‘It’s just a pile of rocks’. Take a look through the comments on Tripadvisor (or any review site) and you’ll find many visitors who were spellbound by the ancient stones at Stonehenge, and plenty of others for whom it was an overpriced and underwhelming attraction. Just how do different people experience the same place in such a different way, and what factors determine the effect that a place such as Stonehenge has on its visitors?
It had been almost 10 years since I’d last driven along the A303 and passed the famous stone circle. I must admit that it did seem a lot smaller than I remembered it to be as we got our first glimpse this time, slowing down with the other traffic on our way past. The road layout had changed since my last visit, so perhaps my memory was influenced by the fact that it’s no longer possible to drive so close to the stones; but I did wonder what someone who’d travelled from the other side of the world and made a special effort to get to this corner of rural Wiltshire would think. As a pile of rocks, I don’t think it’s particularly impressive.
Along with other speakers and delegates at the Social Travel Britain conference in Salisbury, we woke at a silly hour on a Sunday morning for a hosted private tour inside Stonehenge. We met our guide Pat Shelley at the newly built Visitor Centre and jumped on the shuttle bus for the 1-mile transfer which is now the only way (apart from walking) to access the site. In the following hour, Pat took us inside the stone circle, explaining (with the help of a children’s pop-up book) how Stonehenge would have looked when it was an active site, over 4,000 years ago. He presented us with a few of the theories about the possible purpose of the stone circle, as well as the various ideas about how the structure was built. We explored the rocks not only from the perspective of giant lumps of rock about which so little is known, but also on a micro level as hosts to various rare lichen, and as fragile objects which bear the long-term effects of pollution and of human contact. Despite the bitter dawn temperatures, Pat succeeded in having us go beyond just thinking of Stonehenge as a pile of rocks, and rather considering it as a window into an ancient world about which we know almost nothing.
It had me thinking about other historical sites I’ve visited, and how I’ve ‘consumed’ them. I was indifferent to the Colosseum in Rome, which I remember visiting with a bad audio guide which I soon abandoned. My first visit to Petra was a blur, with the day spent rushing from place to place trying to see everything and absorbing nothing. And yet sites such as Nan Madol in Micronesia stick in the memory, because we had a guide who tried to make sense of what we were looking at, and because the nature of the site meant that it was best explored by kayak; an adventure in itself.
Of course some places in the world are more visually memorable than others, and as such they don’t rely on any commentary to wow their visitors. The Grand Canyon is an obvious example, although even then my memories of spending several days there back in 2000 are largely shaped by the geologist who led the two of us on a full day of hiking inside the rim. And then there are times, particularly at the end of a long trip, when the appetite for absorbing information tails off sharply. So how we experience a place can be determined by internal factors as much as external ones; tough luck for those who invest millions in creating memorable visitor experiences. But as a rule, the visits to famous historical attractions (and travel experiences in general) which I remember most strongly are those for which a particularly good guide has managed to provide some context, and for which we’ve managed to see the place beyond merely something which needs to be photographed and ticked off a list.
A note on Stonehenge – while our special access tour was arranged for us, anyone can book a private visit which goes right into Stonehenge (although touching of stones is strictly forbidden). It does involve a very early or very late visit, as during normal opening hours all visitors must stick to a path which stays several metres from the stones. Details of the Stone Circle Access tours are here.