Stonehenge has changed a lot over the years, but what’s important remains the same.
The first time I visited the most famous stacked stones in the world was almost 20 years ago. We just hopped in the car and drove toward Salisbury from London and followed a set of road signs. I remember rolling down the narrow road as the Stone Age site came into view and being amazed at how the structure just seemed to be sitting there in the middle of a field. We pulled into a small parking lot about 20 yards from the monument and walked in the grass around what felt like a lonely monolith. I can’t remember anyone else being there other than me and my group of friends. I was surprised again that the only barrier separating me from the stones was a low-hanging rope around the perimeter. I got some amazing photos that day due to the lack of modern intrusions. The site really felt like it hadn’t changed much from what it might have looked like centuries ago.
“Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument begun as a simple earthwork enclosure, it was built in several stages, with the unique lintelled stone circle being erected in the late Neolithic period around 2500 BC. Stonehenge remained an important cultural and religious site into the early Bronze Age, when many burial mounds were built nearby.”
Well, my dear, times have changed. For one, you can’t drive up to the site; the road is closed and there’s a lot more security. You even have to buy tickets.
Let’s explore the more modern updates to the simplest of ancient structure. The site is now managed by English Heritage Trust and in the long run it will be better for preservation. But the management comes at a bit of a cost; it was so simple before, and now it’s not.
Now you have to book timed tickets in order to gain access to the site ($22); which you can buy online or at the swanky new visitor’s center a little more than a mile away from the site. You can choose some add-ons, too, like a guidebook or audio tour. The audio tour can be downloaded for free through iTunes. The English Heritage Foundation also offers memberships for $80 that will give you free access to Stonehenge and 400 other historic sites including castles and abbeys throughout England.
The visitor center houses a museum detailing the history of the site, with a permanent exhibition of bones, tools and pottery collected there. The center is also where you can either begin a 20-30 minute walk to the site along the now-closed road, or hop on one of the free shuttles. I would recommend the shuttle unless you’re really interested in stretching your legs; there isn’t much to look at as you walk. The visitor’s center also includes a large café and gift shop.
I will say, despite all the bells and whistles they’ve added, the monument to early man is still every bit as impressive. The new center and its massive parking lots are well hidden by the trees and rolling hills as to not intrude on the site. The only thing you really have to watch out for is the throngs of tourists and school groups. I haven’t figured out the best time to go to avoid the crowds, but when I do you can be sure I’ll pass it along.