Stonehenge Is Ready for Its Close-Up

By Cameron Hewitt

It’s easy to be cynical about Stonehenge. Yes, it’s world-famous. Yes, it’s an astonishing feat of prehistoric engineering. But at the end of the day, it’s just a pile of rocks, on a windswept plain where sideways rain is far more common than cheery sunshine. Worse, for years the way it was presented was laughably poor: You’d pull off the highway, park in a big lot, zip through a cut-rate visitors center, and then walk through a tunnel to an ugly cordon that kept you well away from the site.

I’m happy to say Stonehenge has turned things around, in a big way. In the last few years, they’ve built a state-of-the-art new visitors center, with a concise but engaging exhibit about the site’s history. Just outside is a re-creation of a thatched-hut village similar to the one where Stonehenge’s builders likely lived. You can walk through the huts to see their primitive “wicker” furniture and woven blankets. Docents show off Stone Age tools — made exclusively of wood, flint, and antler. And lying nearby is one of those massive sarsen stones, lying sideways on a log-wheeled cart — likely the way these were transported 20 miles, up and down undulating hills, to this location.

Another big change has been to keep the tourist hubbub far away from the stone circle itself. Now you have to ride a shuttle bus from the visitors center a few minutes to Stonehenge itself. Or you can walk about 20 minutes through the fields. Here’s a tip: I was glad that I arrived early in the day (around 10:00). I hopped on a nearly empty bus to the stones — saving the museum exhibits for later. By the time I rode back to the visitors center, there was a long line waiting for the shuttle bus.

The staff told me that it’s best to arrive before 10:30; it’s also quieter late in the day — ideally, arrive two hours before closing time, which is also officially the “last entry” time…that’s 18:00 in June-Aug, 17:00 in spring and fall, and 15:00 from late October through March. Yet another tip: You can avoid ticket-buying lines if you prebook at www.english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge (no extra charge). While you have to designate your arrival time, the staff told me (with a wink) that they really don’t worry too much about that — if you’re running late, or want to swing by earlier in the day to avoid encroaching bad weather, it’s generally no problem. (Keep in mind that, even once you have a ticket, you may still face a line for the bus…that alone is a good reason to aim for a quieter time.)

Anyway, back to the stones: Even having seen this before, it’s hard not to be impressed by the undertaking of people living 5,000 years ago. The decision to build it, and the know-how and hard work to make it happen, are staggering….the B.C. equivalent of putting a man on Mars. And yet, here it stands, five millennia later, admired by visitors who’ve traveled from thousands of miles away — from every corner of the earth — to share this experience. During my visit, I kept overhearing travelers whisper to each other, in giddy awe, “Wow. This really is amazing.”

In our guidebooks, we rate every sight on a scale of zero to three “pyramids” to indicate each one’s relative worthiness. Stonehenge has been at two pyramids for years. But with all of these improvements, the new consensus around the office (including Rick, who filmed here recently) is to promote Stonehenge to coveted three-pyramid status.

On a side note, I was also here on a mission: At Rick Steves’ Europe, our photo database is woefully thin on Stonehenge images. We’ve been leaning on one grainy, 10-year-old shot for way too long. One of our designers made a special plea for me to get some better photos. So I enjoyed getting as many good angles as the barriers would allow, taking advantage of a nice sunny day with big puffy clouds to add texture. I was able to text back: “I shot the hell out of these rocks for you.”

Yes, you can still manage to be cynical about Stonehenge. But these days, that’s just too much work…now the easy thing is to let yourself be swept up in the majesty and the mystery of it all.