Usually as a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours I am based in Ireland visiting wonderful and special places there such as Glendalough, The Giants Causeway or The Cliffs of Moher. But I do occasionally guide in Britain and Europe.
This is a retrospective account of one of the highlights of a Real Britain trip I guided in the winter of 2018. With lockdown measures easing throughout Europe, hopefully we will be back travelling again soon but for now I must satisfy my traveling desires by looking back and remembering the wonderful places I have visited both as a travel director and in my own personal travels.
We visited Stonehenge towards the beginning of the trip on a grey, cloudy day. The approach to Stonehenge is decidely odd. It sits right next to a motorway and the juxtaposition of the motorway with the ancient ruins of Stonehenge is a little unsettling, But it is the modern world with its noise and hypermotion which appears as a stranger in the landscape, although happily there are plans to use a tunnel to remove the imposition of traffic on this wonderful heritage site.
There the ruins sit, minding their own business, an unlikely but definite echo of the past.
But what was that past like ? This is one of the many question that Stonehenge evokes. The question sits in the mind; an enjoyable, wallowing, wonderment as we allow our imagination to evoke for us what Stonehenge might have been all about in ages past.
Facts, myths and conjecture all roll into one very quickly here so I will separate them out and allow you to enjoy the mystery and the sense of wonder that enthralls so many people on a visit here.
Stonehenge sits as part of a wider complex of (mostly buried) neolythic structures which include earthworks, burial mounds and wooden henges. The complex of structures was originally constructed over an approximate millennium dating from 2600 bc to 1600 bc.
The famous part of the site known as stonehenge is a ring of standing stones, capped in part by other large stones. The stones are up to 25 tons in weight and originate many miles away Wales although we don’t know how they arrived at their current location with theories ranging from land transportation, river transportation, sea transportation and even glacial flow to the vacinity of the site all hypothosized as potential modes of transportation. In any event the erection and transportation of these stones is something of a mystery and points to impressive engineering and technological skills for the era.
Given the paucity of facts, myths relating to Stonehenge are as rich as the human imagination. The most well known fable relating to Stonehenge is that the stones were transferred from Ireland by Merlin, the famous wizard of English folklore. Another myth held that they were constructed by invading Danes and yet another that it was constructed ( or at least used) by the Romans. More modern myths also attach to the landscape as a site of alien visitation.
While exploring and enjoying myths is fun and informative, it is also intriguing to explore imaginative conjecture in relation to Stonehenge and use the facts, historical context and indeed myths to gain an imaginative insight into Stonehenge.
While their place in the English landscape has remained unchanged, their place in the English folk imagination has shifted with the centuries, reflecting the times.
There are many competing theories about the original purpose of Stonehenge and it has drawn curious visitors since the advent of recorded times, including the Romans who may have used it also for ceremonial purposes
Many experts believe it was primarily created as a burial place while others believe it was a place of spiritual or ritualistic ceremony. It famously alligns with both sunrise on the summer solstice and sunset in the winter solstice so it may have been a site of celestial observation leading others to posit that it served as a sort of primitive scientific observation point with probable strong superstitious and ceremonial overtones.
It is also believed by some experts that it was a place of pilgrimage with the purpose of healing, a sort of prehistoric Lourdes, drawing pilgrims in search of healing throughout the mellenia.
When we consider that it took over a thousand years to construct the site and that it has stood there for over three thousand years, we must also consider that it served many of these different purposes over time.
Stonehenge is often considered a “Celtic” monument but for reasons that merit another blog post(and will be covered shortly), the term Celtic is a misleading term loaded with too much political and cultural weight too have any meaning here. It is more accurate to say that Stonehenge grew from a neolythic ( late Stone Age) civilisation native to North West Europe including Britain, Ireland, and parts of France and Spain. It has many similarities with other neolythic sites in Ireland such as Newgrange and Knowth and sits in a landscape rich in the mycellium circles which are known as “fairy rings” or “fairy forts” that are so rich in mystical and mythological associations throughout Northern Europe, Britain and especially Ireland right to this day.
That it still stands is a minor miracle and that it acts as a stimulus to think deeply about our past is enough to draw us into an imaginative contemplation of our future. The motorway sits as a sort of absurdist comment on our high velocity present. But the question remains to be wallowed in and enjoyed, where are we going? To me, stonehenge asks this question.
If you visit bring your imagination !
Alan is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.