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Stonehenge, no, really, there it is over there…

On June 20, 2008

I love England but I don’t drive while I’m there and don’t think I ever would.  No matter what my British acquaintances say, their traffic signs make no sense and the roads are all bendy and narrow which makes for great passenger side travelling (if you’re with a good driver) but doesn’t appeal to me all as a skill to learn while on holiday.  Thus, when I visited Stonehenge I was the navigator and the designated “Stonehenge lookout” – which led to what will be a lifelong misunderstanding between me and the person who was driving.  He thinks I was disappointed with Stonehenge, I wasn’t disappointed at all – it is my all time favorite place made out of great big rocks, I just thought one would be able to spot it from the road.

One of the things I most like about travelling in England is the way in which the British approach their historical treasures which is – unsurprisingly – in a most British way and Stonehenge is no exception.  If this site were in the United States beginning about 100 miles away from the actual location there would be signs reading, “See Stonehenge.”  There are – that I saw – no such signs.  As a child I lived in Tennessee and let me tell you, if you get anywhere near Rock City (a somewhat tacky but “awe inspiring when you are six” local attraction that has amongst its many “natural” splendors a narrow rock opening called “Fat Man’s Squeeze”) there will be not just billboards advertising the fact that you are nearing Rock City, there will be barns painted red and black saying “See Rock City”, there will be yard placards saying “See Rock City”, there will be Burma Shave like crawls of signs saying “See” “Rock” “City”, there will be bumper stickers reading “I saw Rock City.”  To be honest I’m not sure it exists anymore but I do know at tourist centers along the Tennessee interstate you can still buy red bird houses with “See Rock City” stencilled on their black roofs.  So, in my previously mentioned position as “Stonehenge lookout” I expected to see something that gave me some small hint that Stonehenge was somewhere on our horizon – and that is how my friend and I drove past Stonehenge.

The person I was riding with that day is an amazingly good humored chap who rarely gets angry or even outright testy but on this day he went right past annoyed, skittered beyond testy and arrived first stop at angry when he realized that I had not recognized the turnoff to Stonehenge.  It probably didn’t help that I went the opposite direction of angry and was all but consumed in giggles and insisted upon making remarks like, “Let me see if I can find it in the rear view mirror, after all objects there are larger than they may appear.”  At first I wasn’t even sure if he was going to turn around and go back but he did – although even knowing that we were right on it, finding it wasn’t a given.  There isn’t any neon if you’re coming at the place from the opposite direction either, just a discreet little notice amongst the other road markers (oh, alright, there may also be a couple of equally discreet historical signs.)  Although I must say, once you find it Stonehenge it is everything one has been led to believe that it will be –

Wiltshire, United Kingdom
about two miles from Amesbury on the A303

The low key, “don’t get too excited, we’re British and this isn’t football” atmosphere continues once you pull into the parking lot.  By parking lot I mean a gravelled yard not a Disneyesque paved lot from which you will catch a tram to buy your ticket.  Get out and walk to a set of tables where you will purchase a very reasonably priced entry (about thirteen bucks).  From there it’s a short walk via tunnel to the other side of the highway.  You will emerge on the path that leads you around Stonehenge.

On certain days, like the Summer Solstice – hey, that was today – and by pre-arrangement you may sometimes be allowed to explore inside the rings but not on a general basis.  An audio taped tour is available but it’s also a lot of fun to get a basic feel for the place and its history just by reading the available pamphlets and walking around on your own.  (Plus, with earphones on you can’t spend time irritating those around you by saying things like, “How the hell did these things get here?” and “Wouldn’t you hate to be the guy who had to tell the workers that all the stones needed to be moved about six inches to the right?”)  As you can see the day of our visit it was dark and cold (well, maybe you can’t see that it was cold but, trust me, it was incredibly cold) which – as always for me – made it easier to imagine in someway the feelings of those to whom this location and these stones were apparently sacred.  Once I had run out of jokes about “this is probably just where they got tired” and allowed myself to stand back and look at it, Stonehenge moved me in a sort of pagan, mythical, Joseph Campbell way.

Almost as amazing as Stonehenge itself is the fact that until the 1980s the site was pretty much open to anyone to do just about anything.  As a result much of the rockwork disappeared to find its way onto someone’s shelf as a souvenir.  Can you imagine, “Hey, Harry, what’s that rock?”  “Oh that, I chipped it off of Stonehenge, thought it would look a lot better on my mantle.”  Fortunately, it has since come under the perview of the British government and has also been named a World Heritage Site.  Once you have completed your circumnavigation of the stones, there is a small gift shop and a cafe for drinks and snacks.

So, that’s it: Stonehenge.  No mascots, no rides, no ears to bring back but it’s a true wonder and a must visit, even if that means you have to turn around and go back to find it.  I would go back tomorrow.  I’ll never be able to convince my friend but it in no way disappointed me nor will it you.

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