My first “encounter” with Stonehenge occurred when I was an undergraduate, in the form of a traditional Kodak carousel slide show offered by one of my English profs after he returned from a tour. Of course, I’d seen photographs before that, but this was the first time someone I knew had been there, and I was stunned to discover that you could walk freely around the site and amid the stones. These were not the distant vistas and grand perspectives I’d encountered in books, and I was determined that one day I would stand beneath those stones.
Five years later, on a bus tour around the British Isles, we came to Salisbury. There was a pub lunch in town at first, which I skipped, setting off instead to find Hiram’s Hospital, the site of Trollope’s novel, The Warden, which I’d recently read for a class on the 19th century British novel and enjoyed beyond my wildest expectations. Fortified with a little literary history, I climbed back on the bus and headed for the plain.
I think I knew before we arrived that the days of careless disporting within the stone circles were gone. Still, two surprises waited for me when we arrived at the monument. The first was the wire-mesh fencing that encircled the sacred site. I thought I’d need to keep my distance, but this was a bit disheartening. The second surprise, effected in part no doubt by the distance we were kept from the stones, was the size: it was so much smaller than I’d imagined.
And yet as I stood there and took in the gray landscape, I gradually felt my disappointment ebb away. The majesty and the mystery was still there for me. The beauty of the circles was undeniable.
About ten years later I returned to the site a second time. We left London early in the morning by train on a wintry English day, arrived in Salisbury in the pouring rain, and made our way on the plain. The wind was blowing fiercely and the rain was still bucketing down. The fence still kept us at bay, the umbrellas were useful only in minimizing the amount of water that splashed onto my camera lens, but the magic was undiminished. If anything, the weather only made the whole scene more dramatic. Eventually I put my camera away and clung to the fence, transported. All too soon the bus back to town was loading up. Once returned to modern civilization, we found a pub with a fire and a ploughman’s lunch on offer; the innkeeper graciously allowed us to take off our sodden shoes and dry ourselves out by the fire with a pint. The sun emerged just in time for us to set off for the Cathedral under skies worthy of Constable.
A couple of decades passed and then, eight years ago, when we were preparing for a short stopover in England, I came across an article, maybe in the New York Times, that told me that it was now once more possible to enter the stone circles as part of a small group—no more than twenty-six—in the evening, after the site had closed for the day, and to remain there until sunset approached. Our timing couldn’t have been better. We’d be arriving about a week before the summer solstice: the days would be long and the neo-druids yet to arrive. And as it turned out, on the day itself, the weather was brilliant and the skies above Salisbury plain held not a single cloud.
It also happened that England was playing Trinidad and Tobago in the World Cup that evening and we arrived in town shortly before the game was set to begin. In other words, even in the city centre, the place was a ghost town. We lucked into finding a taxi driver idling in the central square and engaged to meet him in an hour’s time, after another pub meal. He agreed, for a sum, to carry us out to the site and back. I think that taxi ride cost almost as much as train fare and entry fees combined, but it was worth it. As an omen of our luck, England scored their first goal in their 2-0 victory just as we pulled away from the square. The driver didn’t have a radio in the car, but the entire town erupted in a thermonuclear cheer from behind the shutters of their homes. And so we arrived at Stonehenge.
There’s really not much more to say about the evening. Couples, families, a few loners, we straggled around the site in almost complete silence. We took photographs, we entered the heart of the circles and strayed as far from its perimeter as possible. One woman curled up at the base of a stone and wrote in a small notebook. Kids played hide and seek. And too soon the sun sank lower and the shadows extended farther and farther from the base of the stones, swallowing up the ancient graffiti carved in their sides here and there, masking the lichens that added their texture to the roughness of the stones themselves.
The railway station was deserted by the time we returned to wait for the late train back to London. We pulled into the London Bridge Railway Station at about 11:00 pm, surprised by the hubbub that greeted us, the glare and the blare of the metropolis suddenly swirling all around. It felt as though we’d traveled not just miles, but centuries. Each visit to Stonehenge has had its own character; all have been indelible. After three encounters, I find that I no longer care about mysteries decoded, history unearthed, secrets revealed. It was enough to stand there in the presence of those megaliths and their strange beauty; I don’t need, or ask for, anything more.