Tuesday, 25 February 2014


'The Gods are angry.' yelled the TT into the tearing wind as we walked as fast as we could towards the stones, coat collars turned up against the hail, shuddering with cold, the day suddenly as dark and icy as it had been bright and warm not ten minutes earlier. 
All Trefusis Minor said was that it was bloody freezing, and he felt we'd seen enough bloody stones. I didn't reprove him for saying 'bloody'; the hail was pelting too fiercely at my face to want to open my mouth to speak, which is possibly why he said it twice, and anyway,the rest of my energy was focused on keeping the TT from being blown off her whippetty legs by the force of the storm sweeping across Salisbury Plain, up and over the stones.   

Neither of the children had had any enthusiasm for a trip to Stonehenge, and visiting in foul weather had killed what tiny shred of goodwill remained toward the place. It was my idea to go and the weather was unfortunate. Knowing how I love the place, they tried to kindle in themselves a spark of interest, only to have it extinguished by the drenching we received in the short distance from the Land Rover to the stone circle and back again. 

Stonehenge rouses a dormant Pagan sensibility in me; I can feel a touch of the old magic crackle out from the bluestones, feel the smoothness of the Sarcen stones, cool as snakeskin, without even touching them. It's an ancient place and I'm fanciful enough to feel greatly awed by it, to find it easily as sacred as Salisbury Cathedral, directly south of the stones themselves. It is much nicer on a rare fine day, but you do feel its power when it's brought a tempest down on your head.

Possibly, I said as we got out of the rain, the Gods were angry and sent the storm because Grandad called the new visitor's centre 'an abomination'. If I were an ancient God whom no one but a handful of Druids bothered to worship anymore, I think I'd be rather pleased with a development that cost £27million - I'd think it a fitting tribute to my majesty. But my father remembers the times he used to bring us here when my sister and I were even younger than the Infant Trefusii - when one could leave one's car at the side of the road and clamber all over the stones, lie on one's back in the centre of the circle, staring at the clouds moving in the sky, lean against the towering Sarsens and wonder at leisure on the impossibility of how they arrived there. Now, it's roped off, you have to admire from a distance, try to get close to the belief of the people who made it by means of an exhibition, rather than touching and imagining and letting your unconscious collide with more than four thousand years of mystery.

Anyway, I can wax all lyrical about having been able to play in and on the stones as a child, but I'm sure that in 2014, English Heritage is right to put the public back at one remove - I don't think a million people a year came here from all over the world in the 1970's, and I daresay the stones might suffer if people were still allowed to touch. I think my father is wrong about the new visitor centre and new way of approaching the henge - it's a huge improvement on what was there until recently, and the exhibition is thoughtful and interesting. 

The Chief Druid is, apparently, unhappy that there are actual skeletons on display, rather than resin replicas - part of me thinks he is right and the originals should be buried back in their mounds, but then I slightly feel like that about the mummies in the British Museum and poor Pete Marsh and the petrified remains at Pompeii. Though, let the dead bury the dead.

So, go to Stonehenge. Go on a fine day. Do not take reluctant children if you want to quietly commune with the ancient religion. I am going to book for one of the special dawn tours, make some offering to the Gods in the hope of kind weather, and sit and stare at the stones, pondering on the questions of four and a half thousand years.


Steerforth said...

Like visiting Brighton's West Pier and spending sixpences, walking among the stones is something that few under the age of *cough* have experienced. I remember eating my lunch whilst sitting on one of the flat stones.

I think it all changed in the late 70s, when some Chelsea fans stopped off at Stonehenge and sprayed 'Chelsea Shed' on some of the stones. After that, the area was sadly sealed off.

I'm sorry that the Trefusians didn't quite grasp the full majesty of Stonehenge. Children can be remarkably impervious to these things. I remember a boy sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon with his back turned to the landscape, completely absorbed in a Nintendo game.

I'd really love to walk around the stones again, but not if it means being surrounded by hundreds of pagans (sorry druids).

amro said...

Excellent read. I fear it's the way of the world though. I remember taking a young cousin of mine - she was so unbelievably sullen that it actually was rather a great achievement.

Alicia Foodycat said...

I found Stonehenge such a letdown when I first saw it. It was so much smaller than I'd imagined. Avebury is much more impressive, and you can still touch the stones.

Mrs Jones said...

I did my Master's thesis on Stonehenge and have yet to visit the new centre but am hoping to fairly soon.

Have you taken the Trefusii to Sutton Hoo? That's got a good centre and if you arrange to do a proper tour of the site with a guide from the centre (human guide, not paper-based!), they'll show you the sand-body of one of the executed victims and point out where the brains have splattered out. Young boys generally love this bit.

Helen Brocklebank said...

Wow! Sutton Hoo sounds wonderful - I'm definitely going to take the Infant Trefusii there.

And I love Avebury Ring: scene of one of my favourite programmes as a child 'Children of the Stones'

Steerforth said...

I forgot to mention West Kennet Long Barrow - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Kennet_Long_Barrow - which is far less touristy and, to me at least, seemed a very spiritual place.

I don't mean to be rude about pagans, but I find it offputting when (as happened during one visit) a woman in her 50s with orange hair is hugging a stone. I just want to look at the stones and lose myself without any distractions.

Going to Stonehenge at dawn is a very good idea.

Mrs Jones said...

It seems you need to book a Guided Mound Tour in advance if you want to 'step over the rope', as the website puts it, and get a close up view of the big burial mound where the ship was found. I'm not sure if the splattered-head-sand-body is a standard bit of the tour but it's always worth asking! West Stow village is also close by and is a reconstructed Anglo Saxon settlement with houses you can go into (www.weststow.org). When I taught archaeology, we always had a day trip as it's all interesting stuff.

Also, as Steerforth says, West Kennet Long Barrow is very atmospheric - it's the largest prehistoric chambered tomb in Europe that you can go into and is directly opposite Silbury Hill, the very top of which can be seen from the centre of Avebury. Fab!

Helen Brocklebank said...

Steerforth: I know what you mean about actual 21st century pagans, they're a bit organised for me, and the picture of the Chief Druid in 'Wiltshire' magazine where I discovered his opinions about skeletons, was quite terrifying. I like to have a private pagan moment, probably with a talk afterwards by Julian Cope, who, in my head, looks much as he did in The Face in 1983.
Love the idea of West Kennet barrow, & thank you, Mrs Jones, for suggesting Silbury Hill - I'm going on a pagan pilgrimage, & Mr Trefusis can look after the infants.

nappy valley girl said...

I've never been (apart from staring at it from afar in a traffic jam on the A38). You've inspired me now, although I think my children would probably be bored too. The Littleboys played on the iPad throughout a train journey across the Rockies last summer...sigh.