Saturday, 15 September 2012

Hanging out with the stones...

An away day to Stonehenge.....

15th September 2012

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Amesbury, Withsire, Millennium Cross
Amesbury Millennium Cross
Squeezing out the last bits of summer is the name of the game now that the evenings are drawing in. On Saturday I joined a day trip on a minibus to Stonehenge organised locally from west London. An eight mile hike was also part of the itinerary which was going to allow the group to explore the surrounding Wiltshire country side and enjoy which looked like the last good day of the summer. 

Armed with clipboard, our organiser Tom marked everyone off as they boarded the 9.30 for Stonehenge. Acton town is  an unusual meeting point for a tour but convenient for me as I live in nearby Ealing. It of course allowed for an earlier arrival home along with, time permitting, the chance to enjoy at least some prime-time Saturday night locally ("cake" and "eating it" are always on my mind). I could also then get home comfortably before the nutty season kicked in.

Off we went. 22 stones fans on board and the bus slipped onto the M3 from the Chiswick roundabout bound for Wiltshire. As with most bus trips it was quiet on the outbound journey with the odd newspaper in view, some couples having quiet chit-chat and a girl in the same row as myself having a snooze. Luckily I had a seat all to my good self so I parked my day pack next to me and fished out a banana. 

Fly fishing along the river Avon, Wiltshire, England
Fly fishing along the river Avon
The weather looked very promising and because of the recent stretch of dry days chose to wear my walking shoes instead of my sturdy Brashers. We were to be dropped off in Amersbury, four miles from Stonehenge and which marked the half-way mark of a planned circular walk.

The bus passed into Hampshire after 40 minutes then Wiltshire just before 11 and passed a road sign for Stonehenge shortly after that.  We finally pulled up at 11.45 in the Amersbury where we began our hike. Everyone off of the bus, and a after a few introductions moved off along a lane from the village following The Lords Way.
Walking group winding it's way to Stonehenge
Walking group winding it's way to Stonehenge

Amersbury is a small picturesque village of a couple of main streets lined mostly with independent family run shops. It gives you a feel of days gone by before familiar franchises and chain stores became the mark of every street.

Wooded path leading to Stonehenge
Wooded path leading to Stonehenge
Not far into the Lords Way we found ourselves following the river Avon with a path that had become overgrown and a sure sign of autumn's return. A few middle-aged men were fly-fishing and with the mix of the partial shaded areas and strong sunlight made it was one of those sights straight out of a brochure for English country life.  

After crossing a small bridge the group followed along trails and lanes and into wooded walkways almost made for this hike towards the monument ahead. We took the sign for Dunford and followed what then looked like a mix of horse breeding country and farmland. All farms had their fields cut with hay piled high and several well packed sheds marked harvest time for sure. 
Cloud watching over Stonehenge
Cloud watching over Stonehenge
We continued on and from over a hill caught sight of Stonehenge for the first time. Tom announced lunchtime and we stopped for a picnic at the Normanton Barrows which although was in a nice location delayed the reason for my been on this trip. Patience patience I thought. The Normanton Barrows stretches for about a kilometre and is made up of a series of disc shaped barrows like small grass spaceships in the distance from Stonehenge. The curved line they follow feel parallel with the ancient sight beyond. We sat  and had a packed lunch in the strong sunshine and watched a demon like cloud that sailed across the sky in front of us as it peered down upon where we were headed.

Stonehenge is a neolithic monument from around 3000BC that has went through various  rebuilds, additions and face 
Salisbury plain
Salisbury plain
lifts over time. The image we are so accustomed to seeing isn't the original structure and was preceded by structures made from stone and wood. Many theories exist as to its purpose and the popular use of a place of worship is kept prominent with the strong association with the Druids. There is no actual link or overlap in the known history of Stonehenge and Druidism other than the annual gathering during the summer solstice. This annual procession is enough to keep it in the public conciousness and that of a place of intrigue.
Entrance to car park at Stonehenge
Entrance to car park at Stonehenge 

Lunch over and we headed on. When we reached the monument the group stopped for another 40 minutes allowing the choice of entering the sight and forgo the admission charge or simply relax in the nearby fields. In would have been a sin not to go I thought especially since the sun was just starting to cast shadows from the stones. A good time for take a nice snap or two. 
Those who chose to visit joined the conveyor belt of day trippers queuing for admission then passed through a tunnel that went under a fence and emerged onto a path towards the stones. 
The breakaway group made our way as close as we were allowed up to the lines that prevent you getting close enough to touch. All visitors following each other slowly around its guided perimeter path. Everyone moved at about the same pace gazing at it's wonder and making the odd remark whilst keeping it light and interesting. With everything from comparisons to the pyramids, one of the wonders of the world, a place of sacrifice, the iPad2 of it's day and "No way am I getting my photo taken against a big lump of rumble!", continual comments that broke the silence and all in the good taste of an enjoyable day out. There is wonderment here and most feel a draw of some kind. The height of some of the stones alone are breathtaking and how they sit and have sat over the years is a wonder. I have to say that few people expressed much knowledge about what they were looking at (me included) and few realised that the current monument wasn't the original circle. Stonehenge is the Mona Lisa of Neolithic history with the surrounding countryside of barrows, Bronze age monuments and burial grounds the Louvre of archaeology. 

One thing that struck me when walking the pathway around the circle is that almost every tourist walked by the equally significant Heel Stone without any thought or realisation of it's importance. When viewed from inside the circle itself, the Heel Stone marks the direction from where the sun rises on the morning of the summer solstice. Relatively speaking though, it is situated out of the way and outside the guided perimeter path around the monument. In fact it's right up against the fence beside the road that passes the site erected to protect and preserve the stones from too much interference. 

Here's a good video overview of Stonehenge.....

Forty minutes passes quick when you're drawn into an ancient world and those that made their way to the stones now had to rejoin the group. The walk back to Amersbury along the open fields of Salisbury plain, beautiful as they were, didn't offer the variety of the route we followed to the monument and didn't serve up the same air of anticipation either. The heat and direct sunlight were causing tired legs as we neared Amersbury again en route for a scheduled pub stop. Cloudier days make for better walking conditions especially in these parts as there's little in the way of shade. Take my advice and wear a hat if you intend visiting.
The George Hotel, Amersbury
The George Hotel, Amersbury

We edged back into Amersbury along a different lane from where we had started and Tom guided us to The George Hotel. "The George" is an ancient coaching house founded by Henry II in 900AD as a Pilgrims Hostel. It's a pub of two halves with tables in the court yard in between that still provides Bed and Breakfast and is very olde worldy indeed. 

With our laurels well rested we boarded the bus when it pulled up and set off east back to London. The setting sun made for a quiet trip back which felt quick partly due to the time of day.
We were back on the ground in Acton Town just after 8pm and allowed for that sensible arrival home time. 

Thereafter a well earned bit of Ealing style jazz with food rounded up the day.

If you ever intend going to Stonehenge I would recommend a full day and go and investigate the surrounding barrows as well. Research the area and follow the Lords Way that leads to the monument. It's a perfect approach. Amersbury is a great place to park up, look around and spend time in. It's also a perfect place to start and return to if spending the day of foot. 

For the full Stonehenge experience however go for the mid-summer all-nighter and join the hundreds who show up to celebrate the solstice with the Druids. 

See you there next year :)

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