Stonehenge: New Visitor's Center Mar 25, 2014 23:24:04 GMT -5
Post by Joanna on Mar 25, 2014 23:24:04 GMT -5
Stonehenge unveils its new visitor centre
At first it was a small smudge in the top left hand corner of the horizon, grey against paler grey. Shallow grasslands rolled round us, speckled with sheep. A kestrel hovered and dropped. It was only as we breasted the last hill that the smudge resolved itself into the familiar stone jack’o’lantern grin, known across the world as one of Neolithic man’s most startling achievements: Stonehenge.
I’d never seen it like this, in perfect isolation, exactly as people would have seen it over 4,000 years ago when they trekked up the wide processional route known as The Avenue, which approaches the stone circle from the northeast. I wish I could be there just before four o’clock on Saturday, the evening of the winter solstice, to see the sun set for the last time on the hideous bunker of the old visitor centre.
By June all evidence of its existence will be gone. The A344, the road angling northwest off the A303, trapping the monument in its fork like a marshmallow on a barbecue, is already closed and grassing over. The new visitor centre, as light and airy as a leaf and a mile and a half from the stones, opened to the public this week. Once it has bedded in, the old horror will be removed.
"One can’t help but dream of the A303 in a tunnel," mused Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage, joining us in the new café. I wouldn’t put it past him. There have been eight attempts to rejig Stonehenge since 1984, when his organisation was founded, and it has finally happened on his watch. Many lessons have been learnt over those years: the architects Denton Corker Marshall have designed the centre to be "reversible" – easily removed from the landscape – and to deal with colossal numbers of peak-time visitors.
An apparently frail steel roof shelters two rectangular pods; one of glass and steel, for the café, shop and education centre; the other of timber, housing the exhibition; in between is a mini-pod ticket office. The whole thing sits on a limestone plate following the land contours. A forest of steel columns, a metal echo of the timber circles once found in this landscape, anchors the roof.
The exhibition is a triumph: laser scanned stones star in a life-size 360-degree whizz through prehistory as the site changes from a henge – a ditch and bank of earth – in around 3,000 BC to a monument of growing importance, featuring first ‘bluestones’ from Wales and later mighty sarsens from the Marlborough Downs. It probably started as a cremation site and ended as a solar temple. Around 1,600 BC work stopped, leaving the stone circle roughly as it is today.
On the huge wall of the main area the landscape digitally transforms over millennia, setting Stonehenge into its physical context. Five cabinets, square glass columns, display artefacts and parts of three burials from in and around the site: antler picks for digging, stones for shaping, bone pins, archers’ wrist guards, a flint arrow tip embedded in human bone and a necklace of Dorset shale and incised gold beads, its centrepiece a miniature axe of polished jet.
Witty "tool kits" for each era show stone and flint giving way to metal. You can touch modern replicas and see videos of their manufacture. A pre-Stonehenge man stands by his own skeleton. He looks like Jeff Bridges, with a perfect set of Hollywood teeth: these tell us he came from Wales or the South West. He had a thigh injury that would have given him a limp. There is also a post-Stonehenge 'Beaker' burial, named after the pots found in barrows.
Oh, I nearly forgot Stonehenge itself. Land trains shuttle back and forth to the stones every four minutes at peak times. The 10-minute journey stops halfway for an optional walk to a viewing point over the landscape, which is owned largely by the National Trust. Once at the stones the route now goes clockwise before nearing the circle itself, saving the best and closest views to last.
I walked that morning from Durrington Walls, two miles to the northeast, a huge henge in a saucer of land beside the River Avon. Research suggests it has a strong connection with Stonehenge, perhaps as a feasting place, or housing for workers building the site. "Hmmm," said my companion, David Dawson, "I’m not sure about those. But paddling the cremated remains of your chief down the Avon and taking them up via The Avenue, that works for me."
David is the director of the Wiltshire Museum at Devizes, which opened a new gallery this summer with superb artefacts found outside the stones, artfully marketed as "Gold at the Time of Stonehenge." Meanwhile the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, in Salisbury Cathedral Close, opens its Wessex Gallery next spring with older finds from within the stones. Both have lent objects to the new visitor centre and both are at last beginning to get the attention they deserve.
For me, the real excitement of the "new" Stonehenge is its reconnection with the landscape, near and far. There’s a new English Heritage walking map for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Stonehenge and Avebury, the latter an amazing stone circle to the north, too often ignored. The hearty can hike for two days between monuments. The less hearty can do Durrington Walls to Stonehenge.
As we left Durrington, discreet new interpretation boards were going up at key points. We passed "Woodhenge", timber circle remains excavated in the 1920s, a fallen sarsen called the Cuckoo Stone and a flattened long barrow at the east end of one of Stonehenge’s bigger mysteries, an oblong enclosure almost two miles long, called the Cursus because 18th century antiquarians mistook it for a Roman racetrack. Nobody has a clue how it worked.
At New Kings’ Barrows, five unexcavated mounds in a line, we overtook the team installing the interpretation boards. The path crossed a field to join The Avenue curving up from the Avon, turning southwest for the final approach.
It’s not all perfect of course. The nearer we got to the site the more 21st century we could see: fences around the stones and the A344’s new hair transplant; visitors with audio guides clamped to their ears; the old concrete centre; a distant encrustation of white vans. King Arthur Pendragon, the soi disant Arch Druid, was holding court with the media, unhappy about the human remains on display in the visitor centre.
There may be protests. There will no doubt be teething troubles. But overall it feels like the dawn of a new era. Now all we need is that A303 tunnel.
Stonehenge essentials. From February 1, 2014, Stonehenge entry will be by pre-booked ticket only. Adults £14.90 ($24.65), concessions £13.40 ($22.15), children five-15 £8.90 ($14.70), families (two adults/three children) £38.70 ($63.90). Members free.
The map “Exploring the World Heritage Site: Stonehenge and Avebury” costs £9.99 ($16.50) and Julian Richards’ excellent new guidebook £4.99 ($8.25).
For more information see visitwiltshire.co.uk.
Source: Sophie Campbell, Telegraph Travel.