I went to Stonehenge on a tourist bus. For years, I fantasized about going to Stonehenge, standing among the stones, receiving a message from the universe. None of that happened. I blame the bus.
Guys, I’m not a perfect person, ok? Sometimes I join the herd.
You probably have an idea about what Stonehenge is and means too. I hate to break it to you, but it has become the standing rock version of Disneyland.
Don’t get me wrong. Those rocks sing to the universe. They are cosmic and maybe from another world, but there are many tourists literally and figuratively blocking your ability to see them for what they are – magic.
So, it requires a perspective shift.
No object is mysterious. The mystery is your eye.
How to enjoy Stonehenge despite the crowds
I’ll tell you what I did to have a great experience at this World Heritage Site despite the carnival atmosphere.
The drive from London to Stonehenge takes about two hours. I didn’t have a car and driving in London seemed like a death wish. Also, I didn’t trust myself alone on old English country roads, so I opted for the bus.
The drive from London to Wiltshire, where Stonehenge is located, takes you through the English countryside as old as man itself. The weather was classic England – mostly grey and misty. It’s not a cheerful place, though my shit attitude probably colored my perspective.
I felt bad about myself and loathing the hip-sack wearing tourist I (also a tourist) was mingled with. Who am I? I wondered as the bus crawled along the country road. My reflection in the bus window answered: You’re a tourist on a tourist bus. Now get over it and shut up because the guide you paid is talking.
A Roadside attraction
The stones sit on the side of a highway. Yes, you read that right. The site actually sits alongside two roads – the A303 and the A344. There has been talk about creating a tunnel to ease the cars’ offense on the landscape and help aid congestion, but it’s a fight that has been unsettled for years.
Turns out, changing the landscape around world wonders get some people up in a fuss. In America, we’d have had the stones removed for a bigger highway 300 years ago.
You pass the stones on the route as you turn around to get to the parking area. Due to traffic, the lot is the only place to park.
Well Hello, old friends
Just there on the side of the road, they sit as they have for thousands of years; long before there was a road or tourist busses. They’re much bigger than you probably expect and they take up a lot more space. This is no small circle.
The largest sarsen stones are about 30 feet tall. Think about that. Your average human is about 6 feet tall.
This is when you first get that feeling I love when your breath catches as you see something in real life for the first time. “Oh.” Because your expectations never quite do it justice.
All the amenities you never wanted
More than a mile from the stones, the huge parking lot holds hundreds of cars, shuttles, and busses. On the day I went the lot looked full. A woman at the cafe said it was a slow day. God help us (and save the Queen).
Upon entering the site area, you’re immediately surrounded by a museum, cafeteria, and massive gift shop. You can buy guide books and audio guides or even have docents explain things to you.
Various outdoor exhibits explain the site, the stones, and the people who would have erected them in 2,500 B.C. There are five Neolithic houses furnished with replica axes, pottery and other artifacts.
It’s interesting, but honestly, nobody seems to care about any of that. They just want to get up next to those stones.
Another bus. No thank you.
Stonehenge sits 1.5 miles down the road from the museum and amenities. You have two options: a shuttle bus down a long dirt road to the stones, or you walk.
I surveyed the long line to get on the shuttle and looked down the road. Not a soul was walking. Like Thoreau, I took the path less traveled and it made all the difference.
Far off in the distance, I could just make out the shape of the stone circle, so I set out that way. It was still early morning with dew on the grass and the smell of English countryside all around me. Huge black Jackdaws, Rooks and Crows circled overhead.
Except for the occasional passing of the shuttle bus, the road was quiet and serene and I tried to imagine how it would have looked 4,000 years before. Hint: Exactly the same.
I will find a grave anywhere
About halfway down the road, I found a few old gravestones; the lettering was worn away and unreadable. This is something the people on the shuttle wouldn’t see, and, being a taphophile, I was thrilled to find them.
As I walked on, I approached the site and intermingled with a group getting off the shuttle. We made our way toward the stones.
As I approached, the stones grew larger and, despite the din of the people milling all around, it’s almost as if they hummed. These ancient things just keeping watch all these years. Even if they weren’t filled with magic when they were erected, surely now, after thousands of years of worship, they have been imbued with it.
A magical mystery
These stones are huge, and there is no known way on Earth that they should be standing as they are. This type of stone isn’t even found within 20 miles of the site. How did they get here? How were they raised? What does this formation mean?
The reason Stonehenge draws millions of people every year is that those questions cannot be answered despite the smartest people in the world trying. Stonehenge should not exist. Yet, there a few hundred other tourists and I stood gawking.
Ring around the Stonehenge
There are ropes around the stones and human guards, in case you have any dumb ideas. You can’t get within 20 feet of them. But you can walk all the way around observing them from every angle. Most people do a circuit, take a few selfies and hop back on the shuttle for lunch in the cafe.
I walked around several times, taking in all the shadows, watching the birds watching me, absorbing the hum.
For the walk back, I decided to go a long way through a nearby wooded area. Nobody was around there, and the trees blocked the site of the road and shuttles.
Oh look, another graveyard
As I walked through the mucky grass, I wondered about the curiously shaped hills I traversed. Large, evenly spaced mounds were all around me.
I learned later that the small hills are the Normanton Down Barrows. They’re a series of over 18 burial mounds, clustered into “cemeteries” along the ridgelines within sight of the stone circle.
Walking there, I found the stillness I’d been looking for. I wasn’t surprised that I found it so peaceful after learning it was a cemetery; I do love a good cemetery; even when I don’t know I’m in one.
“Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.”
Angela N. Blount
So, this is my advice to you. Go to Stonehenge. Drive yourself, the roads aren’t as bad as I imagined, or take the tourist bus and save the world a bit of pollution and congestion. Walk the road; spend time with the birds. Walk back through the barrows and feel the mystery of the people who once were. It’s worth it.
When you can’t change the situation, change your attitude toward it
I pictured Stonehenge as a vast, open place. Alone except for the magic. And it is those things, just with people standing around gawking. Sometimes things aren’t the way that we think they will be, but they’re still worthwhile. Honestly, sometimes our ideas and plans can use a little help from the universe anyway.
What is something you have done or a place you’ve gone that wasn’t as you expected? Leave a comment.