On Friday, June 21, 2019, thousands of people will gather at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise on summer solstice, a ritual that has endured for thousands of years. It’s also one of the rare occasions that visitors are allowed to enter the prehistoric stone circle.
Inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1986, the ancient megaliths of Stonehenge and Avebury reveal the sophisticated engineering skills and mysterious ritual beliefs of Britain’s Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples. The entire site spans 10 square miles and includes avenues, settlements, some 350 burial grounds, and healing centers. These “henge” complexes were skillfully arranged based on celestial schedules for reasons still unknown to us.
The construction of Stonehenge began about 3000 B.C. as a circular earthen bank and adjacent ditch, and was fortified over thousands of years with timber and later with stone. The circle is composed of blocks that weigh more than 45 tons and tower up to 24 feet high. Some were moved 150 miles from the Preseli Hills in Wales—a feat that could have only been accomplished by an advanced society.
The monument is not only notable for its size, but for its ceremonial design. The first 1,600 feet of the avenue from Stonehenge is built on the axis of the summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset—a phenomenon that has captivated travelers throughout the ages. Whether this alignment was constructed for sun worship, calendar keeping, or other purposes remains a mystery.
While Stonehenge may be the world’s most famous prehistoric megalithic monument, its circle of stones is not the largest. That distinction belongs to nearby Avebury, which is also home to the biggest prehistoric mound in Europe: Silbury Hill. The 130-foot-high mound is made up of half a million tons of chalk that was piled up around 2400 B.C.
Avebury’s circle consists of an enormous henge, an ancient earthwork embankment, and an adjacent ditch with a circumference of about half a mile that was cut by impressive causeways. Remnants of massive stones, interior circles, monuments, and avenues lined with pillar-like stones are also scattered across the countryside.
Sadly, many stones were destroyed throughout the centuries by residents of Avebury, which lies inside the henge. In an attack on pagan monuments, villagers began to topple and bury the ancient stones as early as the 14th century, and in the 18th century, many more were systematically broken up and destroyed. Archaeologist Alexander Keiller set some of this right by excavating and re-erecting stones in the 1930s, and founded an archaeological museum.
Today, more than a million people visit Stonehenge annually, and the summer solstice draws thousands.
How to celebrate summer solstice
Stonehenge and Avebury are open year-round, and timed tickets for Stonehenge can be booked in advance. A walkway surrounds the famed circle, but due to conservation concerns, the public is typically not allowed inside the ring. However, many compensations await. The landmark is surrounded by a vast expanse of fields, perfect walking country dotted with associated earthworks, burial grounds, and other monuments. At Avebury, it’s possible to walk a half-mile circuit along the ancient henge and wander among the stones at will.
But there is nothing typical about summer solstice at Stonehenge, one of the few occasions the inner circle is open to the public. Thousands of travelers of all stripes flock to the site for an annual festival. Read and follow English Heritage’s “Conditions of Entry” before you go to preserve and protect this delicate heritage.
How to get there
While limited parking is available, you can reduce your environmental impact by taking public transportation. Buses and trains offer regular service to Salisbury, which is located about 12 miles from Stonehenge. From there, take a taxi or hop on the Salisbury Reds bus (wheelchair accessible) to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Finally, a 1.5-mile (25-minute) walk leads to the circle. For those who are unable to walk, a free bus service operates between the disabled access parking lot and Stonehenge. Avebury is about 25 miles from Bath and 11 from Swindon—from which bus service is available. Trains also service Swindon and Pewesey (10 miles from Avebury).
Where to stay
This story was published in November 2010 and updated in June 2019.