Winter magic at Stonehenge and how to pick the best moment to visit

In some ways this is a blog post I don’t want to write. It’s a secret I’d like to keep for those who work it out. There’s a lot more to Stonehenge than just the stones and there is much many folk aren’t aware of when wandering around the site. Given there’s a new visitor centre on the way for 2013 and we’re just a few days away from the Winter Solstice I’d like to give a few tips for enjoying Stonehenge.

© Tim Prevett - Winter magic at Stonehenge

Best time to visit

During opening hours, Stonehenge is busy. My first visit was the Saturday afternoon of an August bank holiday. Very crowded and the pace of walking was dictated by the sheer numbers of people edging their way around and those stopping to listen to the audio tours at the designated points. It was a very disappointing experience. So, if you can avoid peak holiday weekends, do so! If you aren't planning a visit with school-age children, the very first thing on a weekday in term time is just the ticket.

To be among the stones

Not everyone realises you can’t go among the stones during usual opening hours. By going to the English Heritage website you can look to book a Stonehenge Stone Circle Access Visit.  This will allow supervised access to the stone circle with a small group out of hours. An opportunity to grab a sense of the place.

There’s usually Open Managed Access for the Solstices - the longest day and shortest day (most years on June 21st and December 21st, respectively, but can fall a day later). Again check with English Heritage in advance on the website for details and follow instructions from there and when visiting. I visited at the Winter Solstice in 2010 with snow on the ground, and it was a very memorable experience! There are people playing instruments, getting married, dancing or just enjoying the atmosphere - or even having snowball fights if the conditions are right!

It’s not just about the stones!

I have observed some visitors take about 10-15 minutes to walk around the outside and think they’ve ‘done Stonehenge’. But remember that apart from the stones there's also a henge - the circular ditch and embankment. Raise your eyes to look at the horizon - see the lumps and bumps. Stonehenge sits at the centre of a natural amphitheatre and these lumps and bumps are Neolithic long barrows and Bronze Age round barrows. It’s an interconnected landscape, a marvel.

Besides looking, take a walk. The Stonehenge landscape has a cursus, a 1 3/4-mile long rectangular Neolithic earthwork a little to the north of the central monument. It’s easy to lose a couple of hours on The Cursus. You can do a good day’s walk from Stonehenge. Go via The Cursus to Woodhenge and take a look at Durrington Walls Henge - one of the biggest henges that makes the henge at Stonehenge look tiny. Walk back past the New King’s Barrows and take in part of The Avenue, an earthwork that gives a stunning approach to Stonehenge itself.

Keep a look out for easy-to-miss features too; one of the most overlooked features are the small painted circles in the current car park (to be grassed over once the new visitor centre has arrived). These were Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) post holes showing where huge timber posts were in place about 5,000 years before Stonehenge in its final phase.

If you want to experience Stonehenge as something more than another tourist treadmill, take these tips to heart and put them into practice. You could find yourself seeing the site and its landscape with new eyes each time you go back. It’s an amazing place and well worth spending a bit of time planning your visit.

For details of the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre see this page at the English Heritage website. You can also find lots of images and information about Stonehenge at The Megalithic Portal.