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Stonehenge – Forever a mystery

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There is nothing quite like Stonehenge anywhere in the world and for 5000 years it has drawn visitors to it. We may never know what originally drew people here or why they struggled over thousands of years to build this monument, but visitors from all over the world still come to marvel at this amazing feat of engineering.

Bernard Horton took his own summer trek to Stonehenge.

STONEHENGE today is an impressive sight but what you can see is only about half of the original monument. The ruins were thought to be of no value. Stones were taken away to build local houses and visitors used to be able to hire hammers from the local blacksmith and chip bits off the stones to take home with them.

The stones are not the only interest to archaeologists in the area. North of the present stone circle is the Cursus, a series of parallel banks and ditches running for nearly three kilometres east to west. These earthworks pre-date the stone circle by many years. Their purpose has never fully been explained but now it is thought to be a procession route of some kind.

Three kilometres to the north-east of Stonehenge, Woodhenge is another circular monument. Dated to around 2,300 BC, originally it comprised six concentric rings of wooden posts. It was probably covered with a roof, or perhaps the wooden posts were joined in the Stonehenge fashion.

The monument we now recognise as Stonehenge was built in three stages. The first stage was a circle of wooden posts surrounded by a ditch and bank. Excavations of the ditch have recovered antlers that were used to dig out the ditch and it was by testing their age through radio carbon dating we now know that the first henge was built over 50 centuries ago, that is about 3,100 BC.

About 4,500 years ago it was rebuilt. This time in stone, 82 bluestones from the Prescelli Mountains in Pembroke, South Wales 245 miles (380kms) away, were dragged down to the sea at Milford Haven, floated on huge rafts, brought up the Rivers Avon and Frome, and moved overland to where they are today. Each stone weighs about five tons and it must have been a tremendous operation to move them to Wiltshire.

The second phase of building was never completed, however. Work stopped for many years before the third stage was started around 2,300 BC. This was on an even larger scale with the bluestones dwarfed by giant sandstones from the Marlborough Downs 20 miles away. These Sarsen stones weigh as much as 45 tonnes each. Not only were they set upright in the ground but some were used as lintels put on top of the uprights joining them together.

The stones are set up on the alignment of the rise and fall of the sun and the summer solstice is still regularly celebrated at the site. Over 21,000 visitors attended the summer solstice in 2005.

Stonehenge was formerly owned by a local man, Sir Cecil Chubb, and he gave it to the nation in 1918. It is now managed by English Heritage on behalf of the Government. In 1986, it was made a World Heritage Site. A car park and visitor centre have been built close to the stones.

The importance of the site is now fully recognised and there are plans to reshape the area surrounding the henge to increase visitor access.

Stonehenge lies between two roads, the A303 and the A344. Both roads are very busy and their junction is one of Wiltshire's worst accident blackspots. Road noise dominates the site and it is very hard to gain an appreciation of the stones atmosphere. The new plan involves burying the A303 in a tunnel under the site and moving the A344 west of Stonehenge to a new roundabout. The visitor centre would be removed from the monument site to a new location easily accessed from the road. A land train would take visitors close to the stones. To increase the natural feel of the monument fields around the stones that are now ploughed would be returned to grassland. The Stonehenge Project will cost around £67.5million and revolutionise the experience for visitors.

John Constable painted a famous picture of Stonehenge in 1836. He captioned it: 'The mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the present, carries you back beyond all historical recall into the obscurity of a totally unknown period.'

Today, Constable's bare and boundless heath has gone, and with it much of the atmosphere created by its once remote setting on Salisbury Plain. The purpose of the Stonehenge Project will be the removal of the roads, replacing the sound of traffic with birdsong and enabling us to enjoy Stonehenge and its landscape safely and peacefully.

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