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Another Way to See Stonehenge - Walking
For people short of time, Stonehenge is a straightforward day trip out of London, by train to Salisbury and by direct tour bus to the stones themselves, but that starts your visit in the car-park and the utilitarian sheds of the visitor centre. If you do have the time, you can get a better sense of the whole site in its context by walking there.
There's a longer route all the way from Salisbury up the river valley and looping round past Stonehenge to Amesbury, but I took a shorter circular walk from Amesbury, which is easily reachable by bus from Salisbury.
Getting Started via Train from London
Trains (every half hour on week-days) take about an hour and twenty minutes to Salisbury from London Waterloo. The 08:50am gets you there in time, with a brisk walk to Salisbury bus station, for the 10:35am bus to Amesbury (about 20 minutes), which has several options for a coffee and to stock up on sustenance (there is a café at Stonehenge, but it's nice to have something on hand for whenever you feel like a snack).
The first part of the walk takes about an hour, passing some of the series of barrows (burial mounds) and supposedly ceremonial routes aligned for about a mile around the stones.
The walk circles the edge of this gigantic piece of land art, offering a series of glimpses of the stones as you climb up and down one set of barrows. The National Trust owns and keeps the land, providing clearly marked paths and handy notice boards explaining the features of the landscape.
Eventually the route leads to the Cursus, an expanse of open land believed to have been an area for ceremonial processions (when I was there, there was only a solitary runner and a small group of butterflies). At the lowest point of the Cursus, the lie of the land emphasizes a sense of awe when you look up the slope to the stones.
As you make a final approach to the site, the tourist trappings now seem a temporary distraction, rather than defining the experience of the stones themselves.
Stonehenge, photo courtesy of Kim Riemann
It's the sheer scale, not only of the size of the stones and the effort to erect them, but also of the timescale that impresses.
From the first wooden stakes to its final form, it seems to have taken as long to develop as the time span from the Romans to us; and it was finished and apparently abandoned almost as long before the Romans came.
All of its construction and use must have been in times when there was no writing, and no history but what was passed on by oral tradition, through a hundred generations - the longest chain of "Chinese whispers" one can imagine. The audio guide passes on some of the more entertaining myths as well as the best suppositions of archaeological investigation: but who knows what changes in concept and understanding, as well as use, of the site there might have been? There must, then as now, have been traditionalists and reformers, visionaries and functionaries, all leaving their mark on how the site was seen and used.
It escapes certainty: passing on up the slope behind the stones, one last look back sees the site almost vanish into the landscape.
The text description of the walk on the way back didn't seem to match up with the signposts I could see. However, it helped that I'd printed out the maps supplied for the relevant parts of the longer walk, and the sign-posted route got me back to where I'd started out, even if it wasn't quite what I was reading about.
One other drawback to the route is that it inevitably involves crossing the main road, both going to Stonehenge and when coming back: and there's a lot of through traffic, going rather fast. You need your wits about you for this bit.
It took about an hour to Stonehenge, an hour and a half there, and another hour back, arriving in time to catch the 3:30 bus back to Salisbury. This leaves enough time for a quick exploration of Salisbury (where almost every corner seemed to be stacked with baskets of flowers), and its Cathedral, which boasts a copy of Magna Carta, and a striking modern cruciform "infinity font."
http://www.stagecoachbus.com/Default.aspx: Bus timetable.
http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/: Train times and fares.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2009/jun/10/walk-guides-stonehenge: Route for this walk (from Amesbury)
http://www.walkingclub.org.uk/book_3/walk_67/index.shtml: Longer route from Salisbury.
www.visitsalisbury.com: Official Tourist Information website for Salisbury. Their office in Salisbury is just off the Market Square on Fish Row. You can purchase the detailed Visitor's Guide for £1.00. This had a detailed list of accommodations, restaurants, sights, and shops.
http://www.stockphotography.co.uk/UK/Maps/Salisbury.aspx: Salisbury street plan
www.salisburycathedral.org.uk: Salisbury Cathedral.
© Patrick Wallace, 2010
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