In the fields around Stonehenge, the grass has grown long and the butterflies are back. After more than three months without visitors, and following an extensive redevelopment of the site, the 4,500 year old structure looks more at one with its surroundings than ever.
On this bright mid-June morning, I have the stones to myself. On July 4, though, Stonehenge will finally be reopening, alongside 40 other English Heritage sites including Dover Castle, Whitby Abbey and Eltham Palace. Barnard Castle, dating from the 12th century and evidently worthy of an extended detour, is also on the list. But how do you prepare a prehistoric site for social distancing?
When I first visited Stonehenge more than a decade ago, it would have been a tall order: access was through a narrow tunnel, while an unsightly coach park and gift shop encroached on what little space there was to roam around the stones.
All that has changed: the new visitor centre, opened in 2013, has retreated a mile away, its trunk-like supports and sloping roof folding easily into the landscape; signage and clutter have been reduced to a minimum around the stone circle, letting the 90-odd slabs speak for themselves.
Pre-lockdown, most visitors caught shuttle buses between the visitor centre and the stones. Now, they will have to walk, via an idyllic network of paths and open fields.
“What we’re trying to do over the next couple of weeks is remarket Stonehenge,” explains Susan Greaney, my guide and senior properties historian for English Heritage. “It’s your best time to come and experience it with not too many people here.”
As we work our way along the edge of the Cursus, a vast earthwork enclosure whose exact purpose remains as elusive as that of Stonehenge itself, Greaney explains that the site will be operating at reduced capacity, with all tickets booked in advance and a one-way system in place around the stone circle itself.
However, ordinarily 70 per cent of visitors come from abroad, so until international tourism rebounds domestic tourists will have a better chance of getting a slot. Should they wish for even more privacy, a limited number of tickets each day will allow visitors to walk right among the stones at sunrise or sunset.
As the stones gradually rise into view across an empty field, crickets chirping in the long grass, it is hard to see the peace and quiet that the measures will bring as anything but an asset.
In all, English Heritage cares for more than 400 historic properties but it is prioritising the reopening of sites with extensive outdoor space. Stonehenge enjoys unbroken views across the sweeping chalk grasslands of Salisbury Plain. As we wander around the stone circle, buzzards and skylarks swoop between the barrows — Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds — that gently bulge on the horizon, while little puffball mushrooms are slowly starting to emerge from the soil.
The site’s appeal seems only to have been enhanced in the digital age, perhaps even more so during lockdown. More than 3.6m people tuned in to watch online streams of the sunrise and sunset over Stonehenge for the summer solstice last weekend. And on the morning of my visit, news that a vast circle of prehistoric shafts has been discovered two miles away at Durrington Walls is greeted with (admittedly mystified) excitement on social media.
“All historic sites have a timelessness that gives people reassurance, particularly in uncertain times,” Stonehenge director Nichola Tasker later tells me. “Somewhere as old and ancient as Stonehenge, which has really seen all the comings and goings of history and humanity …I think that gives people a sense of perspective when we are facing emergencies and difficult times.”
Henges are also uniquely British — they are nowhere to be found on continental Europe — and their meticulous construction does much to challenge the preconceptions of technological primitiveness or a lack of shared culture on the ancient isles.
To me, though, it is the sense of mystery that is key to understanding Stonehenge’s continued allure. I tiptoe around the stones in a kind of solemn reverie, while Greaney, who has visited the site countless times, still finds herself taking photos, every angle revealing a slightly different perspective.
Adult tickets to Stonehenge cost from £21.10, children from £12.70; they must be pre-booked at english-heritage.org.uk (English Heritage and National Trust England members, and children under five, go free). While most visitors will now walk to the stones, a limited number of shuttle buses are available for those with mobility issues. The morning and evening “stone circle experience” visits last one hour and cost £47 for adults
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