Skip to main content

New dawn for ancient monument: Stonehenge visitor center opens

By Barry Neild, for CNN
December 17, 2013 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
The $44 million overhaul of the ancient site is meant to transform visitors' experience of Stonehenge. The $44 million overhaul of the ancient site is meant to transform visitors' experience of Stonehenge.
HIDE CAPTION
Monumental experience
Thing of glass and wood
Built environment
Neolithic man
Ancient evidence
Druid magnet
Circular view
'Disrespecting the dead'
Monument in miniature
Enduring mystery
Plans from outer space?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Overhaul of 4,000-year-old monument cost $44 million and was delayed for decades
  • Visitor center opens days before druids and pagans descend for winter solstice
  • Reconstructed Neolithic head looks, to at least one observer, weirdly like "Big Lebowski" film star
  • Was it UFOs? Origins of Stonehenge remain a mystery

(CNN) -- In a cold, wet field two hours' drive west of London, there's no mistaking the huddle of ancient shapes that emerge suddenly on the horizon, back-dropped by a distant cluster of leafless trees.

Until recently, any first encounter with Stonehenge, that legendary keeper of Neolithic secrets, could prove deeply underwhelming.

Two traffic-snarled highways have encroached on the brooding rocks, robbing them of their scale.

Now that's changing.

The site's custodians have unveiled a $44 million visitor center and a radical remodeling of the landscape that will reconnect the circle with the atmospheric terrain it has occupied for more than 4,000 years.

CNN was among the first visitors through its doors -- and to experience a redesigned approach to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that its guardians hope will restore some of its once-formidable presence.

Visitors are no longer directed to a cramped parking lot slapped hastily on top of historically significant earthworks.

The parking lot and a roadway, which for decades has severed the stone circle from an ancient avenue, are being torn up and grassed over.

Instead they arrive at the new center, an elegant modern pavilion of glass and weathered sweet chestnut wood that now forms the gateway to the enigmatic millennium-old monument -- helping to create a sense of anticipation and drama.

These stones have waited a long time for a proper visitor\'s center.
These stones have waited a long time for a proper visitor's center.

Contrast vital

"One key thing has been to make it as different from the stones as possible," Stephen Quinlan, one of the center's architects, told CNN.

The building's undulating roof and matchstick steel pillars blend in with the area's rolling hills and sparse woodland, he said.

The center officially opens on December 18, three days before the winter solstice, when druids, pagans and revelers gather to watch the sun rise in perfect alignment with the stones -- a celestial event that both explains their purpose and deepens their mystery.

These time-honored traditions show how cherished Stonehenge is, not only to the people who assign it spiritual importance, but also to the archaeologists who study its origins.

Not to mention the 1 million tourists who traipse here each year.

It's no wonder the government bodies guarding the site have been cautious about remodeling -- enduring 30 years of wrangling over budgets, designs and locations before creating the new center.

MORE: Britain's most beautiful views -- no, not just the postcard shots

Worthwhile wait

For some, however, the wait has been worth it.

"I think it's fabulous," Mark Horton, a professor of history at Bristol University, told CNN at the center's opening.

"It's one of the most important archaeological monuments in western Europe and has been for so long woefully neglected."

In one way the delays had been an advantage, he said.

Unlike real Britain, the virtual vista isn\'t obscured by drizzle.
Unlike real Britain, the virtual vista isn't obscured by drizzle.

"If it was here 10 years ago, it would look out of date because we now have completely new interpretations of how and why and when Stonehenge was built."

Stonehenge isn't visible from the center, lying over the crest of a hill -- so visitors spend time exploring its new exhibition space before walking or catching a road train to cover the mile and a half to the stone circle.

The exhibition's centerpiece is a 360-degree virtual display that tries to simulate the experience of standing within the stone circle -- something most visitors have been banned from doing since the late 1970s in order to protect the rocks.

It uses laser-scanned images to zap the viewer back through history amid dramatic solstice sunrises and sunsets.

For anyone who has waited in vain for a dawn obscured by the miserable British weather, this could actually be an improvement.

Neolithic head reconstructed

Among 250 other antiquities, the exhibition also includes the reconstructed head of a 5,500-year-old Neolithic man found nearby.

Archaeologists have used advanced 3D scanning technology on his skull to reveal his face.

While this undoubtedly offers a valuable glimpse into the human story behind Stonehenge, there's no escaping the fact that the result of all that hi-tech labor bears an uncanny resemblance to Jeff Bridges in "The Big Lebowski."

The Neolithic man's skeleton is also on display, a fact that has stirred some controversy.

Some aren\'t happy about the display of ancient bones found near the site.
Some aren't happy about the display of ancient bones found near the site.

The leader of Britain's self-proclaimed largest order of druids says the use of the bones is disrespectful to their long-dead owner.

"Those who've been laid to rest should stay at rest -- it's not a pagan issue, it's one of common decency," King Arthur Pendragon, who describes himself as the Battle Chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders, told CNN.

While it brings visitors face to face with the monument's history, what the new center cannot do is shed definitive light on how and why Stonehenge was constructed using stones quarried 150 miles away in the Preseli mountains of Wales.

There have been numerous theories about their construction and purpose, ranging from outlandish claims about UFOs or mythical stories of giants and wizards to explanations concerning druidic rituals or astronomical observatories.

READ: Best places to spend Christmas in 2013

Solstice ceremonies

The 2009 announcement that another stone circle -- Bluestonehenge -- had been discovered adjacent by the nearby River Avon has lent support to another theory: that Stonehenge was a temple forming part of a larger funeral and burial complex that only later became a place for solstice ceremonies.

Back in the 21st century, with much of the remodeling yet to be completed, it's still a work in progress.

Although the road train's slower approach to the stones does help build the atmosphere, the old parking lot and the remaining busy highway still blot the landscape.

There are times, however, walking the circuit around Stonehenge, when the traffic, the noise and the fellow visitors taking iPhone selfies suddenly melt away.

In these fleeting moments there's a sense of the power these simple rocks have conveyed to so many.

But while the site's guardians hope their innovations will help visitors to connect better to the surrounding ancient landscape, for some there will always be one crucial element missing.

"The only thing that struck me is you can't go up and touch it," said fourth-time visitor Keith Foskett, of West Sussex, England.

"I think that's a real shame. English Heritage might own it, but it really belongs to the people. You should be allowed to go up and hug the stones."

Stonehenge, near Salisbury, England. +44 87 0333 1181. Visits over the festive period won't require booking but must be reserved from February 1, 2014, when entrance will be managed through timed tickets; adults $24, child $14.50, family $65.

MORE: 11 places to go in 2014

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 0626 GMT (1426 HKT)
the Teufelsberg or
Spooks have left their mark on a once-divided city still thought to be an espionage hotbed.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 2206 GMT (0606 HKT)
nanjing, handicrafts
With more than 6,000 years of history, Nanjing is one of the few cities in China still practicing the country's endangered traditional crafts.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Rock and weather collide over millennia to create natural bridges. Here are 15 of our favorites from around the world.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0539 GMT (1339 HKT)
A one-nun brewing operation, Sister Doris is putting Germany's women beer makers on the map. Sort of.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0607 GMT (1407 HKT)
From Myanmar to Mickey Mouse, Stefan Zwanzger, aka The Theme Park Guy, gives his rundown of the best.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Four hundred years after the death of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, her murderous exploits prove a grisly attraction.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Formed by volcanoes and steeped in a rich history of Polynesian culture, Hawaii sounds more like a place in a fantasy novel rather than an American travel oasis.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 2356 GMT (0756 HKT)
Despite Kyoto's allure, until this year there's been a glaring absence from the city's travel scene -- a top tier, super-luxury hotel brand.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Why global adventurer Alastair Humphreys now looks for 'microadventures' close to home.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Don't order Corona and don't freak out when you see Jessica Alba without makeup and you might pass for local.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
History buff? Hardcore surfer? These South Pacific islands have every traveler covered.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Airlines and airports are going high-tech to reduce your time in line.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
Summer isn't over yet. These new hotels are keeping it alive and fresh.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Eight of the top 10 scoring cities in the Economic Intelligence Unit's annual Liveability Survey are in Australia and Canada.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
When a man tells me to "trust him," my typical reaction is to run.
ADVERTISEMENT