist offering you their camera and asking if you'll shoot them. They pose, you click, and then they pointedly study their digital screen to check that your handiwork passes their quality threshold.

Most visitors carry with them an audio guide, dished out in their chosen language, which dispenses the Stonehenge story at seven locations around the circumference. The commentary explains how the stones might have got here and what their orientation might mean, but the underlying tone always seems to be "we just don't know". But it's intriguing to stare across at the henge, from a variety of angles, and wonder what inspired our ancestors to build something so strange and magical. What's not made especially clear is what we see today has involved considerable modern intervention, propping up fallen stones and replacing lintels. Various holes remain empty, and the central circle is incomplete in a way that relies more on gravity and reconstruction than prehistoric intention. There's no rush wandering round, and the grassy outer perimeter offers far more space to linger and admire the surrounding landscape. The area around Stonehenge is littered with earthworks and barrows, some you can walk to afterwards. Or you can just queue for an ice cream then follow your tour guide back to the coach, another British icon ticked off, then Bath next?

Up by Airman's Cross a new Visitor Centre is under construction. It's an extensive but low structure, sheltered in a hollow, with an undulating wooden canopy. Inside there's a lot of scaffolding, and not yet much content, while round the back is a patch that's destined to be the new car park. If all goes to schedule it'll open in December, in time for the winter solstice, although it looks like there's a heck of a lot to be done before then. The canopy will shield two large pods and a ticket office, and attractions will include a 360° virtual experience allowing participants to "walk within the stones". The road east to Stonehenge will then be closed, and visitors will ride a motorised shuttle for the mile and a half journey to the henge. All the existing prefabs will then be swept away, replaced by below-ground toilets, and the car park will be appropriately relandscaped. If you're planning a visit, best wait a little until Stonehenge is renewed among the fields and the circle of hell is wiped away.

Old Sarum: There are two Sarums, one New by the river (which became Salisbury) and one Old a couple of miles north. The original was an Iron Age hillfort, approximately circular in shape and perfectly sited for all-round viewing, appropriated and enlarged by William The Conqueror. At the heart of Old Sarum was the royal castle, surrounded by a deep ditch, and around this was a bustling city plus cathedral. It's hard to imagine today. The ruins of the castle remain, plus the outline of the cathedral in the outer ward, but elsewhere nature has taken over. A carpet of long grass, alive with bumble bees and butterflies, extends across the acres of the medieval city. Lie back and watch the parachutists floating down onto Old Sarum Airfield nextdoor, or stare from the ramparts at the replacement city in the valley.

Salisbury: Five rivers meet at Salisbury, where the water meadows provided fertile ground for resettlement. The 'new' cathedral, founded in 1220, has the highest spire in Britain and a lofty Gothic style. It's also the proud owner of one of the only four copies of Magna Carta in existence, and it's free to get in, although donations of £6.50 are encouraged. Yesterday I arrived in time to listen to the choir rehearsing for Evensong, which was lovely, but alas too late in the day to gain access to the Chapter House and admire King John's vellum. The Cathedral Close is the largest in the country, surrounded by a motley collection of fine heritage buildings (including the former home of Edward Heath, now an unlikely visitor attraction - at least until funding dries up). Elsewhere the city centre is as picturesque as you'd hope, especially if you're a foreign tourist for whom this is your sole experience of provincial England. For a quieter experience follow the Town Path across the water meadows for views of the cathedral with sheep in the foreground, to Harnham Old Mill where yesterday local youth were leaping into the millstream to cool down.

Stonehenge Tour: So, how do you get here? Salisbury is less than 90 minutes from London by train, with regular bus tours running to Stonehenge from outside the station. From June to August they run half-hourly, at other times hourly, with a stop off at Old Sarum on the way back. The £20 fare includes admission, just don't ask for the £24 "plus cathedral" ticket advertised on the website otherwise your driver will pour scorn on you because "churches are free". Yesterday's driver was a grumpy jobsworth, scowling at passengers "crowding him" as they boarded, and issuing health and safety instructions in the Stonehenge car park like a primary schoolteacher. For the best views sit on the right hand side of the bus, or at the front, and don't expect to be able to hear the recorded commentary on the way round - the volume's set too low to be audible. It'll be a shorter ride from December, though maybe you'd be better off waiting until high summer 2014 before making your pilgrimage.

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