Saturday, 27 February 2010

Stonehenge - A new Visitor Centre

We last visited Stonehenge in October 2009 while on our family holiday near Selsey.  I can’t remember exactly when I first visited but I do know it was on a walking holiday in the late 1950s, well before the current Visitor Centre and totally inadequate car park was established. 
About a dozen of us in our teens or early twenties, wandering silently among the stones under a threatening sky. Everything was dark and mysterious, the stones loomed above us and the only sound was the occasional harsh caw of a crow. It was a place apart. This kind of access ended in 1977 when the stones were roped off due to serious erosion and graffiti.

With any luck, I shan’t see that overcrowded Visitor Centre and rough, cramped car park again because we discovered when our English Heritage Magazine arrived yesterday that Wiltshire Council have approved the planning application for a new Visitor Centre which looks much better, but will involve a longer walk to the site.  The best way I can show you what is planned is to send you to this site and suggest you go to the ‘gallery’ which shows pictures of now and the future.

But don’t hold your breath. There have been many plans which have come to nothing. Now there has to be consultation for a new Traffic Regulation Order to restrict motorised traffic on the A344 – which runs right by the site, and to close two byways which are within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

As you can see, the A344 is a very busy road and the byways are popular with off-road enthusiasts so objections may scupper the scheme.  At least, this time, the funds have been confirmed as available.  Everybody, please cross your fingers.

Today, Stonehenge is on the primary tourist trail round Britain and was visited by 887,000 people, 50% of them from overseas, in 2008.  In 1961, English Heritage claims that 337,000 visited.  It is difficult to see how the mystery of the site, which silenced a group of young people in the late 1950s can be shown to these chattering hordes but they have as much right to see our heritage as anyone and English Heritage is trying.  That can only be good. There are more pictures at my album here.

The History of Stonehenge

Image licensed by Wikipedia Commons
drawn by Stephen Balfour Powell
The history of Stonehenge raises more questions than it answers. The first Stonehenge was a large earthwork (or Henge), with a ditch, bank, and the ‘Aubrey holes’, all probably built around 3100 BC. The Aubrey holes are 56 round pits in the chalk, about one yard wide and deep, with steep sides and flat bottoms and form a circle about 284 feet in diameter. Excavations have revealed cremated human bones in some of the chalk filling and scientists are still arguing (nearly 350 years after they were discovered) as to their purpose. They show as the while dots on the plan above.  A few years later, a timber monument was erected.

The stones we see today were brought to the site from around 2500 BC. The inner circle of Bluestones come from the Preseli mountains, in south-west Wales, Some weighing 4 tonnes each, they were probably dragged on rollers and sledges to the headwaters on Milford Haven and then loaded onto rafts. If so, they were carried by water along the south coast of Wales and up the rivers Avon and Frome, before being dragged overland again to near Warminster in Wiltshire. The final stage of the journey was mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Salisbury Avon to west Amesbury. That is nearly 240 miles. Once at the site, these stones were set up in the centre to form an incomplete double circle. The original entrance of the earthwork was widened and the nearer part of the Avenue was built, aligned with the midsummer sunrise.  For lively debate and alternative views on how the stones were transported, please see this site
I can only say “I dunno.”

There was an attempt, a few years ago, to bring one stone from Preseli but it failed and the stone ended up at the bottom of the Bristol Channel.  It was eventually recovered and is now in the Museum of Wales.

The third stage of Stonehenge, about 2000 BC, was the erection of the Sarsen stones, which were almost certainly brought from the Marlborough Downs near Avebury, about 25 miles north of Stonehenge. The largest of the Sarsen stones transported to Stonehenge weigh 50 tonnes and the stones could only have been moved using sledges and ropes. The best calculations to date show that it would have taken 500 men using leather ropes to pull one stone, with an extra 100 men needed to lay the huge rollers in front of the sledge.

These were arranged in an outer circle with a continuous run of lintels. Inside the circle, five trilithons (two upright stones with a lintel placed on top) were placed in a horseshoe arrangement, whose remains we can still see today. A tenon can be seen in one of the photos here.

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