At the edge of Salisbury Plain in south Wiltshire, the great monument of Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric site in Europe, and amongst the top relics from this period anywhere in the world. Dating from around 2500 BC, the henge is by far the most spectacular of many ancient sites in this part of the county, which include burial mounds, ditches, pathways and other henges, and has been a place of pilgrimage and rituals ever since its creation, albeit interrupted by periods of relative disuse.
Today, the henge is a World Heritage Site (along with nearby Avebury) and is amongst the most popular of more than 400 locations managed by English Heritage. Recent changes to the visitor arrangements included removing a section of the adjacent road, the A344, and construction of a new visitor centre, 1.5 miles away, from where people may either walk or take a free shuttle bus. Touching the stones and entering the circle are no longer permitted, apart from at special occasions like solstices and equinoxes; instead the monument can only be seen along a fenced loop path, a quarter of a mile long, which at its closest is 35 feet from the stones, but on the far side moves well away, an arrangement that does at least enable taking of photographs generally without any other people in the frame, though does make most search images rather similar as they are from the same angle. The visitor centre includes a museum, and has a few exterior exhibits, but the stones can be seen from all directions in only half an hour or so. The deep sense of spirituality that many experience at the henge is best appreciated at quieter times - since at weekends and other popular periods there may be hundreds of people here.
Entry prices for Stonehenge are amongst the most expensive for English Heritage properties, at £15.50 per adult. The new visitor centre opened late 2013 following several decades of debate about the best way to manage and protect the monument; two questions in particular were how to control the ever increasing visitor numbers, currently over one million per year, and what should be done about the main road, which passed within 50 feet of the outer ditch. The chosen solution also involved removing the nearest quarter mile of the roadway, replacing with grass up to the junction with the A303, and making another 1.5 miles for pedestrians or shuttlebuses only, back to the junction with the A360.
Over 95% of people choose the bus, a five minute journey to a parking area by the start of the circular path, which is paved for its closest approach to the stones, on the west side, then grassy as it moves further away, round to the east. The last section of path passes right beside a detached monolith, the 4.3 metre high Heel Stone, and also close to another isolated component, the lying Slaughter Stone. Both these are aligned with the centre of the circle and with the initial part of the Avenue, an ancient pathway to the northeast - and also with the sunset of the winter solstice and the sunrise of the summer solstice.
The oldest part of the monument is the outer, circular ditch, and the raised bank just inside, constructed around 3000 BC, though some burial mounds in the vicinity are at least 500 years older. Positioning of the stones began around 2500 BC, and two different types were used; the smaller bluestones were brought all the way from Carn Goedog in south Wales (160 miles away), while the larger and more numerous grey sarsen stones were less distant, originating from Salisbury Plain up to 20 miles north. The upright stones were erected in a 108 foot diameter circle, topped by the thinner lintel stones, while more were placed at the centre to form a horseshoe shape, with the open end to the northeast, also aligning with the sun at the solstices. A total of 75 stones were used for these arrangements. After the initial, main phase, some stones were repositioned and others added, at several stages until around 1600 BC, sometime after which the place became largely abandoned. There are 93 stones visible today out of an original total of around 160. The exact function of Stonehenge is unclear, the subject of much debate and on-going research, though it is undoubtedly related to astronomical positions. The building methods and the means by which the stones were transported are also not fully understood.