Visiting Stonehenge: What to Expect from the Stones

Recently I was able to check off a big item from my bucket list: #24, See Stonehenge.

I have wanted to personally stand near the towering rocks at Stonehenge since I was a kid. My parents used to own a big coffee table book about the "unsolved mysteries" of our planet. Stonehenge was one of the chapters in that book, and the stones were presented with huge, brightly coloured photographs that featured the sun peeking through during solstice. It all looked so magical and beautiful, and that particular destination became a goal of mine.

Flash forward to today, and my husband and I found ourselves in England visiting our friends Jason and Emily in the town of Shaftesbury. Luckily for me, Shaftesbury is about 40 minutes away from the Stonehenge Historical site. So on a Saturday afternoon, we headed out on a bit of a road trip to fulfill #24 on my bucket list.

I was very lucky to see Stonehenge on my short visit to England this year!

The morning had been gloomy and grey, with rain that seemed to pour sideways smacking into the windows of Jason and Emily's house. By the time we'd finished eating lunch, however, it had cleared up and the sun was peeking through the clouds in sporadic, bright beams. It was perfect, mysterious-looking weather to explore some mysterious-looking stones.

We pulled into the parking lot of Stonehenge and Jason dropped us off at the sidewalk leading into the interpretive center. We hadn't purchased tickets in advance, which is typically recommended, but because of the rainy day I'd hesitated on purchasing before we actually knew if we'd be able to make the visit or not. Luckily, we were able to get some, but probably only because it was a rainy day in October, which is tourist shoulder season, and the crowds weren't large. If you are visiting in the summer months, I'd definitely buy an advance pass to see the stones!

The Interpretive Centre at Stonehenge is an interesting structure!

There are three sections to the interpretive center you should know about. The first is the cafe, off to the left of the ticket booth, where you can stop and grab a snack or a drink before or after heading out to the stones. No ticket is needed to visit the cafe. There is also a souvenir shop on the left, just beside the cafe; also no ticket needed.

We opted to hop right into the exhibition section of the interpretive center, located on the right side of the ticket booth. They do check your tickets at the entrance to the exhibition, so make sure you have them on you!

The beginning of the exhibition was my favorite part of the entire museum portion: it was a 360 degree screen displaying Stonehenge, making it seem as if you were standing in the middle of the rocks. The screen time-lapsed from day to night, through season after season. As we watched in admiration, we were able to virtually experience full moons in winter, the first rays of summer solstice, and all of the days in between. It was really quite beautiful, and in my opinion, stole the show from the rest of the exhibition.

A really great 360 degree 'movie' of Stonehenge greets you when you enter the exhibition centre.

Beyond the circular foyer, there are two more sections to the museum. There is a large main hall with lovely quotes and facts about Stonehenge etched into roof-high rectangular columns, and a TV screen off-set to the right with a short documentary about the history of Stonehenge set to loop through the day.

On the left side of the main hall, you can find a smaller section with objects on display that have been excavated from burial mounds in the surrounding area. Included are animal and human bones from nearby settlements, tools and other implements used by residents of the area throughout the ages, and lots of reading material about the people who were thought to have created the mysterious stone monument.

A third, smaller room folds back behind the 360 degree screen room, featuring more museum displays and random archaeological artifacts relating to the history of Stonehenge. I must admit, I didn't spend much time in this particular room as it was a little chilly, a lot of reading for just a few artifacts, and I was at this point getting really antsy to go out and actually look at Stonehenge itself.

Joey models the fibreglass replica stone.

We meandered outside to see the outdoor portion of the exhibit. Right away, you see an example 'stone' which represents the taller of the standing stones. This exemplar is actually made of fibreglass, but it accurately depicts the height and girth of one of the actual Stonehenge rocks. You also have an opportunity to touch two smaller, real stones; one made of bluestone, and the other made of sarsen stone.

Here's how you can tell the difference between a bluestone and a sarsen stone - the sarsen stones are larger and were more difficult to carve but were made of a harder silicified sandstone, so were used as the large 'doorway' looking standing stones. These massive stones, while a common geological feature of the Stonehenge area, were still carted an impressive 20 mile distance to Stonehenge itself. It is mind-boggling to think how ancient peoples were able to drag these massive stones that incredible distance.

A magical kiss outside the magical stones! 

The bluestones, on the other hand, were smaller and easier to carve, and when freshly carved or wet have a slightly blue tinge. These smaller bluestones are the stones found within the sarsen stone circle - a circle within a circle. The big mystery of the bluestones is that they are not local to the Stonehenge area, and actually originate from the Preseli Hills in Wales. How they made their way to Stonehenge is perplexing.

Past the example stones, you find a replica village, much like the one that could have been found in the Stonehenge region in about 2500 B.C. You can go inside a couple of the recreated huts and feel what life might have been like back when Stonehenge was a place for gathering and worship.

I model the replica huts.

By this time, we were just itching to see the REAL Stonehenge, so we wandered over to the bus line and shuffled our way into a shuttle. You can walk the road on foot to Stonehenge if you feel like making a true-blue pilgrimage, but we were pressed for time so the shuttle was the best option for us. A quick five-minute bus ride had us stepping back into time.

A close-up view of the stones - this is about as close as you get due to the protective ropes.

From the bus drop-off, it is a quick walk to the actual monument. It is so impressive to see the stones growing in size as you take each step closer. Of course, you cannot go right up to the stones - they are roped off for their own protection. In the past, inconsiderate visitors would carve initials into the rocks, chip pieces off of the stones as souvenirs, or even lean on them and accelerate the process of the stones falling over. Many people I talked to were disappointed and upset that access to the stones is not possible, but I totally see why and actually applaud it. Looking at the amount of people who visit the stones EVERY FIVE MINUTES I can see why it has to be done.

 I was so excited to be standing so close to Stonehenge, finally!

There is a section of the visitor path that gets you quite close to the stones - not touching distance or anything crazy like that, but close enough to get a very nice view of the the monument and some fabulous photographs. After that, the path rounds away again from the stones and past the circular ditch that ensconces the entire structure. From there, you can stroll the circumference of the ditch, admiring Stonehenge from every angle imaginable.

Joey captures the perfect photo of Stonehenge.

And you really need to walk that circle. Every few feet, a new perspective astounds you, and you simply MUST stop and take another photograph. We had a great time taking photos for other visitors, and they for us. Everyone was in a great mood and just in awe of what they were seeing. The whole atmosphere around the stones is really positive and fun.

The weather cooperated with us very well on our visit to Stonehenge!

Once you've completed the circle around Stonehenge, you can choose to take the shuttle bus back to the interpretive center, or walk across the surrounding fields to return to the exhibit hall. If you choose to walk the fields, you will have the opportunity to see the various burial mounds that surround the area. These mounds have already been excavated and are now just piles of grass-covered dirt, so we were told it is okay to climb them and take photographs on them.

One of the many burial mounds that surround Stonehenge.

Unfortunately, we didn't have time to walk the fields, as our friend Jason was picking us up and had his kids in the car, so we boarded the shuttle bus and zipped back to the interpretive center. After a quick stop in the crowded and busy gift shop to buy a magnet (that's our cheesy thing we buy when we travel), it was back up the path to the parking lot and home again.

Despite the tourist-laden trappings of Stonehenge, the large crowds, the hustle and bustle, and the inability to step INTO the stone circle, we still loved our visit to Stonehenge. It is an architectural marvel, a magical creation, and an important part of history, and definitely worth a visit once in your life. I have seen the stones, and I have no regrets!

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