The famous ring of rocks has eluded me ever since I realized that I had missed an easy opportunity to see it on a visit to London back in 1987.
I could have just hopped on a bus for the short ride out to the mysterious site or taken one of the Stonehenge Tours, but didn’t know it at the time.
Not long after that, I discovered the cult classic movie This Is Spinal Tap and was humorously reminded of my failure every time I saw their heavy metal mystic rock spoof Stonehenge.
From that moment on I was motivated to make a visit to the mythical monument.
From time to time we would fly through London, only staying long enough to change planes, and I could practically feel the nearby presence taunting me.
I came close to a viewing a few years ago with a stop in Virginia at Foamhenge, a life-sized replica made of Styrofoam, but as fantastically campy as that was it did not placate my passion for experiencing the real thing.
Finally, on our way to our recent walking tour of Cornwall, I got my chance.
We stopped off in Salisbury for an overnight on the train from London and hopped aboard one of the hourly busses that ferry visitors to and from the archaeological marvel.
Believed to date back to around 3000 BC, the monument has had three major phases. Through the first thousand years or so the construction consisted of earthworks and trenches. This was followed by several hundred years of timber posts being erected within the original circle that had been dug centuries earlier.
Evidence shows that it was around this time that burials began to take place within the circles. However, soon after our visit an ancient burial chamber was unearthed near Stonehenge.
These ancient graves date back over two thousand years before the presumed beginnings the site, adding more questions as to why this place was so significant to the ancient people who built it.
Next, around 2600 BC, the builders began erecting stones. This development only added more mystery to the monument. The blocks are believed to have been brought from some 150 miles away, which took some serious determination.
What could possibly have inspired these ancient builders to drag untold tons of rock from so far away? It certainly made my little quest to see their handiwork seem pretty pitiful in comparison.
It was also during this time that an astronomical aspect of the stone rings was incorporated. The builders carefully aligned gaps between the rocks so that they would line up with sunrise on the summer solstice and sunset on the winter counterpart.
The final phase included the largest stones. This time the blocks were brought in from about 25 miles to the north. They were used to construct the iconic doorway like structures of upright stones topped by lintels, with each piece weighing up to fifty tons.
As enormous as these are, standing up to 30 feet high, I have to say that my first impression upon seeing the monument was that it was somewhat smaller than expected. Perhaps my years of anticipation had instilled a larger than life impression in my imagination.
Aside from that initial reaction, Stonehenge lived up to all the hype I had formed in my mind over the years. So we stood in proper awe wondering just what would possess ancient people to pursue this great undertaking.
Whoever made the monument left no written records; so many aspects of Stonehenge remain a mystery. Over time a number of myths developed surrounding the stones, including one of the most often repeated which is that the Druids were the builders behind the mystical boulder circles.
My favorite fictional band Spinal Tap described them thusly:
“No one knows who they were or what they were doing, but their legacy remains hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge.”
The theory arose around 1640 in a study by John Aubrey and hung around for centuries until better dating methods placed the construction long before any Druids danced anywhere near a Stonehenge monument.
But even though we now know who didn’t build it, there have been precious few good theories as to who did, or why.
In the middle ages some thought that the rocks of Stonehenge had healing powers. This myth, called the giant’s dance, had giants bringing the stones from Africa to Ireland, and then on to the plains near Salisbury years later to erect a memorial on the advice of, and with some magic help from, Merlin.
For most of modern times the historic site was held in the hands of various kings, earls, lords, and marquesses. During World War I the surrounding grasslands served as an air base then, soon afterwards it was donated to the government.
For many years visitors were allowed to walk among the stones, and even touch them, but in 1977 the site was roped off, so the best we could do was walk around the perimeter. Considering the crowds, we had no problem with that, happily abiding by the rule for the preservation of the ancient achievement.
More recently a visitor center and small museum have been added, where theories on how the stones may have been moved and how the builders may have lived are recreated in life-sized models. While interesting, these are little more than guesses because any indications of their methods have long since disappeared.
The usual speculation is that ancient people moved large objects by rolling them on logs, which makes good sense, but it is only a best guess.
Inside the center, we browsed through old photos and memorabilia until we stumbled upon a serious collector’s item.
There, standing in a display case, we found a limited edition record of Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge pressed on a picture of the stones. What a way to close out my successful quest to finally see the stones.
On the bus back to Salisbury I had to download the song on my phone.
It seemed only fitting… one might even say like a glove. (No smelling required.)
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