advertisement

This huge circle of lintels and megalithic pillars is considered by many to be the most important prehistoric monument in Britain.

Some visitors are disappointed when they see that Stonehenge is nothing more than concentric circles of stones. But perhaps they don't understand that Stonehenge represents an amazing engineering feat because many of the boulders, the bluestones in particular, were moved many miles (perhaps from southern Wales) to this site. If you're a romantic, you'll see the ruins in the early glow of dawn or else when shadows fall at sunset. The light is most dramatic at these times, the shadows longer, and the effect is often far more mesmerizing than it is in the glaring light of midday.

The widely held view of 18th- and 19th-century Romantics that Stonehenge was the work of the Druids is without foundation. The boulders, many weighing several tons, are believed to have predated the arrival in Britain of the Celtic culture. Controversy surrounds the prehistoric site, especially since the publication of Stonehenge Decoded by Gerald S. Hawkins and John B. White, which maintains that Stonehenge was an astronomical observatory -- that is, a Neolithic "computing machine" capable of predicting eclipses.

In 2008, Stonehenge made world headlines when part of its eternal mystery may have been solved. From the beginning, it was a monument to the dead, as revealed by radiocarbon dating from human cremation burials around the brooding stones. The site was used as a cemetery from 3000 B.C. until after the monuments were erected in 2500 B.C.

In yet another development, archaeologists uncovered hearths, timbers, and other remains of what was probably the village of workers who erected the monoliths on the Salisbury Plain. These ancient ruins appear to form the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain. The trenches of this discovery, Durrington Walls, lie 2 miles from Stonehenge.

Your ticket permits you to go inside the fence surrounding the site that protects the stones from vandals and souvenir hunters. You can go all the way up to a short rope barrier, about 15m (50 ft.) from the stones.

A full circular tour around Stonehenge is possible. A modular walkway was introduced to cross the archaeologically important avenue, the area that runs between the Heel Stone and the main circle of stones. This enables visitors to complete a full circuit of the stones and to see one of the best views of a completed section of Stonehenge as they pass by, an excellent addition to the informative audio tour.

Insider's tip: From the road, if you don't mind the noise from traffic, you can get a good view of Stonehenge without paying admission to go for a close-up encounter. What we like to do is climb Amesbury Hill, clearly visible and lying 2.4km (1 1/2 miles) up the A303. From here, you'll get a free panoramic view.

Wilts & Dorset (tel. 01722/336855; www.wdbus.co.uk) runs several buses daily (depending on demand) from Salisbury to Stonehenge, as well as buses from the Salisbury train station to Stonehenge. The bus trip to Stonehenge takes 40 minutes, and a round-trip ticket costs £8 for adults, £5 for children ages 5 to 15 (4 and younger ride free), £6 seniors, and £15 family ticket.