Stonehenge: up close and personal

The public is being allowed access to Britain's greatest ancient monument again. Mike Gerrard reports

"DON'T PAY any attention to archaeologists," the security man said, "they've got no soul. Never mind carbon-dating, you need soul to understand a place like Stonehenge."

After years of limiting the public to gazing at Britain's greatest monument from a distance across a rope barrier, English Heritage has lifted the rope just a little this year. Anyone can apply for a special access permit, giving permission to enter the stone circle before or after the regular public opening hours - and you don't need to be a druid to do it.

"There were 400 people here for the summer solstice," the guard told us, "which was the first time in 10 years that the stones had been officially open then. They invited a cross-section of interested parties, so we had the Glastonbury Order of Druids, other druids, archaeologists, historians, bigwigs, pagans. Everyone had a great time, they were all just so pleased to be there."

So were we - even if it did mean being up with the alarm clock to get to Stonehenge for 7.30am, despite a serious lack of signposting on the road from Devizes. The special access passes really do allow you to have the stones to yourself, and we were walkie-talkied by the night security guards into the closed car park, then through the entrance gates, and under the road tunnel to meet our New Age night watchman.

"You can go right up to the stones," he told us, "you can touch them, you can spend an hour there, but please don't climb them or try to chip anything off them, and don't carve your name on them like Sir Christopher Wren did. You haven't got a metal detector, I take it? We get all sorts here, you've got to be careful. OK, off you go ... enjoy them."

I'd thought that an hour at Stonehenge would be more than enough, but instead of time dragging, it flew by. Gazing up at a 50-ton block, like some prehistoric skyscraper, is awesome enough. You run your hands on the rough grey surface, and think inevitably of those other hands who hauled the stones here. The large outer stones came from Marlborough Downs, some 20 miles away,and though no-one knows for sure how they were transported, the latest belief is that they were dragged on sledges over rollers, and that it would have taken 600 men to get each single stone over the steepest part of the route, Redhorn Hill. Even more astonishing, the first inner stone circle, which was built in about 2000BC, is made from bluestones from the Prescelly Mountains in south-west Wales, about 240 miles distant.

I touched the lichen on one stone and disturbed a bee which must have been slumbering there overnight. It buzzed off dozily. I gazed round at the rolling Wiltshire cornfields and noticed the burial mounds on the hilltops. Stand in the centre spot and look north, south, east and west. See the precision with which the stones were erected, obvious even now, the gaps between them quite regular.Walk away from the stones and then turn around to get a full view of their majesty. I walked slowly back towards them and admired the geometry, the way the perspective changed, till the stones took on the shape of a Manhattan skyline, and dwarfed the human figures beneath.

A crashed stone, split on the ground, shows their size and power as much as any of the ones which remain standing. It also reveals how much of the standing stones are underground - just two or three feet into the soil to hold themselves upright.

The guard kept a respectful distance, unless you wanted to ask anything. "Have you been here all night," I wondered. "That's right," he said, "and I love it. I took a pay cut to do this job. To be here alone at night, just you and the stones ..."

"You must see some wildlife." "Lots. There are badgers, foxes. A family of hedgehogs with four young ones is living in the middle of the circle at the moment. They don't half make a racket at night. There's a jackdaw's nest on top of one of the stones. This morning there was a conference of crows in that sheep field over there. You need to see that to understand why they call it a conference. There were thousands of them, literally thousands, and then it seemed that after they'd all conducted their business they flew up at exactly the same time and went off in groups in different directions. That stone on its own is the Heel Stone, and on top of there every morning you'll see a kestrel. There's no doubt the stones have a terrific presence, a tremendous power. And you should be here on your own on the night of a full moon, let me tell you. Just you and the stones. It's electric."

For an application form for special access send SAE to English Heritage, First Floor, Abbey Buildings, Abbey Square, Amesbury, Wiltshire SP4 7ES. This costs pounds 12 per person (pounds 6 children) or pounds 8(pounds 4 children) for English Heritage/National Trust members. Access must be booked in advance and is available before 8.30am or after 7.30pm till August 31, and before 9am or after 6.30pm or dusk from 1 Sept to 15 Oct. From 16 Oct to 30 Nov access is not available to allow the grass time to recover.

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