There’s an amazing network of highways that leads to Stonehenge, or maybe I just think that because we’ve used the tube and train system for nearly three months. Jonathan switches from right-side to left-side driving with ease, Hannah, 18, is a better navigator than any of us (she guided Jonathan into Rome in 2002), so Jessica, 22, and I sit in the back. The Royal Astronomical Society of Britain has arranged a sunset tour of Stonehenge through the winter solstice. We drew the first night. The girls are shivering and jet-lagged.
I’ve been to Stonehenge once before, when I was ten. My sister, my mother and my grandma walked up to the stones from the car park and patted them, leaned against them, Grandma puffing on her cigarette and Mom worried that her hair would come undone. Elaine looked like she was suffering as she did in most photographs in those days. Stonehenge seemed like Britain’s most Boring Attraction.
In a way the increased strictures since 1968—don’t touch the stones, don’t go over the rope fence, keep to the path—have sanctified Stonehenge, this lonely broken mammoth, as well as protected it. Today is the coldest day so far this season, and on the great plain where the stones stand, snow is blowing the air and the visitors sideways. We blow around to the eastern side and look west through the circle. After a moment, the setting sun drops out of a bank of clouds, as globular and luminous as an egg yolk, into the slot for the solstice between two of the upright stones. For this moment, Stonehenge seems like a portal to the universe.
The dusk drops down and guides lead us around the burial mounds, dug with antlers and bones, that was the first part of Stonehenge made probably around 3000 BCE (before the common era) and stone building began soon after. Timber that was put up during the second phase has rotted to air. Then the stones went up, again in phases, over six hundred or more years. That’s quite a deal, eh? “All right, then. We stood up the three big blue ones. Let’s go have a pint and leave the others for the great-great-great grandchildren.”
I know this sounds trite—sentimental—but you wish you could reach back and say “Well done. You made the eeriest site in British history.” Or: “Good show — you flabbergasted archaeologists for most of civilization.” And go with them to have that pint. All we have to know of what must have been an extraordinary people is a circle of lonely stones on a darkling plain. It is night by the time we pile back into the car, and head out on the highway. A few emerging stars are the only light on the plain.