Five thousand years of history, swirled in legend and uncertainty, stand atop an unassuming hilltop in Wiltshire in the south of England. This Stone Circle has become one of the icons of the British Isles, and visiting Stonehenge tops many England travel wish-lists.
But while archaeologists have compiled a pretty vast amount of knowledge about the site, one question about the stone circle remains shrouded in mystery. Why?
Why this spot, this hill? The experts now know that people came from as far away as northern Scotland to work on the site, that many of the rocks came from 180 miles away in Wales, and that after the circle was built visitors arrived from as far as central Europe. Why did they come? Why build it at all?
Recently, I found myself visiting Stonehenge to trial their newly re-launched Stone Circle Experience. These are tours outside of normal visiting hours, which allow visitors to go inside the stone circle. This post is all about my experiences. You can also watch my video here.
This was part of a press trip with Visit Wiltshire – although that won’t affect my honesty in this post at all.
Confession time: I hadn’t really expected to be wowed by Stonehenge. I was curious to see the stone circle, and more so since reading the chapter on it in Bill Bryson’s brilliant The Road to Little Dribbling a couple of months ago. I thought it would be cool to learn more about the site, and to get some photos that few other people have a chance to take these days.
What I didn’t expect was that Stonehenge might move me in any way. Maybe it was simply the stunning sunset we were treated to, or how lucky we got with the weather – visiting on what felt like the only sunny day in a month of rain. Maybe it was deep-diving into the five-thousand-year history of the site before arriving. Or maybe there really is a special energy in the middle of that stone circle.
Whatever the explanation, visiting Stonehenge really did wow me. It was humbling. Those stones were moved and shaped and arranged thousands of years ago, with basic tools. Seeing such a simple testament to human ingenuity still standing today was truly amazing.
Our day started at Salisbury Museum, in search of a bit of background information. If you’re visiting Stonehenge I really recommend starting with this museum. Their new archaeology gallery is a modern and well-put-together space with loads of info and artefacts gathered from the local area.
Roger, our guide, led us right back in time to the earliest evidence of human settlement in the Salisbury area. He showed us how Stonehenge was built, using small, kettle-bell-sized rocks to shape the surface, while the antlers of local red deer were used to provide leverage to move the rocks.
The more I learned about Stonehenge, the more excited I was to see it – so the museum really did make a perfect first stop.
The Stone Circle Experience
After lunch in Salisbury – at the fabulous Mexican restaurant Tinga, which I strongly recommend – we headed to Stonehenge itself.
Coffee and cake in the excellent on-site cafe, followed by a look around the fantastic visitor centre, and we were ready to start our Stone Circle Experience.
A bus took us up to the site, where the last few visitors were still taking photos. I’ll admit, I kind of enjoyed the feeling that they were watching while a guard in a high-vis jacket moved the foot-high rope barrier from alongside the path to allow us access. It all felt a bit VIP – as well as a little bit naughty. I kept expecting someone to shout after us as we made our way across the grass and actually into the stone circle.
But we were allowed. The experience of walking through an “archway” of the outer ring and inside the stone circle was pretty special.
Our guide, Carol, has been working at Stonehenge for over twenty years. So she was the perfect person to shed a little more light on what makes the site so fascinating. She also handed round a pair of dowsing rods for us to try out. According to Wikipedia, these actually only move because of the person using them. But I’m positive I wasn’t moving them myself. Maybe there really is some magic in the air amongst those stones!
The evening Stone Circle Experiences just about coincide with sunset, which is ideal. Because however unlikely it is that there’s magic in the circle, there was definitely something magical about watching the sun go down between rocks that have been stacked here on this Wiltshire hilltop for thousands of years.
More Info for Visiting Stonehenge
How close can you get to Stonehenge?
A normal entry ticket allows entry to the visitor path only. This goes all around the Circle, but is set back from the stones. The closest the path goes is roughly 5m, although this is only in some places.
Alternatively, the Stone Circle Experience allows you to go right inside the Circle. You can walk amongst the stones and get as close as you like – but you can’t touch them!
What is the Stone Circle Experience
The Stone Circle Experience is run by English Heritage. The visits take place outside of normal visiting hours, either very early in the morning or in the evening. The evening visits may coincide with sunset, depending on the time of year.
Visits last for an hour, with a maximum of thirty people per session. They are only run on certain dates, so check the website for the schedule.
Stone Circle Experience costs £47 for adults and £28.20 for children (although under-fives are free).
Availability is incredibly limited, and you need to apply online, so book as early as you can to avoid any disappointment.
Is the Stone Circle Experience worth it?
Obviously, that price is a fair chunk of money for a one hour visit. But I honestly think it’s worth paying extra… IF you are really interested in seeing the stones.
If you want to get closer than the distant visitor path and make the most of your visit, this experience is well worth it.
Also, if you’re serious about photography, the Stone Circle Experience offers the chance to get shots no one else will. You can get close-up shots of the stones, and if things line up well you can also get some pretty spectacular sunset shots. Perhaps with a cheeky bit of lens flare between the stones!
If you’re only visiting Stonehenge to get a simple glance at it, or to tick off a travel “bucket list”, it may not be worth paying the extra. But otherwise, I genuinely think the Stone Circle Experience is worth the added expense to truly make the most of your visit.