Sunrise at Stonehenge

Worshipped by everyone from druids to pagans, partiers to pilgrims, the world’s most recognisable prehistoric site is all things to all people: a 5,000-year-old place of mystery on which to project human ideals.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 20 Jun 2019, 08:00 BST, Updated 5 Mar 2021, 15:48 GMT
Photograph by AWL Images

The stones are shrouded. A dense dawn fog lingers defiantly over Salisbury Plains, obscuring bank and ancient burial barrow. We pick our way across the outer Cursus – the ceremonial earthworks that rise to encircle Stonehenge’s sophisticated arrangement of sarsen stone and bluestone monoliths. At the outlying, lone Heel Stone, I have the perfect sightline along the solstitial axis around which the stone circle is aligned, its familiar toothy tomb silhouette now cutting unmistakably through the haze.

The legendary circle of trilithons forms a familiar figure. Of the UK’s hundreds of stone circles, these unique, T-shaped, lintel-topped upright stones have become a universal symbol for Stone Age man. But they’re far from a dead icon. At their epicentre, the stones loom so very large: a startling collective presence watching and encircling, a joining of monolithic limbs. At look-but-don’t-touch distance, their carpet coating of hundred-plus lichen species, including mysterious marine variety, renders them curiously alive: barnacled, creviced, prehistoric pachydermic creatures. Their sheer weight bears down in both magnificent tonnage and crackling gravitas: what dedication, what shared ritual drove them into being?

Erected by a succession of Neolithlic generations spanning over a thousand years, this staggering, devotional feat of collective human action pulses powerfully across five millennia. Standing in their midst, time collapses, replaced by the keenest, skin-prickling sense of being plugged deeply into the past. I’m shown Bronze Age dagger shapes carved into the stone — just some of the many visitors’ marks, which include the 17th-century signature of Sir Christopher Wren. “You’d have thought he would’ve known better,” laughs English Heritage’s Heather Sebire. It seems like a scrawl made yesterday.

The sun streams triumphantly through the mist; a crow’s call rings through the stones’ amphitheatre. I have surely stepped into a cathedral. A temple; a place of ceremony and burial is Stonehenge’s most-agreed-upon purpose, but its role is the speculation of centuries. It’s become a sypher for human memory, a canvass for human need: druid church, alien landing site, a funereal monument constructed by Merlin, and curative pilgrimage spot. The smaller ‘healing’ bluestones were somehow rolled, floated (magicked?) from a Welsh spiritual site. And it was constructed, according to recent assertions by author Robin Heath, with exact if wildly pre-emptive Pythagorean geometry.

“I don’t know about that,” smiles Heather. “But they certainly knew what they were doing. And it was not about the equinox,” she adds, when I note the traveller vans lurking on the byroad, a hangover from recent vernal festivities. “The stones are tied to the solstices, their main alignment to midwinter,” Heather explains. Thousands of pig bones found recently at nearby Durrington Walls suggest mass winter feasts coincided with the sun sinking between the circle’s largest trilithon. 

The elegantly understated visitor centre, which opened a few years ago a mile across the grassy Cursus does a sterling job of unpicking Stonehenge’s 5,000-year story; its carefully curated treasures revealing it as central to a network of sacred Neothilic sites discovered across the surrounding Wiltshire countryside. I retreat here when my before-hours visit is up, fleeing the rising rush-hour hum of the A303.

Most prosaically, Stonehenge has become the focus of a road-management row. After a rumbling, three-decade-long dispute over the road’s proximity to the stones, the ferocity of which has almost drowned out the racket of the road itself, the fate of the A303 will be decided imminently. It will most likely be confined to controversial underground tunnel. But the only noise that lingers in my ears, even days later, is the Stones’ powerfully wordless presence.

How to do it: Pre-booked, time-limited-entry tickets from £19 per person; free for English Heritage and National Trust members. Out-of-hours Stone Circle access is by pre-booked request only, £45. 

Click here to see our full list of the 20 unforgettable places for 2019 from our Trips of a Lifetime cover story.

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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