The Landscape of Stonehenge
Our walking holidays in Wessex take you through this ancient landscape to Stonehenge
On our self guided walking Holiday Wonders of Wessex, prior to reaching the stone circles of Stonehenge, you will walk from Amesbury and the river Avon, where the ancient processional route of the Avenue begins, via Durrington Walls and Woodhenge, passed the Cursus and King Barrows up the Avenue directly towards Stonehenge itself.
Stonehenge, located about 20km north of Salisbury, is the remains of a ring of standing stones in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England.
Durrington Walls is Britain's largest henge measuring nearly 500 metres in diameter. The essential characteristic of a 'henge' is that it features a ring bank and ditch, but with the ditch inside the bank rather than outside. Due to the poor defensive utility of an enclosure with an external bank and an internal ditch, henges are not considered to have served a defensive purpose. Durrington Walls originally had 4 entrances of which only one is now clearly visible. The internal ditch was about 5 metres deep and more than 10 metres wide. The material dug out of the ditch was used to create an external bank 3 metres high. It was built around 2500 BC and it may be that Durrington Walls is where the builders of Stonehenge lived.
Recent excavations on the site revealed seven houses and it's been suggested the settlement may have originally had up to 1000 houses if the entire settlement area was used. It is possibly the largest Neolithic settlement in the whole of northern Europe. One of the homes excavated showed evidence of a cobb wall and its own ancillary building, and was remarkably similar in layout to a house at Skara Brae in Orkney. The other houses seem to have had simple wattle and daub walls. A reconstruction of these houses forms part of the new Stonehenge visitors centre
A timber circle, known as the Southern Circle, 40 metres in diameter consisting of 6 rings of posts has been found and recent work has discovered that the entrance to the circle is aligned on the winter solstice sunrise and therefore the complete opposite of Stonehenge. A paved avenue was also constructed on a different alignment - towards the sunset on the summer solstice - that led to the River Avon.
One theory suggests that the timber circle at Durrington Walls represented life and a land of the living, whilst Stonehenge and the down around it, encircled by burial mounds, represented a land of the dead. The two were connected by the River Avon and their respective avenues. A ceremonial procession route from one to the other represented the transition from life to death.
Estimates of the number of people required to create the henge vary from 4000 - 6000. At a similar time, another large timber circle and henge were created immediately south at Woodhenge.
The site consists of six concentric oval rings of postholes, the outermost being about 43 by 40 metres wide. They are surrounded first by a single flat-bottomed ditch and then by an outer bank, about 10m wide and 1m high. At the centre of the rings was found a crouched inhumation of a child, possibly a dedicatory sacrifice along with a crouched
Recent excavations indicated that there were at least five standing stones on the site, arranged in a "cove". The deepest post holes measured up to 2 metres and are believed to have held posts which reached as high as 7.5 metres above ground. Those posts would have weighed up to 5 tons, and their arrangement was similar to that of the bluestones at Stonehenge. The positions of the postholes are currently marked with modern concrete posts. There are similarities to Stonehenge with entrances oriented approximately to the midsummer sunrise, and the diameters of the timber circles at Woodhenge and the stone circles at Stonehenge are similar. It was thought to be a model or prototype for Stonehenge, but current dating shows that Stonehenge was well under construction by the time Woodhenge was built.
This mysterious lone sarsen megalith lies between Woodhenge and the Stonehenge Cursus. In ancient times it was a standing stone but today it lies on its side.The stone is thought to have been abandoned here during the building of Stonehenge.
The Cursus is a huge, rectangular earthwork enclosure. At 2.8km long it's one of the largest of its kind. Predating Stonehenge by around 500 years, its ceremonial or ritual use remains a mystery. Early British archaelologists thought they thought were early Roman athletic courses, but Cursus monuments are now understood to be Neolithic structures and represent some of the oldest prehistoric monumental structures of the British Isles. It has been conjectured that they were used in rituals connected with ancestor worship, that they follow astronomical alignments or that they served as buffer zones between ceremonial and occupation landscapes. More recent studies have reassessed the original interpretation and argued that they were in fact used for ceremonial competitions maybe involving archery and/or hunting. There is very little to actually see from the ground of the Stonehenge Cursus.
These barrow cemeteries are situated on a prominent ridge to the east of Stonehenge. They include several round burials (burial mounds) built in the Early Bronze Age and a Neolithic long barrow. They are divided by the Stonehenge Avenue into two groups, the New King Barrows and the Old King Barrows. The earliest burial mound here is a long barrow, raised between 4000-3000BC. Unusually, it is aligned in a north-south direction. Most commonly, long barrows run in an east-west direction. In this area, excavation has revealed stake holes and pits with Early Neolithic material in them. Pottery, flint tools, bones and seeds pre-dating Stonehenge have also been found there.
The Stonehenge Avenue
The Avenue measures nearly 3 km and connects Stonehenge with the River Avon . It may have been the ceremonial route and entrance to the stone circle - and recent excavations suggest it even predates it. Though much eroded it can still be seen on its final approach to the stone circle.
Other places of interest on the Wonders of Wessex Walking Holiday: Woodford Valley - Shaftesbury - Tollard Royal - Old Sarum - Old Wardour Castle - Gold Hill - Larmer Tree Gardens - Wilton House - Ashmore - Cranborne Chase - Wessex
Take a look at a full list of our independent walking holidays in France, UK and Spain