Visiting Stonehenge is the least important part of “the Stonehenge experience”.
Don’t get me wrong; Stonehenge is a fascinating historical curiosity, and I’m grateful to have seen it in person. It was a nice way to spend an afternoon, and I’d recommend visiting if you’re ever in England with a day to spare. All I’m saying is that at the end of the day, I spent a total of six hours going from London and back to look at a bunch of old rocks in a field.
(Left: Ticket to the Stonehenge site)
On the right is a photo of the visitor’s center (or “centre,” if you’re so inclined). With its flat, inward-sloping roof and mass of supporting pillars, it’s clearly cribbing from the architectural style of Stonehenge itself. Cute, I suppose, but it also reminds you that no one would ever walk through this field without the presence of Stonehenge. (Either that, or it would’ve been developed into a suburban area a long time ago. Take your pick.)
Once you embark on the tour, you’re given a handheld speaker with a small keypad and digital display that you can use to listen to pre-recorded lectures on the history of Stonehenge. There’s only one way to walk around the site, a slow loop in a cordoned-off path that gives you every possible angle on the monument, and various signposts along the path correspond to specific lectures that you can pull up with the device. It’s meant to be an educational, awe-inspiring experience. Can’t say, really, because I gave up about a quarter of the way through the walk, as did most of the group I traveled with.
Instead, I looked at the monument that I’d come there to see, and I thought about history.
History isn’t exactly linear. We think of Stonehenge as this one static thing, a monument that’s stood on this hill out in Nowhere, England since the Neolithic era, but then that’s not quite true. The ditches and mounds predate the stone structures by some thousand years, to say nothing of how long it took to assemble the circle. There were dozens of generations of people who knew Stonehenge as a work-in-progress, people who lived and died not knowing if their children or their children’s children or so on and so forth would ever see the temple completed. And now, we modern people have these rocks we can point at to say “This is Stonehenge,” but if you could talk to those people, what would they call Stonehenge? Would they recognize the temple, the visitor center/centre, the mock huts that the English Heritage society reconstructed nearby? What would they think of the Stonehenge Monopoly sets?
Our Stonehenge is almost more important as an idea, or a symbol, than as an actual monument. It’s the idea of continuity, our human ingenuity and persistence standing the test of time. Right now, with entire industries built around rapid innovation and equally rapid obsolescence, global political flux, and our accelerating climate disasters, that’s an idea that I find to be quite comforting.
It’s also not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Until next time,
Class of ’17