During your next UK holiday, make sure you don’t miss out on a visit to one of Britain’s most iconic sites, the megalithic stone circle of Stonehenge, evidence of the UK’s earliest prehistoric settlers. The first stones were raised in around 2500 BC, and throngs of visitors flock here during the summer solstice to pay their spiritual respects - when crowds of 35,000 or more gather to watch the sunrise. A tour of Stonehenge is a great way to learn all about this curious circle - here are some of the highlights you’ll see.
No ancient structure in England causes more debate than Stonehenge - a mysterious circle of monoliths. It consists of an outer ring and inner horseshoe of sarsen stone brought from South Wales. While archaeologists argue over whether it was a place of ritual sacrifice and sun worship, an astronomical calculator or a royal palace, the guardians of the site have struggled for years to contain its huge visitor numbers. And none of that even touches on what you make of the stones - some visitors go away wondering what all the fuss was about, while others are blown away. While the purpose of Stonehenge has baffled archaeologists - and mere mortals - for centuries, it’s generated many myths, too. Whatever its purpose, its builders must have had some knowledge of mathematics and astrology. And when you consider this was all happening some four and a half thousand years ago, it becomes pretty mind-boggling. There are useful audio guides for hire on-site, but savvy visitors may want to download it for free ahead of time from the English Heritage Stonehenge website.
Did you just come all this way to look at a circle of - admittedly, very old - stones? No, you came to learn about them too. The low-rise, environmentally sensitive pair of buildings that make up the Stonehenge Visitor Centre includes a shop, café and exhibition space. In the latter you’ll find archaeological remains complemented by high-tech interactive displays explaining their significance and history. There are more than 250 archaeological objects showcased here, from pottery and prehistoric tools to ancient human remains. Other highlights include a pig’s leg with an embedded arrowhead and a battleaxe.
Don’t forget - the people that built Stonehenge may well have been your ancestors. Outside the Visitor Centre, you can look round a cluster of five recreated Neolithic houses - the sort of dwelling Stonehenge’s builders might have lived in when they constructed the circle four and half thousand years ago. The houses are all single-room, with a central fire and thatched roofs. They have been furnished by an expert team and filled with faithful recreations of Neolithic axes, pottery and other artefacts. Well-versed volunteers are on hand to answer all your questions, as well as demonstrating some of the daily activities of a bygone age, such as using a quern - a simple hand mill - to grind grain. You can also try pulling a life-size Preseli bluestone here. Part of Stonehenge - the smaller stones - is constructed of bluestones like this.
Stonehenge lies on the A303, and you can reach it by train, bus or car. Fast trains from London take between 1hr 20mins and arrive at Salisbury Station, from where you’ll need to take a tour bus to the stones. National Expresses buses run from Victoria Coach Station in London, taking 2–3 hours. Alternatively, a range of tour companies can organize trips to Stonehenge from the UK capital. Once on site, you can take a shuttle-bus service from the sleek Visitor Centre. Alternatively, walk between the two - it's a pretty half-hour walk to get there.
If you can’t make it to Stonehenge in person, fear not: on the English Heritage website you can take a virtual tour of the site. Anyone can also spy the skies above the stone circle - with the Stonehenge Skyscape- to learn about the astrological alignment of the great circle. Well, what are you waiting for? Open your browser, gaze upwards and drink it in.
No historic tour is complete without a meal to refill the tank. Stonehenge’s café has award-winning Cornish pasties - yes, we know it’s actually in Wiltshire - as well as their famous ‘Rock Cakes’. Most of the produce is local, and there’s vegan, dairy-free and sugar-free options, too. Alternatively, take away items to eat as a picnic in the great outdoors.
Can’t get enough of stone circles? From Stonehenge, visitors can make a detour north to Avebury prehistoric site, featuring another of the most important megalithic monuments in Europe, as well as Bronze Age burial mounds. The stone circle here rivals Stonehenge - the individual stones are generally smaller, but the circle itself is much wider and more complex. A massive earthwork 20ft high and 1400ft across encloses the main circle, which is approached by four causeways across the inner ditch, two of them leading into wide avenues stretching over a mile beyond the circle. It was probably built soon after 2500 BC, and presumably had a similar ritual or religious function to Stonehenge. The structure of Avebury’s diffuse circle is quite difficult to grasp, but there are plans on the site, and the Alexander Keiller Museum provides further details and background.