Salisbury Stories and Tips

Stop # 5 - Stonehenge, End of the Line

Blue stones and trilithons Photo, Devizes, England

The last stop on my trip today where the A360 meets the A303 is Stonehenge. This is situated another four miles south from Shrewton and around 3 miles west from Amesbury. It occupies an area of high ground and is today as always, blowing a gale and bloody freezing. Being a National Trust member allows me in for free although the site is managed by English Heritage; it’s a reciprocal arrangement they have with some of the UK’s top sights.

Thanks to idiots intent on carving their names in the stonework, you cannot these days get nearer than 100 feet from the stones which is a shame although, having bought along the 300mm telephoto lens, it didn’t make any difference to me as far as the pictures were concerned.

Stonehenge was built in three stages, an accumulation of an estimated 30 million man-hours of work. Bearing in mind that the most up-to-date tools available were rollers, wedges and levers, then it does bring into perspective the amazing effort that created this most iconic of the UK’s Neolithic monuments. Work started around 3,100 BC; this saw the construction of the “henge” or earthwork and ditch which what was how the site looked for the next millennium. The ditches contain “Aubrey Holes” which are large pits excavated from the chalk. They have steep sides, flat bottoms and are approximately one meter deep and wide. The holes form a circle about 90 meters in diameter with recent excavations revealing cremated human remains in some of them.

The holes are not believed to have been specifically built as graves, but more likely as part of the religious ceremonies that took place here. Many are still visible on the site and some are marked by white circles in the car park in their original positions. This was the first stage of Stonehenge, earthworks and a ditch, after which the site was abandoned and almost forgotten about for close on a thousand years.

Stage two began around 2150 BC and was the most dramatic phase of the construction. It was certainly the most strenuous as far as the labourers were concerned. Some 82 bluestones, each tipping the scales at 4 tonnes were carved from the underlying rock strata at the Preseli Mountains in southwest Wales. Each huge stone would have to have been chiselled out of the rock face to pretty much it’s required measurements prior to being loaded onto sledges and dragged over rollers all the way to the Welsh coast, close to what is today Milford Haven. Here they were loaded onto rafts and floated along the Welsh coast until they reached the River Avon.

From here, they were floated upstream to the confluence of the River Frome and from there, another back-breaking “drag-and-roll” across land to Warminster. The penultimate stage was to load the stones onto rafts once more and float them down the River Wylye to Salisbury, then transfer to the Salisbury Avon to West Amesbury, then culminating in a final three mile roll across the Plain to deposit them at their resting place.

It’s hard to even conceive the planning and geographical knowledge this must have entailed as well as the sheer muscle power required to lift 82 four tonne stones all the way from Preseli to Stonehenge, a distance of about 230 miles. Then there’s the navigational prowess to steer the rafts along 150 miles of Welsh coastline, coping with tides, currents and sandbars.

Having arrived on site, the stones were erected in an incomplete double circle. Also, the entrance to the original earthworks were widened and the massive “Heel Stones” raised. Finally, the nearest part of the avenue was built, forming a perfect alignment with the rising midsummer sun. Stage two was complete.

Stage three commenced around 2000 BC and this defined the shape of Stonehenge that we all recognise today. This saw the arrival of the giant Sarsen Stones, used both as uprights and as lintels.. These huge stones originated from a site on the Marlborough Downs, about 25 miles east of Stonehenge. There are marked similarities between the Sarsen Stones of Stonehenge and the huge standing stones at Avebury, Wiltshire’s other prehistoric circle. The Sarsens all weighed in at around 50 tonnes and again, we can only marvel at the strength, fortitude and ingenuity of these ancient masons.

The terrain from Marlborough had no rivers to facilitate “easy” handling of the stones so each Sarsen was manhandled across 25 miles of undulating hills and valleys using rollers and sledges, each one requiring possibly 500 men to pull each stone with a further 100 needed to keep replacing the rollers in front of the sledge. All the Sarsens were erected in an outer circle and all originally had lintels linking them to the next stone on either side. It’s blatantly obvious to any visitor here that many of the Sarsens are missing today and there is no trace of them nearby or within a considerable distance from the site.

Finally, five massive Trlithons were erected in the centre of the Sarsens in a horseshoe configuration, most of which remain to this day. As a postscript, some of the bluestones were rearranged around 1500 BC. There were 82 of these originally, of which some 60 comprised the circle but like the Sarsens, over the centuries they have fallen, been removed and probably broken up. Many now remain as stumps beneath the surface.

Well, that’s my trip over with for today and it’s been quite a day. I’ve seen three vibrant villages, one ghost village and one prehistoric site, enough for any day’s intake. AND, it’s only a 30 minute drive back home.

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