Stonehenge is one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable sites in England; and with around a million visitors each year, it is also one of Britain‘s most popular tourist attractions. Which is why, last week, English Heritage finally opened the long-awaited state-of-the-art visitor centre which aims to offer a guest experience fitting of such a magnificent slice of British pre-history.
For those who have visited Stonehenge, few can disagree that it is a truly enchanting site; huge monoliths standing eerily on the Salisbury Plain and shrouded in mystery. Pre-dating the Egyptian Pyramids, why did an ancient people go to the effort of creating this ring of stones; a pre-historic calendar mapping the seasons? An ancient burial place? Or a site of worship to a pagan god? There are theories but still no one really knows! And more to the point how on earth did they do it? The stones are estimated to be around 50 tonnes each and are believed to have come from the Preselli Hills of South West Wales, some 250 miles away!
So there is no denying the appeal of Stonehenge, however many of those who have already visited, also agree that the overall visitor experience has not, in the past, done it justice. In 1989 a government committee called the visitor facilities a “national disgrace” – a tiny gift shop and snack bar, underground toilets which flooded and a narrow tunnel to reach the stones themselves. And then whilst you were trying to immerse yourself in the enigma of the stones, your audio guide was competing with the traffic noise from the A334 route which ran to within less than a 100 yards away. But fortunately, this is all now set to change so that guests can enjoy modern comforts on their exploration of this ancient site.
The A334 was finally closed in June offering a more peaceful visitor experience and the new facilities of the long-awaited visitor centre, which opened last week, are a world apart from those previously offered. Modern but elegant, the grey low-standing building blends in to the moorland landscape perfectly and, located 1.5miles from the main site, it is unimposing and does detract from the atmospheric surroundings of the stones themselves. Within, guests can enjoy an enhanced gift-shop and cafe but also a stunning range of exhibitions; from a 360-degree projection which catapults you back through the millennia of the site’s history, to an array of genuine ancient and priceless artefacts dating back to the peoples who constructed it. A highlight is the 5,500 year old skeleton, and subsequent facial reconstruction, of a man excavated from a nearby barrow burial mound – was this Stonehenge’s first ever visitor? And all this before you even make your way via the shuttle transfer or a stroll through nearby woodland to reach the majesty of the Stonehenge itself.
The new centre means an increase in admission and that pre-booking a slot for your visit is essential but we think it’ll be worth it for the enhanced experience – it may have been several thousand years in the making but, it seems, visitors to Stonehenge are finally getting the treatment they deserve!