STONEHENGE & THE SACRED LANDSCAPE OF SALIBURY PLAIN
by Philip Carr-Gomm
The Salisbury Plain Training Area has, even for those of us living in Wiltshire, a little of the mystique that the Dark Continent once had for the Victorians: largely unknown, dangerous, but full of interest and known to have concealed within it ancient ruins and traces of lost civilisations.
Ros Cleal, The National Trust
Stonehenge stands on Salisbury Plain which stretches across 777 square km (300 square miles) of Wiltshire and Berkshire in southern England. The plain has been declared an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and much of it is in the care of three official bodies: English Heritage, the National Trust and the British Army.
The plain, sparsely populated and the largest remaining expanse of chalk grassland in northwest Europe, is home to over 450 monuments and the two great ritual landscapes of Avebury and Stonehenge, which have been declared a joint World Heritage site. At its heart, though, it is the most dangerous landscape in Britain.
Eight million shells have landed in the army’s ‘central impact area’ and ten thousand of these are unexploded. Under these shells lies the largest of eleven Romano-British villages detected by archaeologists on the army’s land. The village extends over 64 acres and explosions have thrown up remains of houses, door latches, pottery and tiles. But no-one will ever dare to undertake a proper study of the site.
The village’s secrets may remain hidden under unexploded shells, but the mysteries of the rest of Salisbury Plain’s sacred landscape remain open for us to explore.
The construction at Stonehenge is a working display and artistic statement of the life-generating union of sexual opposites which, by their conjunction, keeps the cosmic cycle in motion. Representing the whole Goddess in this drama, Stonehenge is an awe-inspiring tribute to Nature worship and love.
Terence Meaden, Stonehenge – The Secret of the Solstice
Follow the old highways to the West Country of England, such as the Ridgeway along the Chiltern Hills just north of London, or the South Downs Way that starts in Eastbourne in Sussex, and you come to a great chalk plateau about the size of the Isle of Wight known as Salisbury Plain.
This whole area, the largest remaining expanse of chalk grassland in northwestern Europe, is a sacred landscape most well known for its monument Stonehenge. But in addition to this site – which attracts more visitors than any other place in Britain – the area is filled with places of historic and spiritual significance. Traces of six thousand years of history can be found here, and over 450 monuments speak to us of a past that continues to exert a peculiar fascination on tourist and spiritual seeker alike.
Mysteries abound here. Most crop circles in Britain are found on the plain within a triangle marked by Winchester, Warmister and Wantage. Circle watchers are joined by ley hunters and UFOlogists who are keen to track either the old lines or the new visitors, whom some suggest are drawn to the area because of its unusual power.
Walking along the Ridgeway towards Salisbury Plain, arriving from the north east, you pass Dragon Hill, the carved chalk horse of Uffington and the massive long barrow of Wayland’s Smithy to find yourself standing in a great rolling landscape that in this northern part of the plain seems to be one cohesive ritual site. Ruling over it all is the massive mound of Silbury Hill – the tallest Neolithic structure in Europe – a great man-made construction of 12 million cubic feet of chalk built in around 2700 BC. For a long time it was thought to have been a burial mound, but archaeologists have tunnelled into it and found no remains. Instead they determined that the mound was artificial – made of chalk blocks arranged in a honeycomb lattice. Organic material such as the carcasses of insects enabled them to date the site, and amazingly the grass they found within the hill still retained its greenish colour after 5,000 years of burial.
These flat-topped artificial mounds can be found all over Britain, and all over the world. Like artificial mountains they were perhaps places where people reached up to ‘touch the heavens’ – to meet the gods and make offerings to them, and to survey the landscape around them.
Avebury and Pagan Rites
Below Silbury is the stone circle of Avebury – remarkable because it is so large that a village can be found within it. Here you can sleep in the centre of an old stone circle in the comfort of a bed at the Red Lion Inn. If you wake on the morning of one of the old Pagan festival times, you will be able to experience the joyful, sometimes chaotic, sometimes moving, rites of Druids, Wiccans, and followers of the old ways that have now become the new ways of combining an open-minded spirituality with a reverence for the planet.
While a summer solstice ceremony at Avebury will be an affair of just a few hundred people, move south across the plain to that other ritual complex of Stonehenge and your experience will be very different. Walking there, along the great avenue of stones that snakes up from the ritual circle of Avebury towards the hilltop site known as ‘The Sanctuary’ you may want to first drop down to West Kennet Long Barrow. Here, as at Wayland’s Smithy, the Ancestors feel very close. Although these barrows were used to house bones, archaeologists believe that the sites didn’t remain sealed, and that they were places for ritual and communion with the dead rather than simply repositories for earthly remains. Today these sites, as well as being tourist attractions, are revered by contemporary Pagans and are places of pilgrimage for them.
Woodhenge & Stonehenge
Arriving in the southern part of the Plain you come first to Woodhenge. This was built around the same time as Stonehenge which is just 2km (1.2 miles) away. Today all you can see are stumps to mark where six concentric circles of wooden posts once created the supports for a building about the size of Stonehenge. Like its stone twin it is surrounded by a bank and ditch, and its entrance points north-east – to the place of the rising sun at midsummer.
Stonehenge itself may at first sight disappoint you. It lies squeezed between two roads and seems surprisingly small from a distance. It is only when you get close to the stones that you appreciate their grandeur. To open to their spiritual power may need some effort of will – or surrender. The constant drone of traffic, the scores of tourists buying snacks and books and listening to guided tours in various languages on portable headsets, all seem determined to remind you that you are a living in the industrial age. But at certain moments, if you are lucky, you will gaze up at the great trilithons and your mind will stop asking those questions: “How on earth did they build this? Who were these people who could drag vast stones from Wales to create this?’ And instead you will find yourself basking in the atmosphere they generate – their quiet resolute power.
An Alternative Britain – Albion
Theories abound as to the purpose of this enigmatic circle. Writers like Terence Meaden believe it was constructed as a sanctuary for the celebration of the Sacred Marriage between the Earth Goddess and the Sun. Legend tells us that the wizard Merlin transported and erected the stones here. Astroarchaeologists tell us that the site is precisely aligned with movements in the heavens, and archaeologists give us bare bones: informing us that the bank and ditch that surrounds the stones was created in about 3100 BC and that the stones were raised around 2200 BC, with the last construction work occurring on the site in around 1600 BC.
Over the last fifty or more years the site has become a symbol of Alternative Britain – of a spiritual Albion that lives beneath the humdrum surface of an increasingly populated and materialist society. Every summer solstice thousands flock to the stones to experience the solstice dawn.
Although the visual magic of this moment is often denied to them because of the weather, when the sun does stream across the landscape, the mystery of this time is revealed in all its simple, primal splendour – here in Merlin’s stones on Salisbury Plain. In New Grange in Ireland, a shaft of sunlight penetrates the womb of the Goddess at the moment of the Winter solstice dawn. Here, in complete reversal, at the Summer Solstice dawn the dark shadow of the Heel Stone cast by the rising sun penetrates the cauldron of stones, the inner circle. The Sacred Marriage is consummated. All will be well for another turning of the wheel of the year.
June 21, 2004 ...
Thousands Gather at Stonehenge for Summer Solstice
LONDON (Reuters) - Thousands of druids, revellers and the simply curious witnessed a cloud-obscured sunrise at Stonehenge Monday during an annual pilgrimage to the site to celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Wiltshire police said 19,000 people converged on the ancient circle of 20-ton stones on Salisbury Plain in southern England, where they partied through the night until the sun rose over the Heel Stone just before 0400 GMT.
To witness a sunrise or sunset, the times of the day when the veils between worlds are thin, is wonderful enough. To experience these phenomena from this sacred temple, also described as a major power spot on the Earth's surface, is to directly encounter the divine. Places like Stonehenge subtly affect our perception, transforming our experience of Earth into Heaven. This is why these places are so important, and need protecting. They teach us to live in a world of magic and mystery, where the numinous still inhabits the land. Here, everything has meaning, and needs to be treated with love and respect. Here people are precious, and harbour the god and goddess within...
After enjoying the sunrise, our main intent for visiting Stonehenge is to make pilgrimage to one of the most powerful sacred spaces in the British Isles. We have all brought gifts: a prayer, a dance, a poem, a pledge, a flower. One by one, as the Spirit moves us, we step out from our position on the edge of the circle into the centre and offer our gifts. What a wonderful outpouring from the hearts of so many people! I feel very honoured to be part of such a loving, humble, powerful group of people who have no inhibitions in sharing their innermost feelings with one another.
Sunrise at Stonehenge – A Personal Perception, www.stonehenge.co.uk
c. 8000 BC - four large Mesolithic postholes dated to this time found beneath the Stonehenge car-park.
c. 4000 BC – Round barrows appear and cursuses (ditched and banked enclosures whose purpose remains a mystery) are created in the area and the forest is cleared
3100 BC – the first stage of Stonehenge’s construction. The ditch and bank and 56 post holes (‘Aubrey holes’) that held timber uprights date from this time
2500 BC - Bluestones from the Prescelli Mountains in Pembroke, South Wales 380kms (245 miles) are erected.
2300 BC – The largest stones (Sarsens) are dragged from the Marlborough Downs, 32 kms (20 miles) away,and erected along with the bluestones with lintels to form ‘trilithons’. Woodhenge is built around this time.
1600 BC – The last signs of construction at the site.