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“It was a great storm, a storm that would be remembered…”
This is how Bernard Cornwell’s book Stonehenge opens, and also somewhat accurately portrays the day I visited Stonehenge with the Open Palace Programme. Ok, so it wasn’t exactly storming, but the rain seemed suspended in the air like a cold, wet mist. Our bus let us off at the visitor center and we were told to return in three hours. I shoved my hat on my head, pulled on a fleece jacket and a raincoat, and stepped off the bus. The smell of wet hay greeted me, as though I’d been put down in the middle of a farm. This seemed appropriate because as far as I could see, besides the visitor center, we were surrounded by flat, rolling fields which might have been crop fields for all I knew. No stones in sight.
Thinking that maybe the famous stones were hidden on the other side of the visitor center, we headed towards the building. There we found ourselves packed in shoulder to shoulder with the hundreds of other tourists who had also been bussed to this peculiar destination. We were swept with the crowd into the gift shop where people surged towards the racks of warm wool hats, sweatshirts, jackets, and ponchos. It was almost as if they knew tourists would show up unprepared for Britain’s weather.
Finally, after extricating ourselves from the gift shop, our next object was to download the Stonehenge smartphone app audio tour with the provided free Wi-Fi. I stared at my phone as it refused again and again to connect to the Wi-Fi. Probably because there were so many people trying to do the same. Eventually we gave up and continued without the audio guide. Great. It was like being back in the stone age.
Finally, on the other side of the visitor center, we found ourselves not staring at Stonehenge but reconstructions of primitive looking huts. They looked like Cornwell’s descriptions of the living quarters of his Tribe of Ratharryn. These I supposed were the kind of structures people lived in who inhabited this area at the time Stonehenge is supposed to have been constructed. I stepped inside one which had a fire pit in the middle. I imagined sitting in a smoky atmosphere inside these close quarters and backed out.
With no audio guide, we looked around for a clue as to where we might find the strange rock structure we had come to see. With some confusion we were finally able to locate an attendant who directed us to a shuttle that would drive us a mile and a half to the structure. There was a walking path, but rather than be soaked by the time we arrived we elected for the five minutes ride inside the dry bus.
Finally the famous rocks came into view… and it was pretty anticlimactic. The shuttle had let us off on a pathway lined with the occasional “information” board which gave little actual information besides guesses at the history, because nobody really knows.
A rope ran around the entirety of Stonehenge, keeping the masses well back. Everyone crowded shoulder to shoulder trying to snap photos at odd angles. It was hard to keep the crowds or the road full of cars running by Stonehenge out of the background of your photograph.
After walking all the way around Stonehenge, regretting that we couldn’t get up close to examine the rocks and that the amount of tourists made the place a bit of a joke, we returned again by shuttle to the visitor center. Those that decided to walk back despite the rain said Stonehenge is much more impressive from the walk because you can see it rise up on the horizon.
After a quick lunch and a much needed hot chocolate, at the visitor center cafe, I hopped back on the bus with about two hours to spare. I was as disappointed in my visit as I had been with Cornwell’s book, which I just couldn’t get into and had given up finishing. Most of the girls in my group were also back on the bus within the first hour. I wrote postcards home, others slept, read, and chatted for the remainder of our allotted three hour visit- warm and dry and unimpressed.