In Case You Were Interested: An Update on Stonehenge

Upon reading my post about our Stonehenge visit in December 2000, my friend Margaret commented, “Do I recall correctly that Stonehenge is now surrounded by fencing, so that you can’t wander among the stones?” and the answer to that is yes. But—as in the original post—it’s not as big as you think. 🙂

When we arrived at Stonehenge in December 2000, Anna was dismayed that we could no longer just walk among the stones—there was a fence. But fence is an all-purpose word here. I would say that Stonehenge—the stones themselves—was roped off. Sort of like the roped-off line you stand in to pass through security at the airport. Only knee height.

You can see the “fence” we saw in the lower right-hand corner here.

You can see the “fence” we saw in the lower right-hand corner here.

Signs seemed to apologize for this development, but apparently people (stupid, stupid people) were chipping pieces off the rocks. It had to be stopped. Thus the fence.

(sigh)

Anyway, I did a little research. Is there a bigger fence at Stonehenge now, thirteen years later? The short answer is no, the current fence is still the same. You can see it in this short video, which has more than one story to tell.

(sigh, again *)

There is a much larger fence that surrounds the roughly thirty acres that comprise the entire site.

However, as I researched I found so much interesting information I decided to share it with you.

When Jesse and I were there in 2000, you could drive right by Stonehenge on a busy freeway (the entire site is fenced with chainlink). It was startling to approach from afar and see this thing that had loomed in my imagination since childhood. OMG, OMG, OMG! There it is! I think it must be sort of how some people react when they find themselves close to a country music star in Nashville. (I’ve observed this phenomenon, actually, up close, often. What does it say about me that I could care less about Garth Brooks but feel faint when I see five-thousand-year-old rocks?)

English Heritage—officially the Historic Building and Monuments Commission for England, the entitity that manages this site and others—is working on changing that.

What is it with those two busy roads rumbling within a few metres of the stones? … Few will argue against the key concept of making it possible to walk to the stones from the landscape without risking collision with a juggernaut. The removal of stock fences and ugly security barriers is also bound to be welcomed by just about everyone.

English Heritage will be limiting the number of people who can arrive by car or coach via its planned new visitor facilities. In the future, tourists will have to book to be sure of a place in the car park and on the shuttles that will ferry them to the stones. A visit to England’s greatest prehistoric site will take a little bit of thinking ahead.

Oh, I can only imagine how controversial it will be. (Read about the plans here. And read about what others are saying about them here. Personally I think the idea of ripping up a highway and covering it with grass is freaking brilliant.) Witness all the whining I did about the things that had changed on my last visit to Ireland, most notably the Cliffs of Moher. But it turns out the Neolithic folk who built Stonehenge wanted it fenced off from the riff-raff too.

Tourists who complain about the fence put up around Stonehenge in the Seventies should spare a thought for their Neolithic ancestors… they couldn’t even see the site because of a huge wooden barrier.

Archaeologists have found traces of the 20ft-high timber fence that snaked almost two miles across Salisbury Plain and hid sacred ceremonies from unworthy locals more than 5,000 years ago.

Read about that here. They believe it was nothing more than a way to hide religious ceremonies from prying eyes—that is, kept the “lower classes” from seeing the activities of the “priestly classes.” Wow. Human nature, eh?

There’s even more of a reason for that, though. Archeologists now think Stonehenge may have been a burial site for, you know, the elite of the Neolithic classes. 🙂

The first bluestones, the smaller standing stones, were brought from Wales and placed as grave markers around 3,000BC, and it remained a giant circular graveyard for at least 200 years, with sporadic burials after that, he claims.:)

But wait, we were talking about fences, right? And keeping people out of Stonehenge. Here’s the thing: you can get up close and personal with the stones. There are two ways:

• Stonehenge Stone Circle Access (approx. double the regular fee)

• Summer Solstice at Stonehenge (free)

The Stone Circle Access looks interesting:

Stone Circle Access visits take place outside the normal opening times at Stonehenge, and are very early in the morning or late in the evening, and are not offered during the normal opening times. The visit must be pre-booked and paid for in advance of your visit by completing the Stone Circle Access application. Each visit lasts for one hour, and we allow only a maximum of 26 people within the stones.

If I were going back, I believe I would do this. (I will say that there were probably fewer than twenty-six people there the very cold, very windy day we visited in December 2000.) The current posted cost is £16.30, which is just over $25. Sunrise at Stonehenge? Oh yeah.

The other option is a “managed open access” at the summer solstice:

English Heritage are again expected to provide “Managed Open Access” for around 20,000 people to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice. Please help to create a peaceful occasion by taking personal responsibility and following the conditions. Access to the stones themselves is expected to be from around 7pm on Thursday 20th June until 8am on Friday 21st June.

I think this is really special—it’s free, and it acknowledges the stones are still a place of spiritual pilgrimage for some. Twenty thousand people are more than I want to share this experience with, but check out the site and scroll down for the photo.

So, Virginia, you can see the stones without a fence between. 🙂

As a parting shot, here are a couple of blog posts from other travelers. You can imagine my true thoughts, I think. This one is from one of those folks who should be denied a passport because she makes Americans look, well, shallow:

Tour guide Steve said we’d stop 30 minutes for Stonehenge. I thought that was crazy short. Turned out he was right. There’s a fence around it and something like a $30 admission charge, but you can stand outside the outer fence and get a decent photo. It’s in the middle of nowhere. I know it’s impressive they built this thing, but overall, it’s a five-minute look and you’re on the road again.

I’ve included Steve’s blog in my blogroll because he has lots of interesting things to say about his area of expertise, which is Washington DC. (And he didn’t write this particular post.) Furthermore, I fully recognize that choices must be made when traveling (my first choice: don’t “do” England in eight days) but this makes me want to scream. Stand outside and get a decent photo? What’s the point of being there at all? And Steve should do his homework on the admission fee; currently it’s eight pounds sterling, which is just over twelve dollars and that’s a far cry from thirty. (Do have a look at that photo, though, and the line of humans waiting to see the stones. This is precisely why I like traveling in the off-season.)

This post amused me because the writer mentions what I noted in my original Stonehenge post: the stones are not as big as we tourists imagine them to be. Still, my reaction was not this:

I’ve just always assumed Stonehenge to be HUGE and towering and imposing and awe-inspiring. Just like all classic desktop wallpapers and photos that we see of it everywhere … but it turned out to be waaaay smaller … In reality, it was disappointingly only about twice the height of an average man’s height.

Visitors are not even allowed get close to the rocks—they are roped off from the general public, a good 10 metres or so away. Only people who sign up for those expensive exclusive sunrise or sunset tours—ranging from £79 to £92 per person (adult price)—get to go inside the inner circle and see the rocks up close.

I don’t know where she gets her information on the tours. I’ve already mentioned it’s about $25 for an adult, which is nowhere close to what she quotes here—but it may be some sort of private tour by a third-party entity. However, the photos are good and she mentions both fences, too, which is a great place to end this post.

Is Stonehenge fenced? Yes! But it’s all good.

* I don’t care that these boys did this. I’m all for breaking silly rules. However, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1986) that attracts approximately 900,000 visitors every year. Someone could break an ankle, for heaven’s sake.

UPDATE: I found one more photo when I was flipping through the scrapbook. This one shows everything we were discussing about SIZE and FENCES in one shot.

First, it’s the sole photograph I took that shows human scale. (I was trying to take photos without people in them. I’ve since changed this policy.) Those bluestones (the ones that formed the outer circle, the ones that had the lintel stones laying across the top) are only about ten feet tall. (The sarsen stones in the center are taller.)

You can also clearly see the little rope fence, about knee-high. It’s not physically stopping anybody. If you were quick, you could be over that thing to photo-bomb some tourist’s pretty picture before anyone could stop you.

Now look beyond the stones. See the chain-link fence? See the car? (Hint: look right where the man is holding up his camera. There’s the car.) It’s traveling on the A344, which you can read about here.

The guy, the rope, the chain-link fence, the car, the A344. It's all there. :)

The guy, the rope, the chain-link fence, the car, the A344. It’s all there. 🙂

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Road Trip! Will Travel for Music!

One of the enduring blessings of my life is I was born to a mother who played piano (very well) and a father who loved good music. Our house always had a record player (and then later, a “stereo”—yes, that’s what we called it in the dark ages) and lots and lots of records. I knew who Bach and Beethoven (and Monk and Sinatra) were from an early age. My parents bought a piano when I was seven, I started taking lessons, and I never looked back. From that point a lot of what I did centered around music (piano lessons, recitals, marching band, concert band, my drummer sweetheart, the one I married and much later had a marvelously musical son with …)

Now that I’m old I know quite a few musicians, many of them friends of Jesse’s.* I tell them all the same thing: When I die, I want you all to gather at the house and bring your instrument. (I think the rest will take care of itself.) No funeral required. Just a little live music. A concert.

That word concert is as familiar to me as the word book. I am at home in a concert hall. My parents took us kids to concerts when we were small, and I never stopped that habit. The point in all this is I went to a concert last night, and it involved a bit of a road trip, which is why you’re reading about it on my travel blog.

One of the marvelous musicians I know is Patti Rudisill—a talented young violinist who performs (among many other things—you can read more here) with the Huntsville Symphony Orchesta. I’d heard her say some great things about them—interesting programs, passionate conductor, and so on—so when she told me the HSO’s last show of this season would include Beethoven’s Ninth, well, I marked it on my calendar and that was that.

Beethoven’s Ninth! The Ode to Joy! How often do you get to see that piece performed live outside of New York or Chicago or San Francisco? I’ll tell you: not often. So I rustled up a friend to go with me and I hit the jackpot: Shelley has family and friends in Huntsville and is familiar with the town, which I am not (haven’t been there in about twelve years or so). Oh happy day!

Huntsville’s an interesting town. You know it because, you know, it’s where all the rocket scientists work, for real, at the Redstone Arsenal, the US Army post at which Wernher von Braun arrived in 1950 with his team of rocket specialists. (He was stationed with the army there for the next twenty years.) Not what you expect from a little town in north Alabama (now pop. 180K but still this odd mix of Old South and the Jetsons).

So I did a little forward planning. We were going to take the scenic route—and 231 is very scenic between here and Huntsville—and stop in a highly recommended restaurant in Fayetteville for dinner before continuing on to the concert. I’m so glad I called to see if we needed reservations, because it turns out the place was going to be closed for a private party. On Saturday night! (Well, what do you expect in a town of less than 7,000?)

We ended up at Viet Huong in Huntsville, out near the mall, and it was fantastic. We were there around 5:30 and the first thing we noticed was most of the patrons were Vietnamese. In an ethnic restaurant, this is always a good sign. Food was good—I had spring rolls and a bowl of bun—a deep bowl layered with crispy lettuce covered with bun (rice vermicelli), topped with bean sprouts, chicken, peanuts, and other vegetables.

By 6:30 we were on our way to the Von Braun Center for the concert. Shelley drove us right there. (Me, I’d’ve had to’ve gotten lost.)

Our destination: the Mark C. Smith Concert Hall at the Von Braun Center complex.

Our destination: the Mark C. Smith Concert Hall at the Von Braun Center complex.

It was a lovely night, we got great parking, and we just strolled across the street from the parking garage. Early as we were, though, plenty of folks were already arriving, and they were all dressed up. Suits, ties, sparkly dresses—nice!

This gorgeous ginkgo tree was right out front. Ginkgos are very slow-growing, so this tree is quite old.

This gorgeous ginkgo tree was right out front. Ginkgos are very slow-growing, so this tree is quite old.

Aren’t these guys fun? They were sitting on the porch near the doors.

Aren’t these guys fun? They were sitting on the porch near the doors.

Got our tickets at will-call, picked up programs, found our seats, and got our first treat of the evening: a little fireside chat (so to speak) with HSO music director/conductor Gregory Vajda.

There he is, microphone in hand, talking to a mostly empty though slowly filling auditorium.

There he is, microphone in hand, talking to a mostly empty though slowly filling auditorium.

A little closer. Taken without flash.

A little closer. Taken without flash.

Actually, I didn’t know who it was at first, but his English was accented and he spoke about the night’s program very knowledgeably, so I figured it out. It was a poignant talk about having decided upon the music for this concert …

• Musica Celestis by Aaron Jay Kernis

• Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein

• Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 126 by Ludwig van Beethoven

… some eighteen months ago, then having the date arrive and realizing how meaningful—in light of the week’s events, which included an intentional bombing in Boston and an unintentional explosion in West Texas—the selections would be. “Chilling and mysterious,” he said. And I must agree: the music was perfectly chosen and ordered.

Finally the orchestra began to file in. I pointed out Patti. The lights went down.

Here are some of the program notes for the Kernis:

Born in Philadelphia in 1960, composer Aaron Jay Kernis (1960– ) wrote his Musica Celestis in 1990. In some ways, it bears relationships to a very famous work by another Pennsylvanian, Samuel Barber, whose Adagio for Strings is one of the most familiar of all American instrumental works. Like Barber’s work, Kernis’s began life as the slow movement of a string quartet, in his case one written earlier that year at the request of the Lark Quartet, then adapted later for string orchestra, adding double basses. Also like Barber’s work, Musica Celestis proves how much can be made from long legato lines played on string instruments; neither work is at its best if transferred to wind instruments, for which space to breathe becomes essential.

Musica Celestis, meaning “heavenly music,” is well-named, for here, indeed, might be the music of angels. … If one ever believed that late twentieth-century music is never achingly beautiful, here is a work to change the mind.

I can’t control what appears on the video below. It really is Musica Celestis; the caption you see is incorrect.

That selection was solely for orchestra, but next they brought out the the chorus. Or, I should say, the choruses—there were four of them, representing community, collegiate, high school, and religious organizations. The two largest groups—the Huntsville Community Chorus Association Symphonic Chorus and the First Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir—are both directed by Billy Orton, and he directed this combined group, which also included the UA–Huntsville Concert and Chamber Choirs and selected singers from the Grissom High School Concert Choir. They were impressive.

Here are some of the notes for the Bernstein:

In his time, Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) was the biggest name in American classical music, routinely greeted at airports by paparazzi and doting fans. Even now, nearly two decades after his death, he still has more recordings in print than any other American-born conductor. It was mostly on that conducting—dramatic, emotional, and highly person in style—that his popular reputation rested, on the conducting and on having written West Side Story. However, he also composed three symphonies, a violin concerto, various chamber works and songs, several operas, and a pair of sacred works for chorus and orchestra. His Mass was written in 1971, for the opening of the Kennedy Center. Six years earlier he’d written the Chichester Psalms for the Chichester Cathedral in southern England. Bernstein himself conducted the work’s premiere July 15, 1965, with the New York Philharmonic and the Camerata Singers.

Sung in Hebrew, the Chichester Psalms set the complete texts of Psalms, 100, 23, and 131, together with a few verses from Psalms 2 and 133. …

I. Maestoso ma energico – allegro molto

II. Andante con moto, ma tranquillo – allegro feroce

III. Sostenuto molto – Peacefully flowing

The piece features a boy soprano soloist; he was just ten years old. This video features Bernstein conducting. When I was growing up, this man was my idol. 🙂

There was a brief intermission during which I stayed in my seat. Shelley came back and announced, “I met Patti! She says to meet us outside after!” What were the chances that this would happen? It was a magic night altogether.

Beethoven’s Ninth needs no introduction, I hope. You should know it was his last symphony, that it was written while he was completely deaf, and those stories of his being unable to hear the applause for this magnificent, four-movement work at its premiere performance are true.

Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso

Molto vivace

Adagio molto e cantabile – Andante moderato

Presto – Allegro ma non troppo – Andante maestoso – Allegro energico, sempre ben marcato – Prestissimo

It is, simply, astonishing. The orchestra was fantastic, the four choral soloists were very good, and the chorus … Oh! I think they got the best deal in this piece. Wouldn’t it be fun to sing it?

Not much to watch in this video but you’re here for the music, and I’ll confess I had to restrain myself from singing along during the performance. I love Beethoven and I’ve listened to this work many times in my life, but never seen it performed live. It was wonderful.

We did have a nice chat with Patti after the show. By then it was after ten o’clock, though, and we still had two hours to drive home. So off we went. Ran into Krispy Kreme for coffee (yes! I had a donut, OK?) and we talked all the way home on the high of caffeine coupled with beautiful, inspiring music.

(* Sometimes they think I’m being morbid, but that’s not the case. I’m stating my wishes. So Jay, Margarita, Nicole, Patti, Jordan, Erynn, Mallory, Chris, Bo … and Cameron and Alli … you’re on notice. :))

Three Myths About Booking Your Own Travel

Last week I posted “Myths About Travel Agents” and I thought I should show the flip side. After all, I’ve done it both ways.

This is “Three Myths About Booking Travel From the Source.” That is, booking directly with the airline or hotel. The author observes, “Whether cutting out the middleman is consumer-friendly is a matter of debate,” which I thought was interesting. But one reason I use Southwest Airlines so often (aside from the fact Jesse lives in Phoenix) is their liberal policy on changing flights. (No fee at all if you do it yourself online. In fact, changing to a cheaper flight actually results in—wait for it—a credit.) Which means Southwest is definitely my airline of choice.

I don’t necessarily make a habit of changing flights but a major life-situation change some years ago meant a ticket to Germany purchased for Jesse couldn’t be used. We knew about it several months in advance; it shouldn’t have been a problem. But it took me weeks of letter-writing, e-mailing, and phoning with American Airlines to get any sort of satisfaction. Their original position was the ticket was, simply, forfeit. They wouldn’t issue a credit (I wasn’t asking for the money back; I knew someone in this family would fly again, and soon). To this day I’m convinced my breaking down in tears on the phone is the only thing that got me a credit—minus, of course, the $150 fee for change.

But we were talking about the three myths about booking direct. Here they are:

1. You can’t save money.

2. Your room or plane seat will be the same whether or not you book direct.

3. It’s easier to change plans with a travel agency.

The author says:

In the last week alone I got a steal on a luxury hotel in Miami by using a discount code offered by the hotel that popped up in a Google search. And I reserved a flight to San Francisco from New York for under $150 during a one-day sale that JetBlue announced on Twitter. The fares, the airline noted, were “not available on Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia or Priceline.”

I’ve found this to be true, certainly, with Southwest (but then they aren’t on Travelocity), and with flights to Europe too. I can almost always gt a cheaper flight across the pond directly from the airline. So read the article. Let me know what you think!

Myths About Travel Agents

I make almost all my own travel arrangements, and I have for years. Once the airlines started putting their booking programs online, why wouldn’t I? Well, there’s a good rebuttal for that.

It turns out there are some good reasons why you should maintain a relationship with your local travel agent. I recently stumbled on this article in my AAA Going Places magazine, and I thought you might be interested. Apparently there are five myths:

1. I thought technology replaced travel agents.

2. It costs more to book through a travel agent.

3. Agents try to sell unnecessary things.

4. It’s easier to book through the Internet.

5. Internet pricing is less expensive.

You can read the rest of the article for the details; it’s short. You’ll have to scroll down past another short article about travel insurance.

Bon voyage!