Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

England's Stonehenge an enduring mystery

Anna Leask drinks in the mysterious aura and ponders the what, why, who and how of ancient wonder Stonehenge.

Each year 800,000 visitors file around the cryptic creation. Photo / Getty Images
Each year 800,000 visitors file around the cryptic creation. Photo / Getty Images

It's smaller than you expect, but there is no denying that Stonehenge is spectacular.

The imposing slabs of vertical stone, thousands of years old and steeped in mystery, stretch upward to the sky.

Stonehenge is a must-see for anyone in the area with a few spare hours. Even US President Barack Obama found time to meander among the imposing Neolithic formation on a recent trip to England.

I was in London with a rare free day, so jumped on a tour bus that took in the henge as well as Windsor Castle and Bath.

Stonehenge is just under two hours from London and from the tour bus you can sit back and enjoy the views of the vast English countryside as you are essentially whisked back in time to one of the world's greatest ancient wonders.

As a child I was fascinated with Stonehenge — what it was, why it was and how the heck it was built and by whom. I was convinced the mystery would be solved by the time I was a "grown-up", and when I finally got to see it in person it wouldn't be as magical as I had always envisioned.

And after hearing reviews from others who had visited about it being "nothing more than rocks in a field" and a "boring waste of a day", I was preparing for a potential underwhelming.

I needn't have worried on either count. Stonehenge was everything I hoped it would be and I came away even more perplexed and impressed by it.

The world-famous stones stand in a ring within a field of lush green grass. Busy motorways run alongside and visitors file around the circular formation constantly (800,000 each year to be exact) — yet it is eerily quiet and still when you get up close.

It's easy to lose an hour gazing at the stones, taking in the atmosphere and wondering what went on so many years ago, who was here and what made the stones and the location so important to them.

There is definitely a sense of huge significance at Stonehenge. It's hard to describe but there is a feeling as you stand there that you are experiencing something phenomenal.

When the site was first opened to the public, visitors could walk among and climb on the stones. Times have changed.

After the monster slabs began to erode in the late 1970s the stones were roped off. However, you can get close enough to the action on the pathway that loops around the circular site.

The author at the scene. Photo / Anna Leask
The author at the scene. Photo / Anna Leask

It's thought Stonehenge could have been a burial ground and cremated remains found in 2008 back that school of thought. Other theories include Stonehenge being an ancient calendar, there to help those who erected it predict seasons; and the site being a pagan religious site.

There is little factual evidence to prove any of the theories, so as you stand at the foot of the enormous stone creation your mind wanders between them, trying to come to a conclusion — and moreover, work out how, 4000 years ago, ancient people managed to construct this cryptic monument.

As I stood and wondered, grey clouds rolled across the heavy English sky, eventually breaking to let beams of sun through to light up the summer afternoon.

It was then that Stonehenge became even more thought-provoking, the streaming sunlight changing the mood at the site to something completely different. The stern, dark, ominous feeling replaced by something spellbinding and enchanting.

Aside from circling the site in a daze that comes easily to a history geek with a penchant for ancient ruins and architecture, there are other things to occupy your time at Stonehenge. This Unesco World Heritage Site has a brilliant audio tour available for a bit of prehistoric education.

For those who want to take it a step further, the visitor centre boasts a museum with almost 300 items recovered during archaeological digs at Stonehenge.

There is also an exhibition that will take you through Stonehenge's ancient story - the landscape, the people and the possible meanings behind it.

Just don't expect to leave with any answers.

Rock on

Stonehenge is open seven days a week between 9am and 7pm. Admission prices do not include travel to and from the site.

There are many tour companies that run buses daily to Stonehenge. I recommend Evans Tours' 11-hour tour of Stonehenge, Windsor and Bath departing from central London.

Entrance to the site is now managed through timed tickets that need to be booked in advance. Booking is the only way to guarantee entry on the day and time you want to visit.

For more information: See english-heritage.org.uk.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has special fares to London Heathrow and Gatwick via Hong Kong. Stonehenge is just under two hours from London in Amesbury, Wiltshire. It is accessible by road, bus and National Rail network.

Further information: See english-heritage.org.uk.

- NZ Herald

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