Contemporary touch: The new, Australian-designed visitor centre at Stonehenge. Photo: Corbis
At Stonehenge, Sophie Campbell gets a fresh perspective on the life and times of Neolithic man, thanks, in part, to Australian architects.
At first it was a small smudge in the top left-hand corner of the horizon, grey against paler grey. Shallow grasslands rolled around us, speckled with sheep. A kestrel hovered and dropped. It was only as we breasted the final hill that the smudge resolved itself into the familiar stone jack-o'-lantern grin, known across the world as one of Neolithic man's most startling achievements: Stonehenge.
I'd never seen it like this, in perfect isolation, exactly as people would have seen it more than 4000 years ago, when they trekked up the wide processional route known as The Avenue, which approaches the stone circle from the north-east. I wish I could be there just before 4pm today to see the winter solstice sun set for the final time on the hideous bunker of the old visitor centre, built in 1968.
By June, all evidence of its existence will be gone. The A344, the road angling north-west off the A303, trapping the monument in its fork, is already closed and grassing over. The new visitor centre, as light and airy as a leaf and 2.5 kilometres from the stones, has opened to the public. Once it has bedded in, the old horror will be removed.
"One can't help but dream of the A303 in a tunnel," says Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive of English Heritage, joining us in the new cafe. I wouldn't put it past him. There have been eight attempts to rejig Stonehenge since 1984, when his organisation was founded, and it has finally happened on his watch. Many lessons have been learnt over those years: the Australian architects Denton Corker Marshall have designed the centre to be "reversible" - easily removed from the landscape - and to deal with colossal numbers of peak-time visitors.
An apparently frail steel roof shelters two rectangular pods - one of glass and steel, for the cafe, shop and education centre; the other of timber, housing the exhibition. In between is a mini-pod ticket office. The whole thing sits on a limestone plate following the land contours. A forest of steel columns, a metal echo of the timber circles once found in this landscape, anchors the roof.
The exhibition is a triumph: laser-scanned stones star in a life-size 360-degree whizz through prehistory as the site changes from a henge - a ditch and bank of earth - about 3000BC to a monument of growing importance, featuring first "bluestones" from Wales and later mighty sarsens from the Marlborough Downs. It probably started as a cremation site and ended as a solar temple. About 1600BC, work stopped, leaving the stone circle roughly as it is today.
On the huge wall of the main area, the landscape digitally transforms over millennia, setting Stonehenge into its physical context. Five cabinets, square glass columns, display artefacts of three burials from in and around the site: antler picks for digging, stones for shaping, bone pins, archers' wristguards, a flint arrow tip embedded in human bone and a necklace of Dorset shale and incised gold beads, its centrepiece a miniature axe of polished jet.
Witty "tool kits" for each era show stone and flint giving way to metal. You can touch modern replicas and see videos of their manufacture. A pre-Stonehenge man stands by his own skeleton. He looks like Jeff Bridges, with perfect Hollywood teeth: these tell us he came from Wales or the south-west. He had a thigh injury that would have given him a limp.
Oh, I nearly forgot Stonehenge itself. Land trains shuttle back and forth to the stones every four minutes at peak times. The 10-minute journey stops halfway for an optional walk to a viewing point over the landscape, which is owned largely by the National Trust. Once at the stones, the route goes clockwise before nearing the circle itself, saving the best and closest views to last.
I walked that morning from Durrington Walls, 3.2 kilometres to the north-east, a huge henge in a saucer of land beside the River Avon. Research suggests it has a strong connection with Stonehenge, perhaps as a feasting place, or housing for workers building the site.
"Hmmm," said my companion, David Dawson, "I'm not sure about those. But paddling the cremated remains of your chief down the Avon and taking them up via The Avenue, that works for me."
Dawson is the director of the Wiltshire Museum at Devizes, which opened a new gallery this summer with superb artefacts found outside the stones, artfully marketed as Gold at the Time of Stonehenge. Meanwhile, the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, in Salisbury Cathedral Close, opens its Wessex Gallery next spring with older finds from within the stones. Both have lent objects to the new visitor centre and both are beginning to get the attention they deserve.
For me, the real excitement of the "new" Stonehenge is its reconnection with the landscape. There's a new English Heritage walking map for the Unesco World Heritage Site of Stonehenge and Avebury, the latter an amazing stone circle to the north, too often ignored.
The hearty can hike for two days between monuments. The less hearty can do Durrington Walls to Stonehenge.
As we left Durrington, discreet interpretation boards were going up at key points. We passed Woodhenge, timber circle remains excavated in the 1920s, a fallen sarsen called the Cuckoo Stone and a flattened long barrow at the east end of one of Stonehenge's bigger mysteries, an oblong enclosure more than three kilometres long, called the Cursus because 18th-century antiquarians mistook it for a Roman racetrack. Nobody has a clue how it worked.
At New King Barrows, five unexcavated mounds in a line, we overtook the team installing the boards. The path crossed a field to join The Avenue curving up from the Avon, turning south-west for the final approach. It's not all perfect, of course. The nearer we got to the site, the more of the 21st century we could see: fences around the stones and the A344's hair transplant; visitors with audio guides clamped to their ears; the old concrete centre. King Arthur Pendragon, the soi-disant arch druid, was holding court with the media, unhappy at human remains on display in the visitor centre.
There might be protests. There will, no doubt, be teething troubles. But overall it feels like the dawn of a new era. Now all we need is that A303 tunnel.
British Airways has a return fare from Sydney to London, Heathrow, for about $1725, including tax, for the 24-hour flight via Singapore. Melbourne passengers pay about $1770 and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. See britishairways.com. Stonehenge is 145km from London.
SEE + DO
From February 1, entry to Stonehenge will be by pre-booked ticket only: book on english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge. Adults £14.90, concessions £13.40, children aged five to 15 £8.90, families (two adults/three children) £38.70. Members free.
A PREHISTORIC ITINERARY
The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes hosts the exhibition Prehistoric Wiltshire: Gold at the Time of Stonehenge, featuring a superb Bronze Age archaeology collection, including the Bush Barrow Chieftain, buried with a magnificent gold lozenge and a wooden dagger hilt with 140,000 gold studs. See wiltshiremuseum.org.uk.
Avebury is a vast henge with standing stones and two stone avenues. The site includes Avebury Manor and an interactive museum. See nationaltrust.org.uk/avebury. Walk from here to Silbury Hill, a dramatic mound completed about 2300BC, and to West Kennet Long Barrow, a Neolithic tomb. End with a drive down the Avon valley to Durrington Walls.
Walk to Stonehenge for 9.30am, taking the road from The Avenue to the visitor centre. Then, go south to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. See salisburymuseum.org.uk. A few fine Stonehenge pieces are on show now, but a gallery opening in May will have more.
The Telegraph, London