Stonehenge

My wife, Chrissy, and I have just returned from a trip to England. The three week break was a chance to see my family, visit some old friends, and have a vacation. Before we left for the UK, Chrissy expressed an interest in visiting Poole in Dorset (the reason why is for another time), so I suggested we should stop by Stonehenge as it is on the way and Chrissy had never been.

Tickets and Time Slots

It had been a long time since the one and only time I had visited Stonehenge, so I decided to do some research on the English Heritage website. It was there that I discovered Stonehenge now requires advanced booking to guarantee seeing it. Tickets cost £15 (about $25) each for adults and cover parking, access to the onsite museum, and access to Stonehenge itself (checkout the site for up-to-date pricing information). When I visited Stonehenge as a kid, the site had only just earned World Heritage status. Visitors would drive up to the site, park their car, and have a walk around for free or close to it, so £15 seemed a tad expensive. In hindsight, I can see where the money goes and for me (and Chrissy) it was worth it1.

When booking the tickets, you have to select a half hour time slot in which you will arrive at the site. This time slot does not affect how long you can stay, it just staggers arrivals to provide some level of crowd control. I selected a slot in the early afternoon to give us time to get there, although I was somewhat anxious about being able to meet our half hour slot; the website clearly states that missing your slot may mean you cannot visit the site and there are no refunds. In England, journey times can be exceedingly variable due to the high volume of traffic, and due to a combination of other commitments and traffic, I was right to be anxious. As we traveled to Stonehenge from Poole in Dorset, Chrissy called ahead to let them know we would be about an hour late. The staff that we spoke to were very helpful in adjusting our time slot and giving us a new reference code at no extra charge. I could imagine that on a busier day, they might not have been able to help us and we would not have been able to visit.

Stonehenge Visitor Centre

Stonehenge Visitor Centre
Stonehenge Visitor Centre

Upon arrival, our advanced booking ticket gave us access to the car park. For those without advanced booking, parking was £5, refundable on buying a ticket (I suppose this fee is to discourage people just stopping by to use the toilets or grab a snack). However, drop-in visits cost nearer £18 each (and I assume would be subject to availability based on how busy they are). Given this information, I highly recommend getting advanced tickets. I also recommend making your time slot and if you cannot, calling ahead rather than just waiting to get there.

Visiting Stonehenge from London
Stonehenge is not quite as close to London as the movies often make out. The monument is roughly an hour and forty minutes from London by car (depending on traffic), or nearly four hours by public transportation.

Parking, situated a mile or two from Stonehenge itself, was easy. As we stepped out of the car, the exposed nature of the area was evident. Outside the shelter of the visitor centre, the wind was strong and biting. Having experienced it without, I definitely recommend dressing in layers, including scarf, gloves, and hat, just in case the weather is inclement.

From the car park leads a path to the new and impressive visitor centre. Inside which is an extensive gift shop2, a cafeteria, toilets (these were clean and well-maintained), and a museum. We grabbed some food before exploring more and found it to be excellent if not a little overpriced; somewhat reminiscent of Ikea but with less meatballs.

Neolithic Village

Neolithic Village
Neolithic Village

At the back of the visitor centre is an open air imagining of a neolithic village containing several roundhouses. After eating in the cafeteria, we decided to check that out first. Each roundhouse represents a possible example of neolithic life, based on archaeological discoveries and expert conjecture.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

In one roundhouse we discovered an English Heritage staff member displaying various examples of neolithic tools and clothing. We spent a few minutes talking with the guide about the roundhouses, neolithic life, and clothing (nettle-based thread is surprisingly soft, somewhere between cotton and hessian). The neolithic village was my favourite part of the visitor centre area. Not only were the roundhouses a great tactile, visual, and informative experience, but the nearby sarsen stone challenge was an amusing distraction.

Stonehenge

After visiting the neolithic village, we jumped aboard one of the shuttle buses that connects the visitor centre with Stonehenge. If you wish, you can opt to forego the shuttle and walk to Stonehenge. However, the shuttle and walking are the only options as the road to Stonehenge, once accessible by the public, is now closed to all but walkers, the shuttle buses, and other authorized vehicles.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

The ride took about two minutes and was surprisingly exciting. As the shuttle bus neared Stonehenge, the monument rose out of the horizon. I found the experience more exciting than I had expected, though part of that was driven by Chrissy's obvious excitement next to me. Arriving near Stonehenge, I stepped off the shuttle bus and began regretting not having gloves, a scarf, or a hat; the wind was intense.

The shuttle bus drops off and picks up close to where the old visitor centre used to be. As we walked toward Stonehenge, debris from that visitor centre and some portions of the old car park were visible on our left. English Heritage is in the process of returning the Stonehenge area to a more natural state, so the old visitor centre has been demolished and soon the old car park will be entirely gone.

Heel Stone
Heel Stone

From the bus stop, a footpath leads up toward Stonehenge. The path was varied in width and roped on both sides, it was also protected in places with a porous matting under foot. We followed the path until we reached a fork near Stonehenge. The audio tour (available as a smartphone app) directs you in a specific direction although, due to the wind and our desire to talk to one another as we shared the experience, we turned the tour off and went to the left. This took us up to the Heel Stone, a large, unshaped, upright sarsen stone that is one of two remaining Station Stones (there used to be four). From the Heel Stone, the view descends away from Stonehenge along the Avenue that leads to Woodhenge near the river Avon and a settlement.

Walking past the Heel Stone takes visitors away from the main site a little, passing down the other side of the hilltop. This gave us an opportunity to view Stonehenge from a distance and appreciate the site and its imposing silhouette against the sky. As we walked around the path, it was possible to see various burial mounds positioned on all sides such that they appear on the horizon when stood close to the henge. While visiting we learned that to the people who built this site, it is likely that stone represented death and wood represented life, explaining the arrangement of burial sites with Stonehenge, and the settlement with Woodhenge. These burial mounds and the other earthworks, such as the Avenue, surrounding Stonehenge are all part of the World Heritage site maintained by English Heritage.

Stonehenge with cement repairs visible on the left-most foreground sarsen stone
Stonehenge with cement repairs visible on the left-most foreground sarsen stone

From the furthest point, the footpath spiraled back in toward Stonehenge until we were within a few feet of the giant stones. Just as when I was a child, the stones themselves are now roped off from visitors to protect the site from damage and vandalism, signs of which are still visible to those who look. However, signs of more well-intentioned changes are also visible, such as the cement repairs that were made to the henge in order to maintain its state of arrested decay3.

From atop the stones, rooks launched themselves into the unrelenting wind, flapping their wings with determination yet going nowhere. From the number of birds taking part and the repetition of this Sisyphean task, I am pretty certain this was a game used to pass the time while waiting for people to throw them a snack.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

Museum

After spending around 45 minutes around Stonehenge, we caught the shuttle bus back to the visitor centre, purchased some gifts from the visitor centre4, and checked out the museum. Access to the museum is included as part of the ticket price. The museum itself is not very big and so easy to cover in an hour or so. Entrance and exit to the museum is via a circular room with projection onto the outer walls simulating what being inside the famous stone circle would be like at various parts of the year; notably, the winter and summer solstices. The main area of the museum contains various exhibits and artifacts from Stonehenge and the surrounding area, discussing its history and archaeology. There is also a special area for housing temporary exhibits, which for our visit covered Stonehenge and its relationship to war with various artifacts from the various military bases that were in the area. Overall, the museum was a great way to end the visit, although I could see it being a decent way to begin too if you were less eager to get to see Stonehenge.

In Conclusion…

After the museum, we grabbed a snack, took a bathroom break, and headed home. Our route took us along the A303, which runs east-west just south of Stonehenge. Stonehenge is visible from this road and, as such, this road is visible from Stonehenge5. The view from the road, though impressive, was not a patch on our visit.

The museum, neolithic village, and Stonehenge itself all provided unique experiences that, together with some breath-taking views of the surrounding landscape and a bite to eat, took around two and a half enjoyable hours. The hands-on elements of the neolithic village, the immersive audio tours, and the new facilities would all have been well received by me (and my parents) had they been there when I visited as a child. I definitely think families would get a lot from a visit.

In conclusion, Stonehenge and the Stonehenge Visitor Centre are wonderful if you have an interest in the neolithic and related subjects, or a general enjoyment of museums, but you should set expectations the same as you would visiting any museum; if you are expecting some kind of life-changing experience or spiritual awakening from your visit, you will most likely be disappointed. For those wanting a more exclusive experience, you can contact English Heritage to try and arrange a visit into the stone circle itself, though I suspect that experience is only slightly more whelming than the one most of us get. Either way, if you have the opportunity, I would definitely recommend a visit to Stonehenge.

Chrissy and I enduring the wind
Chrissy and I enduring the wind

This post is sponsored by CompareStonehengeTours.com

 


  1. If the ticket price is still putting you off and you don't mind crowds, access to the monument is free on the solstices 

  2. "Exit through the gift shop" culture is everywhere now, as we already know 

  3. If you search the Internet, you can find discussions on the various restoration or maintenance efforts conducted at Stonehenge, and forthright opinions on whether they went far enough or too far 

  4. I am certain that the packet of 10 Stonehenge-themed tissues were very well received 

  5. Although now cancelled due to ever increasing costs, a project had been proposed to construct a tunnel for the A303 to improve the landscape around the monument and to improve road safety (as you might imagine, rubbernecking is pretty common)  

Ten Years

This month marks ten years since I first set foot in the US. As I waited in line at immigration, tired from the flight and daunted by everything that might happen next, it was easy to forget everything that came before. Just three weeks earlier, my workplace had been tense with news that another wave of redundancies was sweeping through and I was unsure in what direction I was heading1. I was ready for a change, but did not want the uncertainty of finding a new job or the certainty of choosing to leave the one I had. I was living a step ahead of my means with little attention paid to the future. I was smoking. I was making dubious decisions or avoiding decisions entirely. I was feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb.

One afternoon our manager called us all into a meeting room. There, he informed us of two positions available in the US and asked if any of us were interested. It felt like the silence lasted a long time although it was probably only a few seconds. No one was volunteering. I do not know the trigger  — my desire for a change, the allure of working in the US, or my need to get control of my life, but slowly, I raised my hand. I remember rationalizing it as no big deal, after all, I was only expressing interest, it was not like I would be whisked away to a plane immediately. With the raise of my hand, so began a series of small, easy decisions that led to the biggest self-directed change of my life so far.

Within the three weeks from when I raised my hand to when I stepped off the plane in Detroit, I packed, paused, and displaced my life. Boxes were filled, paperwork was filed, and farewells were planned. There was no time to stop and think about what I was doing, just lots of small decisions to make — accept or negotiate the contract, pack or throw away my things, take or leave my guitar, stay or go, sink or swim. All along the way, I kept telling myself it was not forever, it was no big deal. I was only going for a couple of months to meet the customer face-to-face; work (and a longer stay) was always going to be dependent on the acquisition of appropriate work visas. It was no big deal.

And so it was. Three weeks flew by. My sister, my parents, my new boss in the US, my old colleagues in the UK, my friends (including my housemate, who was seriously ill at the time), and many more all helped in some way. I am incredibly grateful to their support, it was amazing. During the whole experience, trepidation wrestled with excitement. Seconds after the taxi pulled away, leaving my parents and friends as they waved goodbye, excitement turned to panic.

What the hell am I doing?

I repeated that phrase in my head many times between London and Detroit. When the taxi left my old home. When the taxi left me at the airport. When I was pulled from the security line for "special screening". When I sat on the plane. When the plane took off. At least once per hour during the flight. When I landed. When I got into the immigration line. Over and over.

What the hell am I doing?

I am pretty sure I was terrified, but just like the small decisions that got me there, I focused on the immediate situation and did my best to ignore everything else. I think excitement and terror are pretty much the same thing but with different interpretations. As I accepted the situation as an adventure, the terror would subside and excitement returned.

Blimey, I'm actually going to America!

That was how my first few weeks in the US continued. A mixture of terror and excitement, depending on the situation and how I let myself accept it. It was the beginning of something new and ten years on, I cannot imagine doing any differently if it were to happen all over again. It was by far the best decision I ever made because I learned the value of making a decision instead of letting fate decide. I faced my own anxieties head on and made a decision to challenge my fear. The amazing sense of achievement that came from deciding for myself was life-affirming. While it took me another nine years to take that moment of control over my anxiety and begin learning how to harness it on a day-to-day basis, I still look back on that decision and the many ways it has changed my life. In a moment, I went from feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb, to engaged, excited, and driven.

Of course, that first day in the US was merely the beginning, a lot has happened since and a lot more will happen yet. Though my move was certainly no panacea to my problems — there were many difficult challenges to over come, it was a catalyst for solutions, an opportunity to grow, and a clear example that fear alone could not stand in my way if I could find the courage to face it. It is a lesson that I have applied many times since; from winning the CodeMash Pecha Kucha contest, to marrying my amazing wife, so many achievements began in an otherwise unremarkable moment where I pushed my fear aside and made a decision to try.

So, whatever the next ten years hold for me, it is not fear, but small moments like raising my hand in that meeting room that will shape them. Can you say the same? Where will your decisions take you?


  1. Unlike in places such as Michigan, where employment is considered "at will" and can be terminated at any time, if a company in the UK wants to downsize, they must go through a process of making positions redundant. That means the position will no longer exist and as such, the organisation cannot hire someone else to perform that job. For a better explanation and more information, check out https://www.gov.uk/redundant-your-rights/overview