Stonehenge evokes ancient England like no other image. This prehistoric circle has captured the world’s imagination and been the subject of academic speculation, religious reverence, wild exaggeration, and tourist obsession. More then 800,000 people visit the site every year. It’s also not unusual to see some version of this in a review:
“You can’t get anywhere near the stones.”
To the disappointment of some, most visitors are no longer allowed inside the roped off area surrounding the stone circle of Stonehenge. This isn’t a bad thing, since it ensures the prehistoric site stays intact for generations to come. It also allows you to get some great photos of the circle with few other visitors in them. A free audio guide (downloaded to your phone) delves into what’s known and speculated around the circle’s history, and tells you about the rest of Stonehenge and other Neolithic sites nearby. It’s a great way to spend an hour admiring Britain’s ultimate ancient icon.
That said, going inside the stone circle is even better, and contrary to popular belief, it can be done.
Ancient England’s Ultimate Icon
Fascinating details fill the layout of Stonehenge. The solitary Heel Stone and the much-hyped Slaughter Stone—a name that’s stuck, despite a lack of evidence that human sacrifice ever took place at Stonehenge—mark the line of summer solstice sunrise, and winter solstice sunset. That line leads beneath the sarsen circle, where perfectly aligned arches still defy the changeable English weather. The five stone arches of the inner horseshoe rise beyond, looming over the blue stones, brought from Wales.
The identity and methodology of the circle’s builders is still debated. Researchers have found many truths that are stranger than fiction. The notion that Druids built the site is long debunked, though they have used it extensively for ceremonies and festivals over the years since. Its connection to Antarctica, however, through lichens growing on the stones, is very real. No matter how close you get to the stones (remember not to touch!), Stonehenge is one of those destinations that sends visitors away with more questions than they brought with them. Therein lies its enduring power, a mystery that is far less fragile than the stones themselves.
Get Inside Access to Stonehenge
Stonehenge invites a strictly capped number of visitors to step inside the 5,000-year-old circle both before and after closing. Besides making you the envy of friends and followers, standing amid the stones gives you a full sense of the wonder Stonehenge has inspired over centuries.
Being forbidden ground has only enhanced the circle’s mystique. Visitors who want to step inside can book a VIP experience, either before the site opens to the general public, or after it closes. These spots however book out months in advance, and unless you’ve rented a car—not recommended if you’re staying in London—getting to Stonehenge on your own can be a pain. A good organized tour can take the hassle out of the experience, ensuring you make your Stonehenge appointment, have the benefit of your guide’s insight, and see some other terrific sights along the way.
Make a Beeline for Bath
One option is to take a tour that encompasses another of ancient England’s treasures, the Roman Baths. Bath is one of England’s most beautiful cities. It’s second only to London in its popularity with visitors, so don’t expect a quiet visit here in high season! Your time in Bath may be quite limited on a day trip. You might want to return to explore the city or stay overnight another day.
Bath has lots to offer including gorgeous Bath Abbey and photogenic Royal Crescent, which feels not unlike some optical illusion with its curving row of Georgian townhouses. You’ll also find myriad attractions devoted to local literary treasure Jane Austen, along with a more recent cultural sensation, Bridgerton. The truth is, most anyone who’s anyone in British history has had some connection to Bath, so give yourself a day to linger here if there’s time. If you only have a few hours however, focus on the ancient attraction that gives this gorgeous city its name.
Britain’s Treasured Roman Baths
Soon after invading ancient England, the Romans found natural thermal springs on the land now occupied by Bath. They built one of the great temples of its kind, in honour of the goddess Sulis Minerva. The Roman Baths soon became one of the ancient world’s most revered bathing complexes. Many of their treasures are on display today in what is now a fascinating museum on the site. From a beautiful rendering of Minerva’s head, to a fearsome temple pediment, to a collection of deliciously petty ‘curse tablets,’ the Roman Baths Museum brings this era of history to vivid life like few others of its kind.
Of course, there’d be no museum without the baths themselves. Supporting a temple, community centre, gymnasium, and health spa all in one, the two pools that anchored this incredible complex remain today, albeit in a far less hospitable form. Visitors are forbidden to touch the algae-tinged waters… and it’s not really a good idea these days! They can however see the ancient drainage and pump systems in action, just as they operated in ancient times. You can also book in a treatment at one of Bath’s many modern day spas.
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement and drama of grand dynasties like the Tudors, the charm of thatched countryside cottages, or the excitement of London. But the history of this land goes back well before the Normans arrived in 1066, before anything resembling the ‘England’ we know began. As the world’s top historians puzzle it out, your own chance to step into ancient England awaits just a short trip away from London.
Christian was a guest of Premium Tours.
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