Date Archives February 2018

Stonehenge: The Greatest Henge of All

Nearly all the common knowledge we hold about Stonehenge is wrong. Built by druids? WRONG. Used for human sacrifices? WRONG. Looking at older legends, it was also not built by Merlin out of stones hauled from Africa by giants, nor was it built by the devil to confound humanity. 

NO.

But we remain kind of confounded. Built by a culture with no written records, it’s clear that the site and stones are aligned to the sunset and sunrise of both the summer and winter solstice, though the significance of that is unknown. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the oldest components of Stonehenge are 5,000 years old, though numerous changes to the site have been made between 3100 BC and 1600 BC. The stones are all believed to have been dragged to the site, some from as far as 200 miles away, which makes the Sarsen stones seem positively local, having only been dragged a mere twenty five miles. The stones themselves have been discovered to clang at different frequencies which may mean, like the temples of ancient Greece, Stonehenge was made as a form of musical instrument. Excavations of barrows have revealed that in the Bronze age (which, in Europe, technically covers the entire period of Stonehenge’s construction, so it’s not exactly narrowing things down), it was used as a burial site. The “slaughter stone”, so named for the reddish water that collects in the depressions on its surface that was believed to be the blood of ancient victims seeping out, was not used for human sacrifices–not only is the water color attributed to iron in the stone, but the stone itself used to be standing and as such was a wholly unsuitable surface for your everyday sacrificial needs. 

In the early 20th century, funds were raised to preserve the area and prevent modern construction from encroaching on Stonehenge. These lands are now managed by the National Trust and have reverted back to grasslands gently rolling out from the site in every direction. Up until the late 1970s, people were free to walk through, touch, and even climb upon the stones. The sheer number of visitors (some 600,000+ per year) treading among the stones killed all the grass, which was replaced with orange gravel, and the severe erosion of the land led to the closing off of the direct site to the public.  Visitors now walk on a path surrounding the structure, the sole exception being during the solstices, when they are opened for direct access for the religious use of modern pagans–neo-druids and the like. 

You also can no longer drive directly up to the site–instead, everyone’s car and tour bus unload near the new visitor’s center, and everyone inside then jockeys for place in line for the site’s own shuttle buses up to the monument itself, two and a half miles away. It’s a distance that’s not unwalkable, but would have been challenging given the time constraints laid on us by the tour company, so we waited a little and crammed ourselves on a shuttle. Crammed is the correct word, if someone animated the scene, surely the shuttle would be bulging with various body parts pressed up against and flapping out of the windows. Almost immediately after the drop off site is the area where the path is closest to the monument, and is thus very crowded with people waving selfie sticks around, heedless of whom they strike. But as we walked around the monument, the people thinned out dramatically, making it much easier to take photos, contemplate history, and attempt to commune with ancient peoples.

Burial mound

The heel stone

All too soon, it was time to hop on a shuttle back toward the visitor’s center, where we walked around recreations of neolithic houses and learned where these ancient peoples kept their extra gift shop wares. I didn’t feel compelled to check out the gift shop itself, because I don’t need a plastic replica of stonehenge in a snow globe (and I would venture to guess that no one does, but they were doing a brisk trade anyway). Of our three stops, this was the lunch stop, and we just barely had time to eat a scalding hot pasty and visit the restroom before we had to get on the bus…and wait another twenty minutes for a different group of stragglers to arrive.

After they finally showed up, the tour guide reminded them that they should have been back earlier, and that this lateness was really going to cut into our time at Oxford. The reply? “You didn’t say anything to the late people last time, so you can just stop talking.” I think the entire rest of the bus muffled their collective gasp. I could have cut the tension with an authentic Stonehenge knife™ if only I’d deigned to visit the gift shop. Why, oh, why did I not visit the gift shop? This person did have a point–if you’re going to have rules, they should be enforced fairly. However, it’s really cruddy to see someone else’s bad behavior and use it to justify your own. The guide, to her credit, rose above and thus the start of our trip to Oxford was only a little awkward.

Windsor Castle

Having visited every Stonehenge within driving distance of my house, I certainly wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to see the real thing in person. However, given that I have less than an hour’s experience driving a manual transmission and I wasn’t keen to work on my skills while also becoming used to driving on the opposite side of the road, I decided to do the best thing for everyone involved and join a tour group rather than cause an International Incident. The British Tourist Board has been pounding my inbox ever since I entered an essay contest to win a trip–“Have you visited Britain yet? Why not?” and I have to say that the constant wave of advertisements worked because I booked my tour through their website.

There are a number of day trips out of London to Stonehenge, most bundled in with other stops, primarily Windsor/Bath/Oxford. I lobbied hard for Bath, and Jason for Oxford, and we ultimately settled on a Windsor/Stonehenge/Oxford tour, the determining factor for Oxford over Bath is that it seems a shame to go to an area renowned for its spas and not have time to indulge, whereas no one expects even the most motivated learner to earn a degree in an afternoon. Windsor Castle was a given– I’m a nerd, of course I love shit like castles.

After a slight kerfuffle about where to meet the group (it turns out that Victoria Coach Station is a different thing than the bus stop outside of the tube’s Victoria station and has nothing whatsoever to do with Victoria’s Secret), we departed from London bright and early. On the way to our first stop, Windsor Castle, our tour guide told us what to expect from the day in terms of our schedule and repeatedly stressed that if people are late returning to the coach, they will be left behind, merrily telling us of passengers they’d abandoned at various locations around England and how we didn’t want to find ourselves in the shoes of those unfortunate souls. NOTED. I did not want to be on the hook for an Uber from Wiltshire to London.

Windsor Castle is reputedly the Queen’s favorite, though she was not in residence at the time of my visit. Like the Tower of London, Windsor Castle was built in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror.  Since then, it’s undergone massive renovations several times as it became used less as a stronghold and more as a royal court. No photographs are allowed inside Windsor Castle, and this is enforced in a rather roundabout fashion. After passing through an airport style security check, visitors are handed a large, awkward audio guide which effectively fills their hands too much to fumble with a camera and if they try, it’s immediately evident. Well played, Windsor. 

The first tour is of Queen Mary’s dolls’ house. It is no doubt an extraordinary technical achievement to reproduce such grandeur and detail on such a small scale, but it’s difficult to appreciate the nuances of miniature craftsmanship when you’re being hustled through the room in a long line of impatient strangers, all eager to get back to their respective buses. At that speed, my brain just went “Yep, that’s a doll house, all right” and didn’t really register much more. Each room of the dolls’ house has been photographed, each item has been cataloged and documented, and items are regularly taken out, inspected, cleaned, and repaired. If I worked there, I would find it nigh impossible to resist making and tucking in the occasional new accessory, like a tiny ouija board or Necronomicon. 

I wish I could have photographed the interiors of Windsor–not because I would have done them any justice, but because there’s so much to take in and so little time, and there’s no ticking clock when I examine a photograph after the fact. The rooms were resplendent with rococo and baroque designs. The furniture, oh! the furniture! (Personal to Your Majesty: if you ever decide to redecorate, keep me in mind for your cast-offs.) When I have a gilt desk, no doubt I will stop writing such low-class fart jokes. Instead, my fart jokes will be refined and elegant, like a fart gliding through a silk nightgown.

We lingered behind as large groups passed through the various rooms, wanting some time and space to appreciate the decor and also have the opportunity to ask questions of the Wardens stationed within. You’ve heard the old chestnut “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”, yes? I can attest that this is not the case, as you should have seen the Warden’s face when I asked if the princes get ceremonial armor. “No,” he laughed. “They do not.” Apparently tradition doesn’t extend that far, which is kind of disappointing. It seems like that should be one of the perks of the princedom, being able to clink around a palace in a suit of armor, pretending you are a Transformer.

We paid a penalty for that leisurely tour, however. After the tour, a trip to the restroom, and a debate at the gift shop as to whether we should purchase a tiny crown to go with the tiny stuffed corgi (we did), I began to feel the invisible finger of time poking at me, making the hair on the back of my neck rise. I interrupted the cashier halfway through her spiel about getting refunded on tax paid to inquire about the time, which is when I discovered that we were still smack dab in the middle of Windsor Castle with a scant five minutes before our bus was set to depart. There was no time to check out St. George’s Cathedral, there was no time, period. We grabbed our bags and bolted out of the gift shop, slowing down only to return our audio guides. We must have made quite a spectacle, sprinting out of the castle grounds, past the guards, and down the street, up and down a flight of stairs, dodging baby carriages and people alike. I arrived, red-faced, sweaty, and breathing hard, just on time. I took my seat, and then we waited twenty minutes for some other straggling passengers to arrive. I don’t know what I’m angrier about: that I didn’t get to see the cathedral, or that I ran for nothing. Probably the latter, if I’m being honest.

GŎNG Bar at The Shard

I should’ve used Jason for scale, this door is much smaller than it appears in this photo.

After touring a structure with nearly a thousand years of history, we headed across the Thames via the Tower Bridge to a much newer addition to the London skyline: the Shard. Side note: I adore the nicknames for London buildings, which include among their numbers The Gherkin, The Walkie-Talkie, and The Cheese Grater.  Completed in 2012, the Shard is 95 stories of neo-futuristic steel and glass looming over the city, complete with an indoor/outdoor observation deck located at its upper reaches. A costly observation deck, particularly if you don’t purchase tickets in advance, so I thought I’d be clever and go to the nearly-as-high GŎNG Bar instead for my sweeping city views and spend what I would’ve on elevator tickets on drinks instead. It’s twenty floors lower than the observation deck, but they craft a mean cocktail and you don’t have to pretend to be impressed at the “opportunity” to shop at “the highest gift shop in London”. Oh boy! 

The thing I should have gleaned from the name alone, with its insistent all-caps and needless diacritic, is that GŎNG Bar is also pretentious as fuck. And so whilst I saved myself an admission fee, I paid a different sort of price. The sort of price that sticks long after the temporary pain of parting with money has passed.  It began with the wait–reservationless, we were directed to a couch in the lobby to wait. And wait. And wait. Ostensibly, we were waiting for a table, but when we were finally allowed up, the many empty tables conveyed to me that during said waiting period, GŎNG Bar was also waiting: for me to leave.  Well, joke’s on them, as an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. (I’m talking about my butt*, of course, which stayed firmly planted on the couch until the receptionist heaved a sigh, hobbled over in the floor length red gown and heels that was her uniform,  and invited me up.)

Am I certain that I was unwanted at GŎNG Bar? No. No one ever said to me “You don’t belong here.” But no one needed to say it aloud. The appraising up-down look (I didn’t look like a slob, but I certainly wasn’t wearing a gown), the artificial wait, the cruddy service: it spoke volumes. I felt unwelcome. Jason felt unwelcome, and he’s usually the one telling me that I’ve got it all wrong, that it’s just my inner critic dialed up to eleven and projected onto other people. It left us both feeling vaguely uneasy the entire time we were there.

The drinks, as mentioned before, are excellent–creative, complex, well-crafted. I truly enjoyed my drink, an ode to Peter Jackson with rum, New Zealand wine, beetroot, and pine honey, redolent of the deep forests of middle earth, served in a silver pipe. The views of the city with fireworks peppering the skyline? Also excellent. But I also could not see myself visiting again on a future occasion: I like myself too much to be subjected to an entire bar’s negative opinion of me.

 

 

*Their toilets are also incredible, and I’m not the only one who thinks so