I don’t remember the first time I saw a picture of Stonehenge. It was probably in a copy of National Geographic Magazine, which arrived at our house once a month when I was a kid, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lees, two members of the church where my father preached. (I’m sure I thanked them for that gift, but not nearly enough).
In any event, I’ve always wanted to visit Stonehenge, but did not get around to it until this past September when Anne and I toured parts of England and France. Turns out that I was not the only person who wanted to take a look at a pile of old stones.
Whereas fifty years ago the number of yearly visitors could be numbered in the thousands, now there are upward of 1.3 million souls visiting every year. That’s obviously a lot of people and something had to be done to protect the stones and the grounds from too much love (not to mention people who might want to take just a tiny piece of a stone for a souvenir). The bad news is that you can no longer walk among the stones themselves, unless you are the President of the United States or similar dignitary.
The good news is that whoever was in charge really did an excellent job. The new visitor center — which is terrific — is located about one and a half miles away from the site and is not visible from the stones. A bus takes you to the site or you can walk. When you get to the stones, you are kept at a distance by a walkway and a short fence. But you have unobstructed views.
We were just about the first visitors to the site on the day we went. It was a foggy morning, which added to the otherworldly quality of the setting. I’m pretty sure my mouth dropped open when I first saw them. It was not hard to imagine that we were the only ones there and to get a sense of what it must have been like to see this place a couple of thousand years ago.
As the fog lifted, we were able to see the surrounding countryside, which had also been kept relatively free from the intrusions of modern life. Again, it is not hard to feel that you are seeing the land as it has been seen for many millennia. Stonehenge is not on the highest piece of ground. To the south you can see a ridge that is clearly higher. But something caused them to build right here. It made me wonder if this was the location of some great event lost forever in time. A battle? A miraculous happening?
There is no time limit on being at the site. You can walk around as long as you want. And there are apps and other devices that give you some idea of what this all might have meant to the men who built it. Some of the stones were transported here from mountains in Wales hundreds of miles away. The speculation is that the stones from that area were thought to have magical qualities. Maybe.
What is called the Heel Stone surprised me with a face that did not seem particularly happy. I didn’t take it personally.
We walked back to the visitor center afterward, but chose a route over one of the fields past some ancient mounds.
When we looked back (which we did often), we saw our fellow visitors were arriving in force.
They resembled a religious procession, circling the site.
Having just come from Canterbury, pilgrimages were on our minds. This had just been one of a different sort.