Friday, June 7

It is Stonehenge visit day of our two-week London vacation.  At home on the internet, Ed and I  purchased tickets for a tour of the major prehistoric sites of the Salisbury Plain, from Tours From Antiquity.  At 7 a.m., we board the 16-passenger coach on the Cromwell Road, across the street from the Natural History Museum.  We have backpacks with coat, hats, and snacks.  After a week of pleasant June weather in London, today it is raining.

Our archeologist introduces himself as the coach proceeds out of London, as Dr. Edward Shepherd of the University of York.  The other tour patrons are a couple of families —  parents with older children – and other couples like ourselves.  We fill the coach.  The driver’s name is Trevor.

Dr. Shepherd ventures that it might be better weather out on Salisbury Plain, since we may drive under the weather front.

An hour and a half later we arrive at Woodhenge, not far from Amesbury.  As the coach approaches the site, Dr. Shepherd – Edward – takes the microphone and tells us more about what we will see.  We arrive at a broad flat grassy plot inside a fence, next to a small car park, surrounded by farmland.  There is a pattern of short, round concrete pylons sticking out of the ground, marking where the postholes were located.  In spattering rain, we walk among the markers, trying to image that here stands a forest of wooden posts – perhaps decorated?  Then Edward points to the pastures around us and describes the huge circular structure we are standing in, Durrington Walls.  Almost eradicated due to long years of weather, the bank is still discernible.  My husband Ed starts with his questions.  Has anyone dug within the circle, and if so what was found? Were any artifacts found when Woodhenge was investigated?

A field with concrete posts in it.

Woodhenge, near Amesbury, Wiltshire

Edward answers, and begins to look at us with more interest.  He realizes he has a couple of people on his tour who are intensely interested, already have some knowledge, and want to know more.

Next stop, Stonehenge.  Again, an orientation from Edward at the microphone as we approach the site.  Trevor slides the coach into a slot in the small car park, which is already full of cars and some tour buses.  Edward is an active young man and he heads straight in to the ticket kiosk to arrange entry for his tour.  The rest of us are in need of a toilet break.

DrEdwardShepherdAfter an orientation at the map showing what the stone circle looked like at its most complete, we pass under the road and up the sloped path, and look left.  There is the henge, hulking in the field like forgotten project of building blocks mislaid by a giant.  We must walk around the circle on a tarmac path, outside a rope boundary.  No one is permitted to walk among the stones any longer.

Ed and I stay with Edward as we walk around the circle, gazing at the stones.  Edward pauses periodically to talk to members of his group about something underfoot or about the stones.  At the far end of the path, we have almost but not quite circumnavigated Stonehenge.  He points out the pasture where an ancient  wide route marked by stones, called an avenue, once led from the Avon River to Stonehenge.  If it were not raining, he says, we would go out there and walk on the avenue.  I am so sad, I wanted to walk on the avenue, but I did not bring Wellington boots.  And there is nothing to see in the field.  Edward had an archeological season here, in one of the many recent investigations of Stonehenge that continues to shed light on what occurred at the henge four thousand years ago.

In the other direction, at the far side of the grassy sward that surrounds Stonehenge, I see a small cluster of travel trailers parked on a dirt road near a lone tree. I ask Edward, “Is that a group of archeologists conducting a dig?”  He smiles ruefully.  “No, that’s the Druids.  They stick around and keep an eye on the site.  There is no proven connection between the people who built Stonehenge and Druid beliefs.”  But the site has been adopted by modern Druids, who gain full access to the site on the summer stolstice.

A field with some large gray standing stones

Stonehenge, near Amesbury, Wiltshire

In heavy rain, we return to the coach, which becomes steamy inside.  Trevor drives west down the road, and we start to see heavy construction machinery along the road.  Edward tells us some astonishing news.  British Heritage is building a large new visitor’s center a mile from Stonehenge.  When it is complete, they will tear out the A360 that goes so close to the site.  Visitors will be ferried to the circle in battery-powered coaches.  No more diesel trucks roaring past the stones.  They will stand alone in a field again, except for the visitors.  I cheer.

Tours From Antiquity was founded by Dr. Edward Shepherd in 2011.  In seeking additional archeologist-guides in addition to himself, he wrote in the University of York Department of Archeology newsletter, “The USP [unique selling proposition] of the tours is the opportunity to visit these landscapes, the whole landscape, as we walk between many of the key monuments … guided by an archaeologist, offering hopefully a more detailed, passionate guiding experience.” He added, “The job itself is lots of fun, visiting famous archaeological sites, talking to small groups of people who are interested in the subject, and the daily pay is great … at least compared with the daily wage of many heritage-based jobs: I should know!”

I will return to the next portion of the tour in my next blog post.

Recommended!  Tours From Antiquity