THE STONEHENGE VISITOR CENTRE - PAYING TO SEE THE STONES
Stonehenge is the most popular UK tourist site outside London, and many people pay quite high sums to see it, making it the biggest earner for English Heritage. There are ways to see it for free by walking through the Neolithic landscape, but if you are short of time, part of a tour group or have free entry due to English Heritage or National Trust membership, this is what you can expect from a full, paid visit to the site.
I visited Stonehenge by car on a sunny afternoon in July, and as you would expect, the site was busy. Fortunately the car park has a lot of space and although very full, it was easy to find a space. Surprisingly, there was no charge for parking. As you would expect for a new Visitor Centre, everything is well laid out with clearly defined pathways and plenty of benches. The centre is not the most attractive of buildings - why they chose that design is a mystery to me, but it is at least practical.
As you walk up to the grand entrance there are loos outside and then you need to get in the right ticket queue - one is for members and those who have pre-booked, the other is to buy tickets on the spot. Once you have got your ticket you get given a wristband which gives you access to the bus and the exhibition. These are checked and people sent away if they do not have one, so do not try to avoid buying a ticket.
To your right is the exhibition rooms, on your left is the shop and the café and straight ahead through the building are the Neolithic houses and a few 'sample' stones which you can get close to and even try to lift.
The Neolithic Houses
These are five houses of chalk and thatch, which look simple yet pretty in the sunshine. They are based on discoveries by archaeologists of houses found at nearby Durrington Walls which were built at the same time that the sarsen stones were added to Stonehenge, about 2,500 BC, and so were probably the homes of those who worked on the site. Each is just a single room of about five metres.
Inside them are some pieces of woven furniture - sometimes you may find volunteers inside grinding corn, weaving rope or cooking on the open fires and talking you through how they were lived in. There were no volunteers inside when I visited, but I found that made them more peaceful and easier to look around. What I liked best was that birds were nesting in the thatched roof and you could hear the chicks chirping away over your head.
Catching the bus to the Stones
Around the back of the Visitor Centre you can queue to get one of the buses to the stones or you can find the start of the path to walk there.
It is 1.3 miles and takes about 30 minutes to walk. The queue for the bus tends not to be too long at this end as they come very regularly. Fortunately you can wait in shade and under cover. The bus takes about five minutes down the road to what was once the old visitor centre.
Walking around Stonehenge
You then walk around the stones - you cannot get very close to them but you can get close enough for some good photos, if you can fight your way through the selfie sticks. The biggest concentration of people seems to be at the start of the circuit - if you go further round there are fewer people and a lot more space for your photos.
There were all manner of people looking at the stones and it can be more entertaining to watch them than look at the stones. Most visitors are tourists from abroad and clearly have the stones on their UK 'bucket list'. There are a lot of family photos being taken with the stones as a backdrop - I even saw one blonde haired family in matching pastel clothing with big floppy hats and floaty dresses taking photos, clearly having coordinated their outfits just for the photos. I didn't know whether to be impressed at their advance planning or roll my eyes at their vanity.
Others were following the suggestions in the random posters about how you could pose to make it look like you were holding the stones or carrying one of them on your back, leaving people looking really quite daft as they tried it. There are a few benches around the area but there were also people just sitting on the grass and relaxing. I also saw one person meditating and I later overheard him talking about the 'energy from the ley lines' of the site.
There is not much to do other than take photos, listen to the audio guide if you have one (download it to your phone - there are no portable audio guides on offer) and slowly amble around the stones.
The queue to get the bus back to the Visitor Centre can be enormous, it certainly was when I was there. It is out in the open - there is no shade or cover near the stones, which can leave you very hot or damp depending on the weather at the time. I timed the wait and it was 20 minutes to get on a bus. They packed the buses out with people having to stand. The walk does not have a great deal of shade and it can get quite hot out on Salisbury Plain. The buses take you back to the bus stop and you exit through the gift shop.
The Stonehenge Exhibition
The exhibition starts with 360° screen footage of Stonehenge through the centuries, from when it was built and through its various phases until modern day.
I found it surprisingly enjoyable as you saw the shadowy figures of the people who built it and used it moving through the background, how it looked before it was built, how it looked when it was transformed with the Welsh stone and how it is now with the cars screeching past. It snowed, was foggy, was dark with stars rising in the sky, the sun rose, the sun set. It gave you a very good idea of just how much time the stones have been there. I managed to have the room to myself for a short while and it was really rather lovely to be surrounded by the stones on their journey through time.
Other objects in the museum include a whole gallery of people's memories of Stonehenge throughout the past decades as well as some objects found near the stones, such as beaker pottery and tool kits as well as human remains. The Exhibition Centre was actually much smaller than I expected, which should have been no surprise as the majority of Stonehenge finds are in the British Museum, the Salisbury Museum and the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.
The Stonehenge Gift Shop
There is all manner of tat available to buy in the shop. You can buy Stonehenge themed everything with rubbers, aprons, bookmarks, fridge magnets, T-shirts, mugs, hats - the choices are endless. There are also some very typical English gifts on offer - flowery crockery, jewellery, ornaments and more.
Eating and Drinking at Stonehenge
The café is next door to the shop and sells the usual fare you would expect for lunch and snacks - sandwiches, some hot food and lots of drinks. Just to warn you, the price of an egg and cress sandwich, which is usually the cheapest thing you can buy in any tourist hotspot, was an extortionate £5 and a bottle of lemonade was nearly £3. There are also ice cream vans on site during the warmer months, one up by the stones and one by the Visitor Centre.
On the site near the entrance you will also see the Airman's Cross. This is a small memorial which was once sited on the roundabout near Stonehenge, but thoughtlessly moved from its location of 100 years when the new Visitor Centre was built in 2013.
I’m sure many people must be confused about the connection between Stonehenge and the Airmen, but there is a small information board to tell you about them; two airmen killed in a plane crash in 1912 before the formation of the Royal Flying Corps. You can find out more about it with a visit to the Museum of Army Flying, about 10 miles away.
Overall, it is a pleasant visit, especially if you can go on a nice sunny day which will enhance your photos, but I don’t know how I would feel if I had spent £25 to go there (I have National Trust membership and got in for 'free' on that).
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