Stonehenge. Where the demons dwell. Where the banshees live, apparently in some comfort. It’s mythical, it’s iconic, it’s an overpriced tourist attraction. It is a hippy’s Mecca (Avebury / Glastonbury Tor aside). And it has spawned a wealth of tacky merchandise, including some amazing snow globes. We know, because we’ve got one.
I first visited Stonehenge in the summer of 1992. I know this because we were on the way down to Cornwall (it only rained twice; once for three days and once for four) and I was reading The Shining. The site itself was about a hundred yards from a road that ran right past it. The sensation I had was not unlike the sensation I had the first time I watched ‘Time and the Rani’: a lot of hype that preceded a colossal disappointment in fifty shades of grey. “It’s just fucking boulders,” said my brother, when we reminisced about it some years later. “Standing in the middle of a field. Seen it once. Not impressed. Have no wish to see it again.” (Again, if you switch ‘field’ for ‘quarry’ this is a perfect description of ‘Time and the Rani’.)
It is just a pile of rocks in the middle of a field, but the fact that it’s there at all is a feat of technological wizardry (or, at least, advanced neolithic civil engineering). It is about the oldest thing in the country, and there is nothing like it in the world (no, really, the football goal-like horizontal slabs that sit astride the vertical ones make it unique). Here’s another interesting fact: the reason it’s stayed up so long is at least in part down to the interlocking ‘studs’ that are on top of the vertical posts, which slot neatly into holes in the horizontal ones – which you can see below, at least in part. Lego, thousands of years before time.
Even though the access road is now a track, you can still see Stonehenge from the A303; it looms over the crest of a hill on the road to Salisbury and MY GOD THE RUBBERNECKING. How there are not more fatalities along that stretch I have no idea. On this occasion, we’d taken the boys (because culture is important, and getting them out of the house over the long stretch of the summer holidays is always a good idea). The new visitor’s centre drops back in at least some of the air of mystery that had been lost when they originally intersected the site with tarmac; you park next to a peculiar structure, almost bamboo-like from a distance (it’s nothing of the kind, of course) and then it’s a ten minute stroll up the same trail the druids allegedly used all those thousands of years ago. Shuttle buses are available if you don’t fancy the walk, or if it’s raining.
You still can’t go up to the thing, the way that Chevy Chase did in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, but you can get within a respectable distance. There were plenty of tourists the day we visited. I came across an American family trying desperately to capture a family portrait: a young couple with their infant son, posing with fixed smiles while a middle-aged woman – someone’s mother,apparently – got snap happy. “Yep,” said the dad, in an ostensibly good-humoured but, you felt, ultimately long-suffering tone. “Mom loves takin’ her photos. Usually to the detriment of the actual thing.” Meanwhile, grandma was busy with the camera. “Jimbo! Where are ya, Jimbo? Wheeeeeeere’s Jimbo? There he is! You gonna smile, fella? Smile, Jimbo! Wheeeeeeeere’s that smile?”
This went on for about a minute and a half; all the while Jimbo had his head buried in his mother’s chest, apparently because it was more fun to play a game than it was to actually pose for something. We left them to it, and walked past a busload of Germans carrying matching raincoats and selfie sticks. Oh and if you’ve ever seen Touch, and wondered what happened to Miyoko and Izumi, I’d be willing to bet that at least one of them was here.
Actually, Joshua and I had a conversation about selfie sticks at a festival just last week. The beatboxer on stage said “Now, I’m told that if you use a selfie stick you look like a dickhead.” As everyone laughed, Joshua said “What does he mean?”
“Oh, I just think they’re ridiculous,” I said. “It’s this stick, right, and you put your mobile on it, so you can hold it further away from you to get in more of the background. Which I understand in principle, but they just look completely stupid.”
“Yeah,” said the chap sitting next to us. “Sort of like this.” And he pulled one out of his bag.
Stonehenge features prominently in one particular Doctor Who story, ‘The Pandorica Opens’, #4 on the mother-of-all-cliffhangers list. Part of the story concerns the Underhenge, a mythical network of tunnels underneath the main structure, containing a large metal box and a barely-conscious Cyberman. The Doctor and Amy play around with the locks – this is like The Crystal Maze, with Alex Kingston playing a slightly hairier Richard O’Brien – while Arthur Darvill announces that he’s not dead, disappointingly without using the words “I think I’ll go for a walk“. Meanwhile, the Doctor muses about the legend of the Pandorica, in which a force of unspeakable evil is imprisoned within the cube, because “a good wizard tricked it”. “I hate good wizards,” muses River, glancing in the Doctor’s direction. “They always turn out to be him.”
It’s all building to The Big Scene, of course, in which a colossal band of CG-generated villains gather in the skies above the Earth, and in an oft-quoted and frequently-shared moment, the Doctor tells them – in no uncertain terms – to come and have a go if they think they’re ‘ard enough.
It’s ridiculous, but Smith’s overblown pomposity – particularly, knowing as we do, that the Doctor is headed for a massive fall – is just about enough to carry it. (Somewhere in a parallel universe, he never went into acting; he became a biology teacher instead, and his classroom catchphrase was “I. AM. TALKING!”.) This is, one would assume, shot on a sound stage or at least somewhere that isn’t Salisbury Plain, given that the Doctor is actively clambering on the rocks. Truth be told I’ve never been sure precisely which scenes were shot at Stonehenge and which at the hastily-constructed replica, not being sufficiently versed in the making of stuff for New Who (I don’t know, it just all seems a bit self-congratulatory) but it is, at least, a far cry from the jarring effect you’d get in the 70s or 80s when the Doctor and his companion walked away from a filmed location and into the harsh lights of a studio set.
The how has been explored in quite a lot of detail; it’s just the why that remains curiously elusive. We may never really know, although the ‘recently-discovered’ presence of another circle a couple of miles away (at Durrington Walls, to be precise) may grant further illumination, if anyone ever digs them up. And yes, I know the tag ‘Superhenge’ relates to size, but surely ‘Subhenge’ would be more appropriate, if they’re still buried? In the meantime, we’re left with the speculation of historians as to Stonehenge’s actual purpose. A calendar is most likely. A sacrificial altar is another theory. Even Doctor Who‘s had a go: see ‘The Secret of the Stones’, a short story contained within volume twelve of the Doctor Who Files, in which the Doctor and Martha visit the site throughout various stages of its construction over the course of a century or two – and inadvertently cause its very design, purely by parking the TARDIS near enough for the stonemasons to copy its shape. “I just hope,” says the Doctor as they leave, “that we haven’t done anything, you know – silly.” Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.
We took the bus back to the visitors’ centre. Emily and I discussed the possibility of wooden rollers with the boys. We talked about the burial mounds and who might be underneath. And I tried not to get freaked when the bus rolled down a slope and turned into a Hitchcock film.
“Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free…”
And yet for all the scientific waffle about the evolution of humanity and the transition for hunter-gatherers to farmers, I have a far more interesting explanation: what if it was a group of visiting Martians? Enormous Martian teenagers who visited our planet on a brief intergalactic sightseeing tour, found no signs of intelligent life except for the cows (“Why did you turn some of us inside out?”) and then, being bored at having no one to talk to or look at, decided to etch a brief message in the grass? We’ll probably never know, but it would be a delicious irony if one of the most studied, examined, admired, over hyped and hotly debated landmarks in the world turned out to be nothing more than a hastily scribbled “MARVIN WOZ HERE”.