diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 30, 2018

Location: near Amesbury, Wiltshire, SP4 7DE [map]
Open: 9.30am-7pm (last entry 5pm)
Admission: £19.50 (but £2 cheaper if pre-booked)
Free entry: English Heritage and National Trust members
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge
Six word summary: as English Heritage as it gets
Time to allow: half a day

Last time I visited Stonehenge, access was via a miserable clump of prefabs through a tunnel under the road beside the stones. That's all changed. The A344 has been closed to traffic and partly grassed over, and a new Visitor Centre built a mile up the road at Airman's Corner. This is where your journey must begin... as I discovered when I arrived at Stonehenge on foot and was told to go away and get a ticket.

The Visitor Centre is a silvery shed beside an enormous car park, half glass, half timber, and safely hidden from the stones by a rise in the land. It houses an exhibition on Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape, plus a 360° projection which allows you to pretend you're standing in the centre of the ring, which you won't be allowed to do later. A few cases of neolithic artefacts are displayed, not easy to view when the room's even part-full of people, and a rolling history displays on a big screen. The underlying message appears to be "this place is amazing but we don't genuinely know what it is". A new collection of goodies from the British Museum opens next month, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stonehenge being gifted to the nation, but unless that turns out to be amazing there's not really a great deal to see.

Other things to engage with at the VC include a) a small village of neolithic huts, b) a sarsen stone that's too heavy to pull, c) a cafe, where a regular Stonehenge Hot Pot costs £6.45, d) a gift shop, e) some toilets. Here is where you buy your ticket, which is easy on a weekday in September but be warned, at busier times the slots sell out and they advise you to book in advance. This is also where you pick up your audio guide, which necessarily comes in multitudinous languages. I plumped for the official Stonehenge app instead, which is free and contains all the same audio tracks, but alas goes silent every time your screenlock kicks in, and was so infuriating to use I gave up.

From the Visitor Centre you catch the free shuttle to the stones, which is simply a single decker bus painted gold. But if you're up for it, and the weather's decent, by far the nicer option is to walk instead. Either follow the old road or, better, break off across the fields to plant your footsteps in the ancient landscape. It'll take you 20-30 minutes. On your way you'll cross the end of the Cursus, a two-mile-long earthwork of unknown ceremonial origin, and pass several funereal barrows, the smaller of which are quite easy to miss. The land is grazed, so I got to walk through a herd of docile cattle, and my word what a lot of helicopters buzzed past on manoeuvres courtesy of military bases on Salisbury Plain.

Now that the former car park by the stones has been turfed over, and the tunnel filled in, things look rather more sylvan than they did before. There's not even a kiosk or toilet block, just a gate where a member of staff checks your ticket and ushers you through. Wahey, England's premier prehistoric monument lies immediately ahead, and you're about to be able to walk all the way around it. Tourists who haven't forked out for admission should note that the field immediately to the north is open access land, allowing you to get almost as close as the paid-for visitors inside the fence, but you do have to wait for them to get out of the way before being able to take a photo.

The official path orbits the stones clockwise, but impatient or oblivious visitors barge past the discreet 'No entry' sign for an immediate close encounter instead. Don't be like them, because it's better to enjoy the brief central sojourn as the climax to your visit, rather than prematurely.

The central henge changes in structural appearance as you circulate, from some angles seemingly complete, from others evidently broken. It's also further away than your smartphone would like, which makes selfie-taking from the outer orbit somewhat underwhelming. The Heel Stone is a better bet, as it stands right beside the perimeter, and precisely marks the alignment of midsummer sunrise. A lot of foreign visitors seemed strongly drawn to the sheep grazing the grass alongside, and took several photos of them too, this likely their one close encounter with rural Britain while they're over. As for the A303, which passes notoriously close to the south, I didn't find that as intrusive as everyone says it is, and the proposed tunnel may do more damage than it clears up.

Take your time on the grassy outer reaches, because one circuit is essentially what your £20 is paying for. But eventually the path swings in on close approach, and this is your one chance to examine the stones at first hand. Gaze in wonder at the standing sarsens, chunky lintels and fallen totems, and peer through gaps in the stones at all the lumpen clutter in the centre of the circle. This brief fly-by is the peak photo-taking section, hence the wall of grinning faces lined up in front of an iconic background, each digital snapshot then fired around the world to confirm attendance. But don't be too busy snapping to forget precisely where you're standing, at the almost-heart of an astonishingly ancient solar temple, or whatever it actually is. [10 photos]

Most people hop straight back onto the bus afterwards, but better to explore the surrounding landscape a little before you go. Most of the adjacent fields are open access land, which I hadn't fully grasped before I arrived, and incorrectly assumed the lack of footpaths on the Ordnance Survey map meant I couldn't walk that way. North is good, and delightfully empty once you step off the main tracks. What's not officially recommended is to head a short distance south and view the cluster of burrows on Normanton Down, because there's no safe way of crossing the A303, and the traffic is relentless.

How to get to Stonehenge
If you don't have a car, and haven't brought a bike, the most usual way to arrive is via the green Stonehenge Tour bus from Salisbury, which starts outside the station. But it costs - a return trip plus access to Stonehenge and Old Sarum is £30. Only mugs buy the £36.50 "plus Cathedral" ticket, because entrance to Salisbury Cathedral is free. For those of us with English Heritage or National Trust membership who only need the travel, the return fare is an eyewatering £15. But I paid only £6.40 for my return bus ticket to Amesbury, the town nextdoor, from which Stonehenge is a two mile walk along the former main road or a three mile walk across the fields. The all-important Visitor Centre is another mile on top of that. I enjoyed the hike, you may not.

Location: Amesbury, Wiltshire, SP4 7AR [map]
Open: whenever
Admission: free
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/woodhenge
Six word summary: concentric post holes, formerly something mysterious
Time to allow: ten minutes

Having not read up properly before I arrived, I was stupidly disappointed to discover that Woodhenge is no longer made of wood. Instead it comprises over 150 concrete stumps, inserted into holes in a field where tall timber posts once stood, and was only discovered thanks to an aerial photograph in 1926. Six concentric rings of holes were uncovered, of which one ring had broader holes than the others so may once have supported some kind of roofed structure, but nobody really knows. Woodhenge too is oriented towards the midsummer sunrise, so may have been a precursor to Stonehenge, and the dead body of a child was excavated from the very centre. As a field of concrete stumps beside a lay-by it's not especially overwhelming, but pictured in the landscape as the site of a 4300-year-old astronomical monument, evokes resonant charm.

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