Two weeks before our visit to Stonehenge, President Obama visited Stonehenge, and couldn’t really be bothered to say too much about it, so allow me to fill in the gaps for him.
Obama is normally fairly effusive about stuff, so when the only statements he made about Stonehenge were that it was “cool” and that he’d “knocked it off his bucket list” I should’ve known then to lower my expectations.
“Cool, knocked that off my bucket list” is just one step away from “Well. Okay. That’s done” and a step past “So…every six to eight thousand miles? Got it.” The article also indicated that he’d spent twenty minutes at the henge, which I attributed to him being Presidentially Busy. I didn’t consider the possibility that Stonehenge is worth about 20 minutes, and that’s only if you’re being Presidentially Polite.
I didn’t know any of this though and was simply excited, because I was in England and I was going to Stonehenge. In just a few hours I’d be surrounded by the magical rocks, filled with the beauty and majesty of the druids.
Would I have a spiritual enlightenment? Would I feel compelled to pray? Would I cry? Who knew? A few hours ago I called a woman a cunt because she asked me to, so it was clear to me that England is a land of unknowable wonder and surprise.
Our very English host prepared a very English breakfast, which consisted of a number of very English things, including tea. We nibbled on breakfast to be polite, but as soon as she wasn’t looking we shoved everything that wasn’t *completely* liquid into our pockets, bags, and purses for an event only known as “later.”
Apple? Squeeze it in a bag, for later. Crackers? Front pocket, for later. Packet of Ketchup? Hold on to it, it might be useful. Later. Every traveller I know becomes a post-depression family of ten the second they get off the plane. My fridge at home never has as much food as I do on my person when traveling.
Americans have a stereotype for being rampant overeaters which, to be fair, is hard to deny.
It’s harder to deny when bumping into an American Traveler can dislodge the contents of an entire cornucopia all over the very English ground. “It’s for later” we’ll shriek, crawling over the dirt and Gollum-gathering our food-hoard.
Before we left though, I checked our Narnia-sized wardrobe for a Narnia.
There was no Narnia.
Mostly, I was unsurprised by this, because that’s how life is. There just aren’t any Narnia wardrobes. None that I’ve found anyway.
If upon reaching my hand into the wardrobe, the back of it gave way and I found myself in a foreign land with a giant talking Lion who may or may not be a Christ figure(‘this doesn’t end well for you lion’), a part of me would’ve shrieked with glee “I KNEW it! I’ve ALWAYS known it!” Is it weird that my life would make *more* sense if something strange and Narnical happened. Narnia makes more sense than (say) adulthood. Seems easier.
(When I wrote “Seems easier” in my mind it sounded exactly like the end of that scene in the social network where Justin “Sean Parker” Timberlake tells him to drop the THE in THEFACEBOOK.COM. “It’s cleaner.” “Seems easier.” That’s the tonality with which to read those two words. FYI.)
The lack of a magical foreign land inside my room shouldn’t have been disappointing, but it was. In my disappointment I’d now raised the bar for my happiness to such an untenable level that the upcoming visit to Stonehenge was at a distinct disadvantage. “What? No Snow Queen? Fuck ALL of this.” That said, the brochure for Stonehenge was promising.
This is what I was sold.
Stonehenge looks motherfucking AMAZING. Like, this is just as appropriate.
I don’t know if these people are running to Stonehenge or from Stonehenge, but whatever it is they certainly don’t look unhappy. Obama’s leisurely stroll made Stonehenge seem peaceful and relaxing, but these four are in the process of being thrilled. I made sure to wear shoes that were good for running or chasing or fleeing or whatever the hell this family of four was up to.
There’s a bus that runs to and from Stonehenge, and Old Sarum. The best four seats in any of these buses are the front seats on the top level because then you get to just watch the countryside unfold before you. These four seats will always be taken by Americans, I learned (and then did), because we love having the best stuff.
These were the first Americans we’d bumped into (so much food!) since landing in England a short 18 hours before. Miles away from our home we heard the distinct accent (!) of people who shared, at the very least, the same passport, the same desire to travel, and the same interest in Stonehenge. Kindred Spirits. Ka-tet. The feeling I had upon hearing my countrymen was probably what you expect.
If there’s any sure-fire way to ruin a vacation, a conversation with other Americans will do it. This isn’t a universal belief. Studies have shown (okay, so I made that part up) that half of Americans hate talking to other Americans abroad. The other half love it, and will actively seek it out.
If these studies had gone further they would’ve discovered that the first half only feel that way because they only end up talking to the second half, and if they had just spoken inside their own half they’d find a group of people that they kinda like hanging out with.
Look, that’s confusing, but the upshot is this: I didn’t spend …eight pounds? eighty pounds? two hundred pence? Whatever, I didn’t spend a ton of money to fly across the country and talk to people that would’ve ignored me at home for free.
That’s the problem with money, it doesn’t have any say in the sort of person that can accumulate enough of it to travel. In fact, money seems (in my experience) to accumulate disproportionately around the worst kind of people.
That doesn’t mean I would, like, kick puppies in order to get rich, but I bet a lot of rich people would, which basically proves my point.
The 4 guys at the front of the bus didn’t know each other, but they were cut from very similar cloth as they were actively engaged in a conversation that’s almost an American pastime: The battle over who got the better deal. Saving money is the secondary goal of deal hunters. The primary goal is shoving that amount down the throat of any person who paid more and makes the ultimate mistake of opening their mouth to say so. The statement “I only paid $[x] because I did [y]” translates (loosely) to “I hope you and all of your descendants die in poverty.”
So I quietly judged these guys from the background, and made myself the second worst person on the bus (“Dude can’t we just small talk without you sniping us in a blog months later? Also your English accent is garbage, especially when whispered.”)
Finally, the bus parked next to the other fifty buses outside of the Stonehenge gift shop and welcome center. I could almost taste the majesty.
We handed our tickets and they offered us a little portable speaker thing we could use for the tour. My cheap-survivor mode kicked in and I smiled and said “Oh no thank you.” She read the thriftiness in my face and added “…it’s free.” Which is generous, but it also seems like such a rookie move, England.
Gift shops are amateur hour. American daycares have gift shops. This is Stonehenge! You could sell the speakers, you could sell the shuttle, you could even sell a special “Druid Tour” where you get to wear a robe and walk right up to the rocks and spin around or chant. You’re just throwing money away, really.
“You don’t get to be a 1st world country with an 18 trillion dollar deficit by giving things away, England, ” Obama thought, but did not say.
There are two routes to Stonehenge from the gift shop. You can either take the shuttle which parks right next to the henge OR or the walking path which goes through a quiet forest and emerges onto the henge. The shuttle definitely seemed like the golden chalice of choices so we took the path.
They asked us not to touch the sheep, which was the first time anyone has ever said that to me. That was probably a sad day when they had to add that to the training regimen.
As we walked along the path I made room in my heart and soul for an experience. Tears. Religious fervor. Spontaneous combustion, whatever, I was down. The trees parted, and we emerged into a clearing and for the first time I saw Stonehenge, and it really, truly sunk in.
Stonehenge is a place where some people propped up some rocks a long time ago. No one knows why, it’s in a pretty enough field and there are some mounds near it, where some people got buried a long time ago. You can walk on the graves (because they’re “burial mounds”) but you can’t touch the rocks. Also, it’s Disney crowded there.
Sadly, the thing that will likely stick out most about Stonehenge was this moment.
Stonehenge represents the first time I saw a Selfie-Stick, a small stick you buy and attach your camera/phone to so that you can take a picture of yourself, or your entire group of friends, all of whom are collectively pledging allegiance to a flag which asserts your group’s belief that every single person you’re likely to bump into will be absolutely useless, even with a language barrier. Sorta bummed me out.
I listened to the portable speaker just long enough to discover that I didn’t want to know anything about Stonehenge (gotta pick your battles) so I turned it off. We took a few pictures in front of the henge, high-fived, and then boarded the shuttle back to the gift shop.
We shared the shuttle with a dozen or so people. Four college aged American girls were having a polite, but stilted, conversation with a man in a wheel chair (left leg amputated slightly below the knee) and his wife. We asked how the Americans felt about London , and they said they loved it. When asked what we should do, everything they recommend was a shopping trip.
The man in the wheelchair was more engaging and told us that when he was a kid you used to be able to walk right up to the henges, but they eventually stopped that because they were worried a Stone was going to fall on someone, and henge them right into the ground. We laughed at the idea of them being able to create another mound right there and basically get a new burial mound for free, forcing yet another revision to the training regiment. “Over here you can see two, excuse me three burial mounds that date back to thousands of years and two very awkward weeks ago.”
When I say WE laughed I do of course mean me, my girlfriend, the man, and his wife. The four girls didn’t enjoy this joke at all. Maybe if I’d given them a receipt with it…
No one asked us what we thought of Stonehenge which is a shame because I was ready with my punchline.
“It’s cool. I checked it off my bucket list.”
[Thanks to Lauren W. for reading drafts of this.]
9 thoughts on “Travel #9: Stonehenge. It’s all you ever dreamed.”
As someone who has lived 9 miles from Stonehenge for most of her life, I can understand you feeling underwhelmed by Stonehenge. It’s also interesting to read what it’s like experiencing Stonehenge now you have to go via the visitors’ centre. It doesn’t sound like it’s an improvement. As a wheelchair user though, I am glad that the shuttle is at least accessible.
Is it a bad thing that when I read your blog, I imagine that you speak in the voice of stand up comedian Reginald D. Hunter?
“They asked us not to touch the sheep, which was the first time anyone has ever said that to me.”
Haha, this really made me laugh, I wonder what prompted them to add this little request into the tour? Maybe they had complaints from the sheep?? = )
Love your blog. I live in Saliabury so always interesting to hear an opinion from someone who does not, especially someone from America as I also love America. (From what I’ve seen (on TV) )
Really hope to visit at some point in my life!
By the way, the lady? who called you a c*** ….. Her name wasn’t Gemma by any chance was it?
Sorry, I should say the lady who asked you to call her a C***.
I dislike stonehenge I would prefer to say hate the stones but that’s a bit harsh so dislike is fairer.
I am a local bus/taxi driver and have been there several times, every time a tourist normally American or Australian ask me for my opinion I tell them that 25 miles further on is an even better stone circle where you don’t pay an extortionate fee to get in to and you can touch the stones, there is even a picturesque little village with a village shop and local pub and the stone circle is bigger and older than Stonehenge which isn’t a henge and the name of this little idilic place is Avebury.
I agree with Stan. Avebury really is a mystical experience and no tourists or hype. If you haven’t already gone too far away from the area do go. Otherwise you’ve just missed the real deal of henges. Don’t you hate it when you’ve gone all that way and some joker says you missed the best thing I live near Salisbury. Stonehenge can be magic. a few years ago a Fench company set up a fire garden amongst the stones with sculptures made of fire. Here’s the link
You can blag it when you go home – ‘man you haven’t lived till you’ve been in stonehenge for the firegarden!’ and google pictures of Firegarden stonehenge.
I’m in Buenos Aires – probably missing the best bits right now! enjoy the rest of your trip. keep posting
PS loved the doctored photo versus reality and I noticed Obama hadn’t much to say about Stonehenge. Poor sod
I am yet another person that lives a stones throw from Stonehenge (a bit further than a Stonehenge stones throw though I must say) & I agree & feel very sorry for those that pay to see something you can see from the road for free but I completely disagree that Stonehenge is just another thing to tick off the bucket list.
I always advise people that if at all possible they should try & see Stonehenge at summer solstice as it is an event that truly captures the spirit of Stonehenge & is unlike anything else ever. I was lucky enough to take a group of Canadian friends once & it was one of the best experiences of mine & theirs lives.
I understand that this is a very tricky thing to witness as a tourist as it only happens 1 day a year but it is free, everyone is allowed to touch the stones & there’s even a party in the middle of them.
But for those less fortunate, maybe if you’d have listened to your audio guide & learnt a little more about it, other than it being a very old collection of rocks, then maybe you would have gained enough understanding of it to appreciate it.
It must be tricky as an American to grasp the concept of history seeing as even my house is older than your country. Stonehenge is not just a part of English heritage but a showcase of the wonders of the human race. Why do you need everything to be a false overreaction for it to be engaging?
I use to work at Stonehenge in my teens….. I never understood what so many people found fascinating about it!
I’ve always lived in the area, and my parents have too. My mum always talks about the time when she could walk across the fields and right up to the stones to play!
My grandparents always talked about the time my grandad (along with other workers from Boscombe Down) had to take cranes up there to put the stones back in place…….. Doesn’t seem so exciting now does it! That at one point the stones fell and for me that’s when the ‘ magic ‘ left.
I will always pass the knowledge onto my children about the time their great grandad put the stones back!!
I hope the rest of your trip to the UK was better
If you come at Solstice, it’s a massive free for all around the stones with music and dancing… and probably the hope that one of the stones will fall over and henge a few hippies into the ground.
Incidentally, when Stonehenge was first built, it was on chalk downland with no grass. So it would have looked slightly more… striking against a backdrop of pure white. But still, it is ultimately a tourist attraction made from old stones that you’re not even allowed to touch unless you’re the leader of the free world or it’s the longest or shortest day of the year.