We jump on the train to Salisbury from Waterloo, and there is a mild altercation with regard to seating, but we pick another pair of empty seats and settle in. The city is only about two hours away, and a day trip to Stonehenge is eminently doable. So we sit and we watch the grey sky and green hills slide by quietly.
The train station is located a little away from the centre of the city – there is a tour bus right outside and we buy tickets and hop on. Our tickets also include admission fees for Stonehenge, which comes with a free audioguide. Salisbury, as it is now, sits on the confluence of five rivers, all tributaries to the River Avon, of Shakespearian fame. It is an old city, dating back to the British Iron Age.
The streets are thronged with people, and here and there an old Tudor building stands, and another green oak-ed medieval pub or two. Like many medieval cities, Salisbury is a walled city, with five gates; we visit St Ann’s and the Queen’s gate. Above St Ann’s gate is the room where Handel stayed. . There has been a market in Salisbury since the early 13th century, with stone crosses marking the centres for specific trades. There is still the Poulty Cross, a gothic looking structure that looks a little incongruous surrounded by high street stores.
Stonehenge itself is located about 8 miles from Salisbury. On the way we pass Old Sarum, where the town used to stand. All that is left of that 11th century settlement, where there was once a castle and cathedral is a high embankment, a man-made hill and 12m deep ditches. It was here that William the Conqueror gathered his nobles, knights and prelates, and is also possibly where the Doomsday Book was collated.
We arrive at the circle amidst a gaggle of tourists, grab our headphones and walk through an underground pass to emerge on the other side, on a path that sweeps around and behind the stones. They are less impressive in real-life, standing lonely and isolated on rolling green plains, dark brown hills behind them. There are rounded barrows on the crests of the plains, dotted all around the valley – this is a sacred site, used for burials for thousands of years.
No one really knows why Stonehenge was built; numerous theories abound. The site is rich in speculation, from druids and Arthur, to paganism. The stones are perfectly aligned to the sunset at Winters Solstice, the shortest day of the year; many believe that they were built as a way of marking the passing of the seasons. The stones are open to the public on both Summer and Winter Solstice, when crowds gather within the circle of bluestones in the middle for their own interpretation, their own meanings and rituals.
They are just stones, really, battered by the years; all 4,000 of them! The wind has rounded the markings left by the old craftsmen, and before the barriers were erected, tourists used to nick their own souvenirs from the stones, leaving gouges and handprints. The sarsens have weathered all this, and they are still standing.
The area has its own particular, mysterious beauty. Imagination populates the barren, chalky, plains with dark woods, the way it was thousands of years ago. Barrows loom in the dim light, a hush lies across the sacred landscape. A procession leads the way along a ditch, standing stones on either side. As they walk up towards the circle, the candlelight flickers, casts long shadows. Entering the structure, underneath the curved wooden roof and proud archway of lintelled stone, the candles are extinguished, and there is the smell of soot and ash, snow and expectation.
The sky, seen from the open archway, lightens on a clear winter day. And finally the first ray of the sun arcs out from the horizon, a beam of hope striking the Altar stone in the middle of the circle.
No one really knows why Stonehenge exists; the site has been reworked so many times that its original purpose lies lost to time. I breathe in the cold, crisp air, and throw a backward glance at the grey circle.
The stones stand silent.