Our walking holidays in Wessex visit these ancient stones
Our self guided walking Holiday Wonders of Wessex takes you on a walk back in time through the ancient landscape that surounds the stone circles of Stonehenge in Wiltshire. 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.
Only the day before, you would have walked from the medieval city of Salisbury (New Sarum) up to Old Sarum the earlier settlement, which was an Iron Age hill fort later used by the Romans, Saxons and Normans. And now at Stonehenge, you are back in time to the Neolithic age.
Stonehenge, located about 20km north of Salisbury is one of the most famous landmarks in the world. It is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones. It is also at the centre of the most dense complex of Bronze Age and Neolithic monuments in England, including several hundred burial grounds. Human activity at Stonehenge dates back over 5000 years and the site was listed, along with Avebury in northern Wiltshire as a world heritage site in 1986.
The surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. Recent evidence indicates that Stonehenge could have been a burial ground from its earliest beginnings as the dating of cremated remains indicate human bone from as early as 3000 BC.
Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first stones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC, whilst another theory suggests that bluestones may have been raised at the site as early as 3000 BC as it's believed that the first bluestones brought from Wales were used as grave markers. Analysis of animal teeth found at Durrington Walls suggests that as many as 4,000 people gathered at the site for the mid-winter and mid-summer festivals; the evidence showed that the animals had been slaughtered around 9 or 15 months after their spring birth. Analysis of the animal teeth showed that some had travelled from as far afield as the Scottish Highlands.
Evidence of the second phase of building is no longer visible. The number of postholes dating to the early 3rd millennium BC suggest that some form of timber structure was built within the enclosure during this period.
Archaeological excavation has indicated that around 2600 BC, the builders abandoned timber in favour of stone and dug two concentric arrays of holes in the centre of the site. These stone sockets are only partly known (hence on present evidence are sometimes described as forming ‘crescents’); however, they could be the remains of a double ring. Again, there is little firm dating evidence for this phase. The holes held up to 80 standing stones, only 43 of which can be traced today. The Heelstone, may also have been erected outside the north-eastern entrance during this period. Two, or possibly three, large portal stones were set up just inside the north-eastern entrance, of which only one, the fallen Slaughter Stone now remains. Other features, loosely dated to phase 3, include the four Station Stones, two of which stood atop mounds. The Avenue was also added.
During the next major phase, 30 enormous sarsen stones were brought to the site either from a quarry, around 25 miles north of Stonehenge or they may have been collected from a "litter" of sarsens on the chalk downs, closer to hand. The stones were dressed and fashioned with mortise and tenon joints before 30 were erected as a 33 metres diameter circle of standing stones, with a ring of 30 lintel stones resting on top. The lintels were fitted to one another using tongue and groove joint. Each standing stone was around 4.1 metres high, 2.1 metres wide and weighed around 25 tons. Each had clearly been worked with the final visual effect in mind; widening slightly towards the top in order that their perspective remains constant when viewed from the ground, while the lintel stones curve slightly to continue the circular appearance of the earlier monument. A total of 75 stones would have been needed to complete the circle and the trilithon horseshoe.
Later in the Bronze Age, although the exact details of activities during this period are still unclear, the bluestones appear to have been re-erected. Later still there was further rearrangement of the bluestones. They were arranged in a circle between the two rings of sarsens and in an oval at the centre of the inner ring. Then later, the north eastern section of this bluestone circle was removed, creating a horseshoe-shaped setting (the Bluestone Horseshoe) which mirrored the shape of the central sarsen Trilithons.
In 2011, geologists from University of Leicester and the National Museum of Wales announced the discovery of the exact source of some of the rhyolite fragments found at Stonehenge. These fragments do not seem to match any of the standing stones or bluestone stumps. The researchers have identified the source as a 70-metre long rock outcrop called Craig Rhos-y-Felin near Pont Saeson in north Pembrokeshire, located 220 km (140 miles) from Stonehenge.
In 2014 the University of Birmingam announced findings including evidence of adjacent stone and wooden structures and burial mounds, overlooked previously, that may date as far back as 4,000 BC. An area extending to 12 sq km was studied to a depth of 3 metres with radar equipment. As many as seventeen new monuments, revealed nearby, may be Late Neolithic monuments that resemble Stonehenge. The interpretation suggests a complex of numerous related monuments. Also included in the discovery is that the cursus is terminated by two 5 meter wide extremely deep pits, whose purpose is still a mystery.
The site was probably multifunctional and used for ancestor worship as well as to do with burial and healing. Isotope analysis indicates that some of the buried individuals were from other regions. A teenage boy buried approximately 1550 BC was raised near the Mediterranean Sea; a metal worker from 2300 BC dubbed the "Amesbury Archer" grew up near the alpine foothills of Germany and the "Boscombe Bowmen" probably arrived from Wales or Brittany, France.
Another recent theory has to do with a quality of the stones themselves: researchers from the Royal College of Art in London have discovered that some of the monument’s stones possess “unusual acoustic properties” - when they are struck they respond with a “loud clanging noise.” This idea could explain why certain bluestones were hauled nearly 200
To visit Stonehenge's famous stone circle on foot is more difficult nowadays; a new visitors centre has been built at some distance away from the stones. The visitor centre is another 2.1 km (1.5 miles) away. However, there is plenty to see at the centre and you can take the bus back up to the stones once you've collected your ticket. At busy times it is recommended to purchase your ticket online in advance, when a time slot will be allocated. Even if you are a National Trust or English Heritage member, so get free entry, you still need to book a time slot and ticket.
If you are not worried about getting entry into the 'stones enclosure' you still get a good view walking up the Avenue towards the stones, plus you can visit all the other sites of the Stonehenge landscape for free.
More on the Landscape of Stonehenge: Durrington Walls, Woodhenge, Cursus, King Barrows
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