Stonehenge half day tour
A half day tour of the southern part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Avebury and Stonehenge
We met at dawn! Not too bad on 12th October as it was 7.30am. The weather was cool and misty. The meeting place was the lay-by outside the Wagon and Horses at Beckhampton. For logistical reasons we had to do this tour in two cars: theirs and mine.
A half day tour of Stonehenge
A half day tour with 3 New Yorkers Nat, Martin and Robert celebrating their 50th birthdays (including a NY Nicks and a NY Nets fan – it could get ugly!!)
We met at dawn! Not too bad on 12th October as it was 7.30am. The weather was cool and misty. The meeting place was the lay-by outside the Wagon and Horses at Beckhampton. For logistical reasons we had to do this tour in two cars: theirs and mine. So after a few introductions and having pointed out that the pub had allegedly been built out of stones pilfered from the nearby neolithic Beckhampton Avenue we discussed the itinerary for the day and soon set off.
I led the way east and turned off the A4 through East Kennet. As we climbed to the top of West Overton hill I thought it would be a good place to stop and look back at Silbury Hill peeking through the mist. This slightly confused my guests in the car behind who were not expecting to stop quite so soon. As it happened the morning mist was still too thick but I think everyone appreciated the idea and I was able to point out just how well thought out the monument’s positioning was. Despite being in a dip it is visible from all the higher ground surrounding it.
Back in the car we continued on our way. Ten minutes later we pulled in to the car park at Knap Hill and Adam’s Grave. Here I was able to introduce everyone to the Neolithic period as evidenced in the landscape around us. Having a neolithic causewayed enclosure and long barrow (two of the earliest monument types in the UK) within easy view makes such an introduction very user-friendly.
Someone has also erected a couple of sarsen stones here as gate posts so we also discussed the mooted routes that this type of stone took to become part of the Stonehenge monument. This inevitably led to the pros and cons of how the other stones, the bluestones, arrived at Salisbury plain from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire 180 miles to the west. There was to be much more discussion about stone today.
Time to get back in the car and follow one of the suggested sarsen routes across the Pewsey Vale and up onto Salisbury Plain.
We drove both cars to the visitor centre arriving just as the car park was opening at 9am and in time for a convenient toilet break although the guys kept going on about bathrooms which I hope they found. Having exchanged our online reservations for tickets (something needs to be done about this – far too fiddly!!) we left Nat’s hire car in situ, climbed into mine and headed to the car park at Woodhenge and Durrington Walls.
I’d packed some flasks of tea and coffee which went down pretty well since there was still a real morning chill in the air. Fortified by hot drinks and some Soreen malt loaf we went and had a look first at Durrington Walls and then Woodhenge. Durrington Walls is the site of several houses excavated between 2004 and 2009 as part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Dating from between 2500BC and 2460BC (yes just forty years!) they are believed to be where the people that built Stonehenge lived. During this short period it is believed the village here might have contained several hundred homes although there is little to see now. English Heritage have built some replicas at the visitor centre but it is definitely worth coming up to the site.
Excavated evidence suggests that the village was particularly busy at certain times of year, particularly around the midwinter solstice. Was this the time of their most important festival? There was certainly a great feast at this time of year. Pig bones were found in enormous quantities along with huge amounts of broken pottery. The pigs had been born in the spring and culled at nine months old. There were no piglet bones present so the animals had been brought to the site from elsewhere for a winter festival on an enormous scale.
It was terrific to have the place to ourselves and after half an hour discussing the houses, the temples and Woodhenge and the recent archaeological work we embarked on our walk towards the main event.
From here the route is across the ‘Cuckoo Stone’ field. This stone, although rather unimpressive in itself it does serve to prove a point: it is, as excavation has proved, a locally occurring sarsen stone that was once erected as a standing stone. It was put upright more or less in its original natural position at some point during prehistory. The importance of this lies in the fact that someone thought it was worth the effort to raise it. What significance did it have? Were other sarsen stones treated like this and if so where? If not why was this one singled out? Or were there not many, if any, others around? My point is that if it was a rarity then it does suggest that the sarsen stones at Stonehenge were dragged from at least some distance away as opposed to being local.
When I questioned my New York friends about why they thought it deserved the name ‘Cuckoo’ Stone I think it was Nat that suggested it is because it is nested in a position where you wouldn’t expect. Food for thought! Certainly a simpler explanation then many of the others I hear.
As at Avebury the landscape that surrounds the monument is as much part of the story as the famous monument itself. Neither Stonehenge or Avebury can be considered as stand alone monuments, they are the centrepieces of a large complexes of complimentary sites including the afore mentioned Durrington Walls. Archaeologists generally agree that the avenue here at Stonehenge was one of the last elements to be added to this complex. Unlike at Avebury where stones line the way, the Stonehenge avenue consists of just a bank and a ditch and evidently always did. It is built in a number of straight sections.
From Stonehenge it runs straight through the entrance along the line of the midsummer sunrise to the north east. The avenue descends the slope into Stonehenge Bottom the dry valley that perhaps in the Neolithic period still contained a river at least during wetter times. It then turns sharply to the right to climb the hill onto King Barrow ridge, crossing that before again turning right to head south to the river Avon. During the Riverside project excavations were undertaken at the point where the avenue meets the river and a completely unknown stone circle was discovered at the site. There weren’t any stones left there but sockets cut into the chalk that had once held them were clear to the team. Mike Parker Pearson is certain that this circle had once been formed of Welsh bluestones and named the circle bluestone henge.
Bluestone is the generic name for the smaller stones originating from Wales that are part of the Stonehenge monument. Indeed some of the stones do have a bluey grey tinge, or would have if they were cleared of lichens and rubbed down. These are the dolerite, spotted dolerite and rhyolite examples that make up the bulk of the smaller stones that remain in place. There are however a dozen types of stone, all from Wales, that are still in evidence and it seems from ‘foreign’ flakes found during excavations that several other types were once present most of which were not in fact ‘blue’. Not that that particularly matters to my mind and bluestone as a term is here to stay.
I like to think that tribes from different areas of Wales brought something by way of a stone to be a part of this monument. Contributing perhaps part of their homeland, maybe part of an ancestral stone circle, to this great project. As a circular monument it can be considered, like the European Union circle of golden stars, to be a symbol of unification. It is a shame that over time this great circle has collapsed and been broken up and some of its elements removed….hmmm!
Perhaps the building of the avenue from bluestone henge monumentalised the route that the ancestors had brought the bluestones on the final leg of their journey to Stonehenge?
As well as houses, two timber structures were discovered at Durrington Walls. Both were composed of concentric rings of huge timber posts. The southern of these timber circles almost exactly matches the structure of Stonehenge as does the very similar structure known to us as Woodhenge that overlooks Durrington Walls. The largely accepted theory is that these ‘temples’ were used by the people living in the village here. At mid winter as part of the festival they processed down a wide path, again discovered during the Riverside Project, that lead from the timber circle a short distance to the river Avon. Journeying down river the festival participants would have arrived at blue stone henge. From here they would have processed up the Stonhenge Avenue eventually approaching Stonehenge, the temple for the ancestors built in stone for permanence. Here they would watch the sun set directly behind the stones before, after appropriate ceremony, rising the next day to herald in Spring.
So we continued along the track bed of the long dismantled military light railway that for a few years supplied the barracks and depots of the military base active on this part of Salisbury Plain during the First World War. Our route took in the eastern end of the Stonehenge Cursus with its associated early Neolithic long barrow, the not-so-evocatively named Amesbury G42. Having paused here and admired the distant view of Stonehenge we continued along King Barrow ridge southwards until we reached the point where the Stonehenge Avenue crosses.
We turned into the field giving the cows and their attendant two white bulls sufficient respect and headed down the line of the avenue in to Stonehenge bottom and then on up towards the stones themselves. Here we rejoined the suggested route from the visitor centre and spent some time discussing and admiring the ancient ruin.
I think my guests agreed that there is no better way to approach the stones than along what was the original route and at this point I left them to their own devices, secure in the knowledge that the courtesy bus would deliver them safely back to their car at the visitor centre.
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Stonehenge with a Stonehenge guide
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Since 1986 Avebury and Stonehenge have been listed as one designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
They certainly contain many contemporary monuments from both the stone age and the bronze age but they are separated by the Pewsey Vale. Maybe the area in between which includes Marden Henge and many other internationally significant sites should have been included as well.
Click on their logo to find out more about the World Heritage program.
Oldbury Tours are proud to be partners of Visit Wiltshire.
Most of the sites we visit fall within this wonderful county including Avebury and Stonehenge.
Click on their logo to find out a lot more about what is going on in the county what to see, where to eat and where to stay/
Most of the area we visit in the northern, Avebury, part of the World Heritage Site lies within The North Wessex Downs Area of Natural Beauty
If you are staying in the area for some time you might like to visit their website by clicking on their logo.
The Pewsey Vale is the area between the two halves of the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site. We visit several places within the vale on our tours.
Find out more about this beautiful and under-explored region by clicking on their logo.
Don’t just take our word for it:
Taking your tour was an exceptional treat. I had been to Stonehenge before but this was a completely different experience. I had two friends visiting from the US and we all enjoyed getting to know about the geology and human history. The walk was comfortable and beautiful, allowing us to have see the approach to the stones from the point of view of those that first visited the site. Your commentary was entertaining and informative. Thank you for making this a wonderful holiday break. I will definitely be back with more friends! Nat from New York, living in London (12th October 2014)