‘Selfie sticks’ are the must-have gadget this summer at Stonehenge, one of Britain’s most popular World Heritage sites.
Once upon a time the coach parties flooded into Stonehenge to marvel at the ancient stones and archaeology. Today the craze for capturing yourself on camera seems to have overtaken old-fashioned sightseeing as the main attraction.
I haven’t visited Stonehenge since 1980 and over the last 30 years there has been a massive transformation of the whole tourism experience. There’s a shiny, new visitor centre, a speedy bus service to the stones and interactive 21st Century exhibits.
Over at the archaeological site, something weird has happened – selfie sticks and mobile phones are big news.
Battle of the selfies
As Stonehenge prepares to celebrate the summer solstice, the crowds will no doubt be posing with their mobile phones and hi-tech sticks to capture their personalised image of the ancient stone circle.
Stonehenge has always been a mass tourism experience but its 21st Century incarnation has taken things to a new level. Blame Instagram, Flickr and Facebook for that.
My visit during the early summer season should have been relatively quiet but I still had to run the gauntlet with armies of coach parties with selfie sticks and mobile phone cameras.
One woman impressed me with her ability to juggle a mobile camera and an interactive guide at the same time!
Times have changed and so has technology. Today we can interact with the ancient stones in a way that you could never have dreamed of in the 1980s.
Back then the busy crowds came with their traditional cameras and took snapshots. Today you can enhance your experience with the help of an APP or live stream your own broadcast event from the World Heritage site.
I wonder what the prehistoric people who once inhabited this area would have made of it all?
Jostling to get the best spot for your selfie or streamed video is the big challenge. The crowds can be so dense in places that a selfie stick will raise your chances of getting that perfect shot of yourself with the monument in the background.
It’s a bit like using a periscope to take your photos as you extend the selfie arm skywards.
It’s ironic then that you can also use a new APP called ‘Periscope’ to live stream your own film about Stonehenge and share it with friends and family hundreds of miles away in Japan or the USA. You can also become part of the story of Stonehenge!
Ancient jigsaw puzzle
Of course, it’s important not to lose sight of the real reason why visitors come to Stonehenge. As one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, this prehistoric monument is truly unique and it’s not just about jostling for the best selfie positions.
Stonehenge is a mix of several periods of construction. Piecing together this ancient jigsaw puzzle is fascinating especially as some stones have fallen and others are missing, making the original plan difficult to understand.
It’s great to play prehistoric detectives as you wander around the site which covers a large area taking in Neolithic remains, burial mounds and assorted ruins.
Many historians have puzzled over why Stonehenge was created. There are plenty of theories. Was it an ancient temple, a burial ground, a place of healing or a site of ritual? As there were are no written records from the time, it’s hard to know.
What is certain is that Stonehenge goes back a very long way – through several centuries of history.
Stonehenge’s stones are aligned to the movements of the sun so a visit at sunset is something quite special.
It is believed that Stonehenge was started as a simple earthwork enclosure built in several stages.
Today you can still see the ditch and inner bank as low earthworks in the grass, but the outer bank has largely disappeared due to farming.
The first monument at Stonehenge was likely to have been an early form of ‘henge’ monument, built about 5,000 years ago, where prehistoric people buried their cremated dead.
The mystery of the stones
‘Classic period’ Stonehenge is what most people think of when they see Britain’s most iconic ancient monument.
One of the important developments in Stonehenge’s history was the construction of a circular ditch with an inner and outer bank around 3000 BC.
The famous stone circle with its giant-sized sarsens and smaller bluestones was erected in the late Neolithic period around 2500 BC.
Two types of stone were used – the larger sarsens and the smaller ‘bluestones’. The sarsens were erected in two concentric arrangements – an inner horseshoe and an outer circle – and the bluestones were set up between them in a double arc.
It is thought that about 200 or 300 years later, the central bluestones were rearranged to form a circle and inner oval whilst an earthwork ‘Avenue’ was also built, connecting Stonehenge with the River Avon.
I love the evocative names of the bigger stones – the Slaughter Stone being my favourite, conjuring up images of a Hammer Horror-style ritual sacrifice.
There were probably 30 stones in the original stone circle, but many have fallen and most of the lintels and a few uprights are missing from the site.
This remarkable place is well worth a visit in spite of the suffocating summer crowds, irritating coach parties and ‘selfie stick brigade’.
The Stonehenge experience
So what has changed since my visit in the 1980s?
Huge controversy raged about how to develop and protect Stonehenge as a heritage site in the 1990s and 2000s. There was even a radical plan to ‘hide’ the main road which whizzes along the site’s edges inside an underpass or tunnel. It was a non-starter because of the huge cost.
Although the road is still obtrusive, English Heritage hasn’t done a bad job of protecting the site whilst improving the experience for visitors, given the scale of the task.
They were never going to appease everybody but at least they’ve struck a balance between pleasing the crowds and protecting the environment.
An attractive, new visitor centre with a Bronze Age inspired design hugs the landscape at some distance from the stone circle. The embarrassingly bad facilities from the 1980s have been swept away in favour of high quality buildings.
You can choose to walk (approx 12 minutes) or take the frequent minibus which will drop you close to the main site. This is a big improvement although the downside is that the new facilities seem to have attracted even more visitors!
My advice would be to visit out of season – perhaps on a weekday, early in the morning or later in the day to avoid the worst of the tour parties.
Meet the ancestors
The fantastic thing about Stonehenge is that you can walk in the footsteps of your Neolithic ancestors, explore the ancient landscape on foot and step inside the reconstructed Neolithic houses to discover the tools and objects of everyday prehistoric life.
Stonehenge has a better quality exhibition and visitor centre with 250 ancient objects. The centre is well worth a look, even if the omni-vision film experience is lame.
Outside there are interactive displays and a series of huts. Although not a huge fan of reconstructions, I enjoyed going inside the ‘Neolithic’ huts which bring the ancient site’s history alive.
The group of huts provide a snapshot of what life must have been like in prehistoric times.
The houses are pretty bare inside and you can understand why basic shelter, heat, food & water would have been so important to prehistoric people.
Living in a land before Waitrose and Walmark wasn’t exactly a bed of roses – it was hard work surviving and bringing up a family. Imagine cooking in this cramped communal living space and kitchen?
There were no selfie sticks, phone or modern technology to make life easy. These prehistoric people had to use their intelligence and imagination to provide sophisticated solutions to the challenges of everyday living.
A reconstruction of a bluestone poses one of the greatest dilemmas of Stonehenge.
How were the huge stones transported from Wales to Wiltshire in an age before motor vehicles – and why?
Theorise all you like or see if you can lift this stone replica as part of a group of workers building the stone circle. My puny effort didn’t even create a ripple of movement!
Back indoors one of the most the visitor centre’s most popular exhibits is a reconstruction which can only be described as ‘meet your ancestor’.
You come face to face with a 5,500 year-old man who has been assembled from the evidence of bones, human skeletal remains and archaeological research.
It’s a chilling and unnerving experience especially as he looks like a shaggy version of today’s bearded hipsters.
Impact of tourism
There’s also a fascinating display about the history of Stonehenge and tourism across the decades from the Victorians to modern travellers.
The boom in turnpike roads and the railways brought an increasing surge of visitors to Stonehenge in the late 19th Century.
From the 1880s, some Stonehenge stones had been propped up with timber poles, and concern for the safety of visitors grew when an outer sarsen and its lintel toppled over in 1900.
This was the start of the big heritage campaigns to conserve and restore Stonehenge.
Stonehenge remained in private ownership until 1918 when Cecil Chubb gave it to the nation. From 1927, the National Trust began to acquire the land around Stonehenge to preserve it for future generations.
Today it’s an English Heritage site and they’ve returned Stonehenge to an open grassland following the reconstruction of the visitor attractions.
The great news is that you can now walk across the chalk grasslands and it’s a more authentic experience than ever before. Close your eyes and you could be back in Neolithic times.
Although the crowds and selfie sticks are annoying, this is one place where you have to put aside your prejudices about mass tourism.
Stonehenge is an incredible ancient site and we’re very lucky that it still exists to be enjoyed by visitors.
Just watch out for the snappers and avoid getting poked in the eye by someone with a selfie stick!
Tammy’s Travel Guide to Stonehenge
Stonehenge is located off the A344 between Bath and Salisbury in Wiltshire in the west of England. It is normally open daily except during the Summer Solstice.
The Summer Solstice 2015 takes place on 20-21 June when Stonehenge has very restricted opening times and is closed for part of that weekend.
If you’re visiting at peak season, it’s worth making an advance reservation. Booking is the only way to guarantee entry on the day and at the time of your choice. Tickets are pricey at nearly £20 so make the most of your visit.
A bus will transport you back in time to the Stonehenge site after a short six minute drive from the visitor centre and main car park. Don’t expect to park right next to the ancient stones!
Also nearby are intriguing archaeological sites as Woodhenge, Avebury and Salisbury.
Find out more about Stonehenge on the official English Heritage website