Last week David and I returned to the UK after a lovely few weeks of Michigan summer (in my case) and some business travel (in his).
Now that we're back, we have guests! David's college roommate, Toni, and his girlfriend, Sarah, are visiting us in London town and it's been really nice catching up with them. With so many guests coming to visit, David and I knew that sooner or later someone would want to visit Stonehenge. For this reason we decided to hold off on visiting it ourselves until such a time came.
When we found out that Stonehenge was on Toni and Sarah's list, we were really excited to finally visit this ancient and mysterious site.
The good news for us is that Stonehenge is an English Heritage site. This means that anybody with an English Heritage membership (ding ding ding) can gain entry to the stones for free. Similar to the National Parks pass in the States, the English Heritage is one of a few systems by which members can access over 400 sites throughout England for one annual fee.
In the UK there are two really common memberships—English Heritage and the National Trust. We recently purchased our English Heritage membership cards when we were visiting Canterbury. The cards have since paid for themselves now that we've used them to visit St. Augustine Abbey, Dover Castle, and Stonehenge. We'll probably end up purchasing memberships to the National Trust as well since it encompasses other historic sites throughout the UK. We'll keep you posted!
Getting to Stonehenge
Once we decided to see Stonehenge, it was time to figure out how to visit Stonehenge. The first thing to do before booking your transportation is to head to Stonehenge's website and book tickets. Even if you have an English Heritage membership, you still have to book a time slot to see the stones. This is the only way that they will guarantee you entry on your chosen day and time. We booked our tickets for 9:30 am on a Sunday morning. Next we looked into transportation. The good news here is that there are a couple of options and neither one takes very long. Stonehenge is less than 100 miles away from London and can be reached by train or by car.
You can pick up a South Western Railway train at Waterloo and arrive in Salisbury about an hour and twenty minutes later. From the Salisbury train station you can grab the Stonehenge Tour bus which will drop you right at the monument.
Another option (and the one we ultimately chose) is to drive. Stonehenge is in the middle of the countryside outside of Salisbury and there is quite an ample parking lot. Parking is £5.00 if you don't have English Heritage membership and free if you do. In our case we arrived before the parking attendants so I believe parking would have been free for us even if we hadn't been members, but this isn't something you should count on.
Driving meant cutting down on the time it took for us to get to Stonehenge. Depending on the time of day, it takes between one to three hours to drive to Stonehenge. We decided to book tickets in the morning hoping that this would keep traffic and crowds at a minimum, which it did. When we left Stonehenge at midday the site was very busy and there was a long lineup of cars waiting to enter, not something we had to contend with at 9:30 am.
If you're driving, you won't be able to miss Stonehenge. As we drove through some typical English countryside—fields full of sheep and hay bails—all of a sudden we saw the stones. They're basically just standing in the middle of a field, no more remarkable than any of the fields around it. If you look more closely, you'll also see some mounds of grass strewn about the surrounding fields as well.
You don't arrive at the stones themselves though. Instead the parking lot is a stone's throw away (ha) next to a large modern glass building. This building houses the museum, café, gift shop, and ticket offices. Once you grab your tickets and an audio guide (these are also included with English Heritage membership), you have two options for arriving at the stones themselves. You can either board a shuttle (what most people opt to do) or you can walk along the trails. We opted to take a shuttle since we were optimizing for time.
It's only about a five-minute ride to the stones. It's important to know that you can't actually get right up next to the stones or touch them. Visitors can view the stones from behind a fence, about ten yards from the actual stones. The fence is there to preserve the ancient stones—they are thousands of years old after all.
Once you're in the vicinity of the stones, you can begin your audio guide. Numbers posted along the circle surrounding the stones let you know which audio passage to play in each area. The audio guides are very informational and we learned a lot. The place is busy and the standing space is relatively small so the audio guides are a great alternative to human tour guides.
Stonehenge is so mysterious that there aren't actually that many facts about it. It was constructed between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago from two types of stone—sarsen stones found in southern England and bluestones all the way from Wales. The audio guide explains the many theories that have been developed over the ages to explain their creation, but no one really knows what purpose the stones served.
Due to the cremated remains found in the surrounding grass mounds, a common theory is that Stonehenge was a realm of the dead. But again, nobody knows for sure. The engineering behind the stones is, however, quite remarkable. The audio guide explains that their construction was well thought-out and included the use of tongue-and-groove joints. It's also the only stone monument found to contain lintels. So whatever the original purpose of the stones, they clearly represented something very important and sacred to the people who constructed them.
Museum, gift shop, and café
After learning about the stones, we headed back to the main building by shuttle. We wandered through the gift shop and outdoor areas. Here we got to see some recreations of roundhouses dating to the periods in which the stones were erected. Next we headed into the small museum where we learned more about the various theories behind Stonehenge's purpose. After a couple of hours at Stonehenge we felt that we'd seen everything. We finished off our visit with a bite to eat at the café. It offers sandwiches (including a gluten-free option), pasties, cookies, and other snacks as well as beverages. You can sit inside or, if it's nice out like it was when we visited, there are outdoor tables too.
Overall we had a wonderful day trip to Stonehenge! It's definitely an amazing sight to see. If you have the option, try to go on a day with nice weather. As almost all of the activities are outdoors, it will be much more pleasant on a dry day. If not, pack a brellie and hope for the best!