On our way to Brighton we had a momentary stop at Stonehenge to enjoy the site and its surrounding countryside. Having visited Stonehenge in the winter of 2008 I had never seen the visitor centre that opened in 2014 or the site so bustling with tourists. I think in 2008 we were the only visitors at the site. It was definitely a different experience!
After arriving at the visitor centre we decided to catch one of the shuttle buses that transported us to the site itself. Due to UNESCO terms and conditions, a building could not be placed near Stonehenge for obvious reasons. Apart from the bus, there was also the option of walking, with many visitors opting to hike through the fields. It was an extremely hot day so I am glad the bus option existed. Although a long line, an empty bus arrived almost every 5 minutes meaning it was a short wait.
Stepping off the bus and seeing Stonehenge was certainly an experience. There are interpretation panels dotted around, but, they are quite small and it is difficult to stand around and read with so many people pushing you along. There was also an audio guide option that I have made the decision to listen to later. It can be downloaded as an iPhone and Android app. Before even seeing the stones themselves I saw hundreds of tourists with their selfie sticks and phones at the ready hiking with such vigour to find the perfect selfie location. Not going to lie I did this as well, but, it is interesting to see this human behaviour around a heritage site. I don’t believe that taking a photo truly detracts from a moment. Unless, of course, it becomes an obsession to find the perfect photo opportunity.
We walked around the entire site trying to read the interpretation panels and failing. We weren’t too worried though considering the site has a museum that traces its history and the history of those who lived and worked there. It is an ok permanent exhibition displaying some information on who built it and why (not really addressing the controversy or sparking curiosity).
I did enjoy the temporary exhibition titled “Wish you Were Here” – a look at visiting Stonehenge over time. There were some fascinating old guide books from the interwar period and glass plates displaying images taken at the site. It was a fun exhibition as it located you in this rich history of tourism and souvenir buying. The entire space was painted a very soothing red colour with all object labels easy to read. Also, each display case had a thematic panel contextualising the objects.
There were a few things about the centre and the handling of the site that I really wanted to comment on. I am sure it would be a difficult task, but, I feel as though some more stringent forms of crowd control should be in place – even if this means timed tickets. People may be annoyed at the idea, however, it can work really well at specific sites. The other thing is that when you first arrive at the visitor centre it is quite confusing. There is no clear signage for where the buses to the site depart from or where exactly you can go if you have a ticket. This may have been more exaggerated by the fact it was an incredibly busy day.
I did read TripAdvisor reviews the night before which can either be a terrible or very good idea. In this case it was hard to tell. A major criticism launched at the site is that it is primarily commercial and suffers from being quite tacky. I have mentioned this in a blog post before, but, I think it would be impossible to tread the line between commercial and purely heritage at such a popular site. At the end of the day, heritage sites do have to make money to fund conservation, research, etc. When and if this enterprising goes too far is really such a complicated issue to discuss in a blog post. I wanted to simply mention it because it is worth bringing to people’s attention. I personally didn’t feel Stonehenge was too overdone and besides from the crowds it was a fairly pleasant experience.
It is obviously a pretty amazing site to be in the presence of and once you’re away from the gift shop and cafe you can appreciate its mystery. Having seen it in winter and now summer has been two diverse experiences and I am glad this program gave me the opportunity to see it again and visit the centre!