Bluestones for the Bored: Stonehenge and Other Travel Hype
It cost £12 for a ticket from Waterloo to Salisbury, and the trip to Waterloo was free because I had an unlimited-travel pass for the tube for the entire month. Dinner that night would cost around £15 at the King’s Head Inn in Salisbury for some fish and chips, which I already knew meant french fries. I knew this because I had already eaten fish and chips several times before this meal, and I had seen pictures of Stonehenge before this trip, yet I was curious to see it in person—those giant grey stones. Many of the stones are actually bluestones, a type of subvolcanic rock called dolerite which were brought to the site of the monument over 4,000 years before I would get the chance to see them. It was rainy when that day finally came.
The first picture I took during my month in London was a sign on Craven Street near Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square which informs passersby that Benjamin Franklin lived there (from 1757 to 1775, apparently). I still can’t quite figure out if this is significant or not. Not the fact that he had lived in that location, but that this is the first picture I took. It’s a relatively boring snapshot, a plaque placed between two regularly-sized windows on a very ordinary street. The sign was apparently once placed in the wrong position due to some confusion with the street numbers. This is the type of trivia that will never show up on a gameshow. Unlike trivia about Stonehenge, which followed me from grade school through a university elective course about archeology. I received a 3.5 for the class.
Once arrived in Salisbury, it was a very quick jaunt to the tourist bus station, quick because I was late. You hear about countries like Japan where the timetables are held to the nth degree, or others in South America where buses arriving at the terminal are terminally late. In an entire month, I had no real sense of English public transportation being particularly punctual or tardy. All I know is that the bus was still waiting for me that afternoon, bright red and double-deckered, just as they were in downtown London.
Before the trip, I was actually under the impression that double-decker buses were outlawed in England. Indeed, the Routemaster, the most traditional looking of double-decker buses you could imagine, was largely taken out of service in 2005. Maybe this is what I was thinking of. Maybe I wasn’t thinking about anything. I sat in the front row of the upper floor, where they all but place signs marking the seats for tourists with absolutely no shame, like the back row of the Skylink at Dallas-Fort Worth airport or the window seat on an airplane. We all love the convenience of the aisle seat but also the view out the window looking down at planet earth, so I guess it comes down to priorities. I suppose that’s why first class exists.
Yet even sitting in the plastic seats of the non-Routemaster was a privilege, though I certainly wouldn’t recognize it in that moment. Most people in the world don’t visit Stonehenge on any given year, a fun touristy fact which is probably a truism about most singular attractions around the world. In 2014, only one-and-a-quarter million visitors out of 7.2 billion human beings gazed upon those rocks in the flesh. England was among the top destinations on my personal travel list. To even have a “travel list” is, I suppose, a pretty privileged place to be, and to be able to cross off Stonehenge in particular is probably even more privileged.
Rain fled to the sides of the windshield as the bus blew down the A360. The trees there are cut such that large buses and trucks don’t swipe the foliage, creating a sort of natural tunnel that hugs the passengers of the cars using the road. Green surrounded the bus in that moment, to the left and the right and above and ahead, and was partially what I had been chasing on the trip in the first place. London, which is effectively England’s first and second city, is as big as big cities go, but the ability to zip on a train out to the greens of the English countryside is a refreshing and convenient way to get the full experience. It’s an essential part of the trip, because in many other ways, London is New York is Chicago is any other big city.
A few weeks later, I would go to Ireland, both the most pre-packaged touristy sides of Dublin as well as a less run-of-the-Jameson-mill trip to the Wicklow mountains. Of course, even my less-touristy trip away from Dublin out to Glendalough and Avoca was set up by a travel agency, a bit of irony that bites pretty hard if you pay attention to it. Ireland is another destination to which I do expect to return, another instance of this same travel-privilege. Although I spent a wonderful day hiking on the emerald hills, I still spent half as much time outside of Dublin than I did at Temple Bar. Temple Bar is one of those places that no one will tell you is a lot less fun than it sounds, save for having live music pretty much every night. I suppose I’m just a buzzkill.
The bus made its turn onto A303 and there it was. Right there, sitting on the edge of the road like some pile of rocks. I suppose it was pretty smart for the druids to leave a few hundred yards between their sculpture and the roadway, seeing as you wouldn’t want anyone honking during your ancient pagan rituals, especially not in the UK, where the populace is almost two-thirds Christian. Of course, it’s weird that the Anglicans specifically get to call themselves Church of England when only 17 out of every 100 Brits surveyed last year claimed to be a part of said denomination. Is this just how it works in a parliamentary system? I’d like to talk to a lawyer about these naming rights and how they happened about becoming the official Church of England™, but it seems lawyers in England are called barristers and all wear funny wigs.
Stonehenge is really the British equivalent of Four Corners, having only the advantages of a historical narrative and the allure of British culture to suck in hapless tourists like myself. Four Corners is the imaginary point in the desert where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet, and is the only place where four states touch at once in the United States. It’s boring enough that of the four photographs on the site’s Wikipedia page, only one is of the “monument” itself, the others being a boy on horseback, a picture of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and an aerial shot of Bluff, Utah. But you can stand in four states at once which makes for a sweet profile picture, so who am I to judge, really.
You also couldn’t get very close to Stonehenge. By the time I arrived in the middle of the afternoon, the grassy fields surrounding the monument were sparsely populated with the other camera-carrying travelers. I made sure to take a picture of each and every rock, like a responsible adult cataloguing assets for an insurance company before an impending hurricane. These files have remained largely unopened over the past few years, but should anyone ever mistakenly move the rocks around, I would be willing to donate my pictures as evidence of how they once were. I own a part of the past, which isn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds.
Ropes surrounded the monument at ankle height, which is to say they were only slightly taller than a line drawn on the ground, which is to say that they were meant as suggestion rather than a means of enforcement. With no Stonehenge Security Guards in sight, what the ropes really are is an exercise in social consent, that we allow ourselves to be governed by two-inch-tall rope. Therefore the only difference between myself and the 14-year-old boy who takes two steps in to get a better picture is my willingness to not upset the social mores around this ancient monument. I didn’t step over the line, in case you were going to ask.
I didn’t step over the line because there was really no reason to get any closer. The rocks look about the same from one angle to the next, and I didn’t study up on my primeval rituals to have any benefit in standing between the stones. Instead, I snapped a few pictures, listened to the goofy headset-narration that the bus driver provided me with for only an extra £2, and then looked in the gift shop for a suitably corny item to take home with me. Within an hour, I was back on the “early bus” in to Salisbury, having exhausted every possible angle of a tourist attraction which will probably never make my rotation of screensaver photographs. It’s weird to feel disappointed by something for which you had no actual expectations.