Stonehenge: a historian’s guide to visiting the stones
Heading to the world’s most famous henge this spring and want to get the most from your visit? Archaeologist Mike Pitts offers a closer look at the site, with a handy guide that will have you scoping out the stones like an expert…
There’s a lot to do at Stonehenge, but I’ll start with the obvious: stones. There are many, and they’re not all the same. The path up to the site takes you to a close vantage point (and a good place for photos) from which you look south east across to the monument. Many are fallen on this side, so as you move to right and left you can see into the centre of the henge.
The first thing to notice is that there are two sizes and shapes of stone. Most are large and slab-like, and include horizontal lintels: these are made from sarsen, a hard sandstone sourced from within 20 miles. The smaller more rounded pillars, with no lintels, are the bluestones. Most of these are igneous rocks brought from south-west Wales (behind you), a journey of more than 200 miles. The completed Stonehenge had a ring of 30 standing sarsens supporting a ring of 30 lintels. These surrounded five groups, each of two taller sarsens independently supporting a lintel, known as trilithons. The trilithons stood on a horseshoe plan open to the rising midsummer sun to the north-east (roughly to your left). Bluestones (many more than there are now) were arranged in a ring inside the sarsen circle, and more stood inside the horseshoe, again mirroring the plan.
A closer look
The more you look, the more you see. Every stone is different. Sarsens were heavily dressed with stone hammers, and when the light is right you can sometimes pick out effects of such work, shallow parallel grooves and smoothed surfaces. You can see many irregular hollows left from the original boulders. At the base of one large standing sarsen is a curious flat block: this is concrete, put there in the 1960s to fill a large natural hole that the authorities worried was unsafe. Look closely at the top of that stone and toward the right edge you can see a lump like an upturned bowl. This is a tenon, carefully carved, that would have fitted into a hollow or mortise in the lintel that it and its partner supported, to form a trilithon. The two missing stones are beyond in the grass, each broken into three pieces.
Continuing to the right is another stone with a tenon on top, smooth, thin and the tallest of them all, restored to a perfect vertical in 1901. This is part of the Great Trilithon, which once framed the setting midwinter sun to the right. Its partner stone and battered lintel lie on the ground behind. Just in front is a small, leaning, rounded megalith with a groove the length of one side. It’s thought that this uniquely shaped bluestone once fitted a partner with a ridged side, of which only a stump survives. Behind rise two complete trilithons, one of them with a particularly finely carved lintel.
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The Stonehenge visitor centre is more than a ticket office. Make sure to spend an hour there, either before you set out for the Stones or after you return.
Stonehenge today is surrounded by fields, mostly grassland. You will park your car or leave your bus on the edge of the World Heritage Site. The visitor centre, designed by Australian architects Denton Corker Marshall to have a light touch on the landscape and to avoid referencing the stones in its shapes or materials, opened in 2013. As you enter a roofed passage from the car park, you face the direction of Stonehenge, which is 1.5 miles away over the horizon. This is where you buy your ticket (free for English Heritage and National Trust members).
As well as a café, shop and toilets, the centre contains a museum-quality display about the monument and its times, with a striking CGI video, and original artefacts and human remains from excavations in the area, loaned by museums in Devizes and Salisbury (which both have their own Stonehenge displays). There is also a small gallery for changing special displays. Outside stand three reconstructed Neolithic houses, based on excavated evidence from a village at Durrington Walls, two miles beyond Stonehenge to the north-east, and two small megaliths you can handle. These were quarried recently from Stonehenge stone – sarsen and a common type of bluestone.
Listen | Mike Pitts answers listener questions on Britain’s most famous prehistoric monument, Stonehenge, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Setting out for the stones
You may have good reasons for taking the special bus from the visitor centre to the stones (postponing the moment you must step out into the rain among the possibilities) but if you can walk, I recommend doing so. Allow half an hour. A signed path will start you off, soon leading to a pedestrian gate onto National Trust land where you can roam freely. From here you can see a bank of trees on the horizon – Fargo Wood. Head for the gap where the plantation has been removed to protect a great Neolithic earthwork known as the Cursus (named by William Stukeley in the 18th century, he thought it was a Roman racetrack). It’s difficult to make out now, but when you reach the next gate, you will find an information panel on the other side which will help you understand this earliest monumental effort by people marking the landscape.
Continue walking and you will find another gate, which opens into the woodland and a round burial mound, an unusually large Bronze Age barrow known as the Monarch of the Plain. Turn left, pass another barrow and a superb view opens up which includes Stonehenge, before you reach another information panel. From here you can wander across the grass to the stones, or turn towards the road (pedestrians and Stonehenge buses only) where there is a stone cross raised in memory of Major Hewetson, killed in a flying accident in 1913 – Salisbury Plain was a scene of aerial pioneers. Stonehenge is just up the road.
Exploring the site
If by now you’ve developed a taste for the landscape, keep going! As you do so, appreciate good views of Stonehenge. Walking out from Fargo Wood you will soon reach a fine group of burial mounds known as the Cursus Barrows. Continue to the fence and follow the Cursus (turning left at the gate) or head towards Stonehenge and the Avenue earthwork (turning right). Ahead of you in the distance is King Barrow Ridge, with more trees and more barrows. There are more good views from this ridge, and from here you can walk north and east, away from Stonehenge, to reach Woodhenge and Durrington Walls, two important parts of the Stonehenge ceremonial world.
There are two excellent aids to finding your way around this countryside. English Heritage publishes a large-scale annotated walking map, and you can downland a variety of guided walks from the National Trust’s Stonehenge Landscape website.
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A final bit of Stonehenge magic
There remains just one more trick. For one of the world’s great heritage experiences, you can walk among the stones with no more than 30 people outside normal opening hours, in early morning or late afternoon. Book well ahead with English Heritage (look online for Stone Circle Experience), or join a commercial tour.