Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday, 21 September 2009


For once, trying to navigate through a herd of stampeding commuters at Waterloo offered something more exciting than another day at the office: I was going against the flow, for a train to Salisbury on a roundabout route to see Stonehenge.

A brisk walk to Salisbury bus station past some inventive gardening left me just enough time to savour the latest hot local news before the bus to Amesbury, the nearest town to Stonehenge. You can get a bus direct, but that just takes you to the car-park and the utilitarian sheds of the visitor centre: I was following a walking route that leads to Stonehenge through its context.

For the best part of a mile around the site, there are barrows (burial mounds) and supposedly ceremonial routes aligned around the stones. The route circles the edge of this gigantic piece of land art, offering distant glimpses of the stones as you climb up and down one set of barrows.

Eventually it leads to the Cursus, an expanse of open land believed to have been an area for ceremonial processions, but on this morning used by a solitary runner and a small group of butterflies, one of whom obligingly rested on a fence post. The land is owned and kept open by the National Trust with clearly marked paths and handy noticeboards explaining the features of the landscape.

At the lowest point of the Cursus, the lie of the land seems to have been used to emphasise a sense of awe when you look up to the stones. The tourist trappings of the final approach now seem a temporary distraction, rather than defining the experience of the stones themselves.

It's the sheer scale, not only of the size of the stones and the effort to erect them, but also of the timescale that impresses.

From the first wooden stakes to its final form, it seems to have taken as long as the timespan from the Romans to us; and it was finished and apparently abandoned almost as long before the Romans came.

All of its construction and use must have been in times when there was no writing, and no history but what was passed on by oral tradition, through a hundred generations - the longest chain of "Chinese whispers" one can imagine. The audio guide passes on some of the more entertaining myths as well as the best suppositions of archaeological investigation: but who knows what changes in concept and understanding, as well as use, of the site there might have been? There must, then as now, have been traditionalists and reformers, visionaries and functionaries, all leaving their mark on how the site was seen and used.

It escapes certainty: passing on, one last look back sees the site almost vanish into the landscape.

The return route leaves enough time for a quick exploration of Salisbury, where almost every corner seems to be stacked with baskets of flowers, and its Cathedral, which boasts a copy of Magna Carta, and a striking modern cruciform "infinity font". Here everything is defined and explained: would Stonehenge in its prime have had volunteer guides on hand and all the facilities to make the visitor feel welcome?

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