In continuing the exploration of my new surroundings, a walk to Stonehenge was called for. As I still pine for Kenya, an amble through the Great British country side was just what I needed and as is usual for my outdoor adventures, I had a burning desire to attempt to spot the local wild life. So a safari to Stonehenge was what I undertook.
Stonehenge is a magnificent prehistoric monument standing on Salisbury Plains in Wiltshire, a mere 2 miles north west of Amesbury. It is essentially a ring of gigantic standing stones, each around 13 feet in height (4.1 metres), 7 feet wide (2.1 metres) and weighing around 25 tonnes. The stones are set within ancient earth works in the middle of the most dense Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England and include several hundred ‘tumuli’ (burial mounds).
Construction began in the Neolithic age around 3000 BC and over the following years until around 2000 BC, numerous changes and works continued. The surrounding circular earthy bank and ditches which constituted the earliest phase of the monument has been dated to around 3100 BC. Stonehenge is a British cultural icon and the site and its surroundings were added to UNESCO’s list of World heritage sites in 1986.
The trek to Stonehenge was undertaken on a beautiful day. The glorious sun made an appearance and it was pleasantly warm. It wasn’t too long into the journey when I made the first wild life spot. Two energetic hares were sighted bounding through a wheat field. They moved so quickly and with such exuberance that a photograph could not capture them, but it was joyous to see them, leaping around with a care free abandonment. I was overjoyed at this heart warming sight, particularly as I had seen evidence of their existence before noticing them in the meadows.
Within the circle at Stonehenge are 5 trilithons of dressed Sarsen stone arranged in a horse shoe shape and 45 feet (13.7 metres) across with its opening facing north east. These huge stones consist of 10 uprights with 5 lintels and they are estimated to weigh up to 50 tonnes each. The stones were dressed and fashioned with a mortise and tenon joint before 30 further stones were erected as a 108 feet (33 metres) diameter circle of standing stones with a ring of 30 lintel stones resting on top. The lintels were fitted using a tongue and groove joint. On one of the Sarsens stones, known as Stone 53, there is the image of a dagger and 14 axe heads carved into the surface. Further carvings can be found on stones 3, 4 and 5. Such carvings have been difficult to date but they look similar to Bronze age weapons.
Its generally accepted that the blue stones (some of which are made from Dolorite, an igneous rock) were transported by the builders from Preseli Hills, 150 miles (240 kilometres) away in Pembrokeshire, Wales. In 2011, there was a discovery of a megalithic bluestone quarry at Craig Rhos-y-felin near Crymych in Pembrokeshire, Wales which is most likely to have been the source for many of the stones. One of the stones which has become known as the Altar Stone is almost certainly derived from the Senni Beds, some 50 miles (80 kilometres) east of Myndd Preseli in the Brecon Beacons. Given the sheer size and weight of these immense monoliths, it is staggering to think that prehistoric humans managed such a seemingly impossible feat without the use of heavy machinery. There is little or no direct evidence revealing any construction techniques but from my own observations, I can only imagine what a difficult and time consuming process it was.
I could see the majestic Stonehenge on the horizon long before I actually reached the site. As I trekked across this epic landscape, I spotted plenty of sheep. It is hard to miss them as they are plentiful, grazing across the countryside as far as the eye can see. At first glance, I was almost fooled into thinking the pale coloured dots were rhino but of course, I remembered that I am no longer in Kenya and sheep are the predominant grazing creatures in abundance across the pastures of England.
The Stonehenge circle of stones precisely matches the direction of the midsummer sunrise and the midwinter sunset. An observer standing within the stone circle looking north east through the entrance would see the sun rise in the approximate direction of another imposing stone known as the Heel stone. The Heel stone is a tertiary sand stone and cannot be accurately dated but weighs in excess of 40 tonnes. There is an area of land known as Stonehenge Avenue which is a parallel pair of ditches and banks leading 2 miles to the River Avon.
There has been much speculation as to the purpose of Stonehenge. In its earliest days around 3000 BC, it could have been a burial ground as deposits of human bone have been found. It has also been interpreted as functioning as an enclosed cremation cemetery.
It is known that around 4000 people gathered at the site for midwinter and midsummer festivals and around the same time, a large timber circle and a second avenue were constructed at Durrington Walls. Durrington Walls is the site of another Neolithic settlement some 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) north east of Stonehenge. The timber circle was oriented towards the rising sun on the midsummer solstice, opposing the solar alignments at Stonehenge.
The avenue was aligned with the setting sun on summer solstice and led from the river to the timber circle. Evidence of huge fires on the banks of the river Avon between the two avenues suggests that the circles are linked. The purpose of such builds remain the subject of debate but it has been thought that this route was perhaps a procession route on the longest and shortest days of the year. There is speculation that the wooden circle at Durrington Walls was the centre of a ‘land of the living’ whilst the stone circle of Stonehenge represented the ‘land of the dead’ with the river serving as a journey between the two.
There was a suggestion that Stonehenge was a place of healing and this is evidenced by the high number of burials and evidence of trauma deformity in some of the graves. It has also been suggested that the site was most probably multi functional and used for ancestor worship. Stonehenge was seemingly part of a ritual landscape and perhaps the journey along the river Avon was a ritual passage from life and death to celebrate ancestors and the recently deceased. It could have been a burial place, a calendar, a place of worship and/or a place of sacrifice. There were religious ceremonies and to this day, it remains a place of worship for Neo Druids, Pagans and other ‘earth’ based or ‘old’ religions. In 1977, the stones were roped off with no further access to the public because of erosion but the site is opened for access at the summer and winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinox.
As stated by Hawkins GS (1966) in the publication entitled “Stonehenge Decoded,” “whatever religious, mystical or spiritual elements were central to Stonehenge, its design includes a celestial observatory function, which might have allowed prediction of eclipse, solstice equinox and other celestial events important to a contemporary religion.” Whatever the real purpose of Stonehenge, and however it was constructed, it is a truly magical place and the monument itself is utterly mind boggling in its magnificence.
After observing this astounding site, I continued the safari through the flowery fields, walking through woodland, and taking in more history along the way. I strolled alongside Stonehenge Avenue, taking in King Barrow Ridge which is a 1.7 mile ceremonial approach which will once have connected Stonehenge to the river Avon.
I was able to walk along side large mounds known as barrows which were Bronze Age burial mounds, forming part of a larger group which were built along King Barrow Ridge. Before Stonehenge was built, this ridge formed an important gathering place for people where they may have lived for short periods of time. I spotted many horses whilst out and about and as the weather in England is much cooler than in Africa, many of those horses wore rugs which had the effect of modifying their appearance. I almost thought I spotted a zebra, but this was not to be. Seeing the horses basking in the sunshine, roaming around their paddocks was still a lovely sight.
The trek took me past another epic monument known as Woodhenge. This is a Neolithic Class II Henge around 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) north east of Stonehenge, just north of Amesbury and only a mere 2 or so miles from my new home. It is a construction of timber pillars consisting of 6 concentric oval rings of post holes and aligned to the solstice sunrise. The posts were arranged in a similar fashion as the bluestones at Stonehenge and it’s very similar to Stonehenge in that both have entrances oriented approximately to the midsummer sunrise, and the diameters of the timber circles at Woodhenge and the stone circles at Stonehenge are similar too.
It is estimated that it was probably built around 2300 BC and it was originally believed to be the remains of a large burial mound surrounded by a bank and a ditch, the latter of which having been destroyed by modern day ploughing. Any work on the study of Woodhenge has been overshadowed by studies of Stonehenge so there has been no real breakthrough in the understanding of Woodhenge. That said, it is intriguing to see such a monument notwithstanding that it remains a complete mystery. It is nowhere near as visually spectacular as Stonehenge but it is still an interesting historical site.
On the final leg of the safari, cows were spotted. These magnificent beasts were gorgeous specimens and many had calves at foot.
It is always a delight to see young animals, gambolling around with an innocent enthusiasm for life. What a lovely reminder that there is natural beauty to be found all around us, no matter what country we are in and no matter where our hearts lie. What a joyous safari in my new surroundings! I was just missing the rest of the Nomadic Family Unit who are ever present in my thoughts.