How your group visit to Stonehenge has been transformed

Date Posted: 19/12/2013

Stonehenge New Visitor Centre

Pictured: The new visitor centre and exhibition at Stonehenge is where you begin your visit.

The first phase of a £27 million project to significantly enhance a group visit to the Stonehenge World Heritage Site is now complete. Rob Yandell travelled to Wiltshire to attend the opening and see what’s changed at one of the world’s most important prehistoric monuments.

Stonehenge is one of England’s most iconic tourist attractions; a site of great historic, archaeological and spiritual interest. So it is strange to think that up until now, the visitor experience has been so one dimensional.

I would guess that there are many of you that have organised at least one, if not more, group trips to see the world famous stone circle. I have no idea what your first thoughts were when you saw Stonehenge with your own eyes; a collection of stones they may be, but they take your breath away. But what happens when you get your breath back? Was it all over just a little too quickly – 20 minutes then back on the coach?

Fantastic news; change, big change is occurring in rural Wiltshire that will provide visitors with what is being described as a proper introduction to Stonehenge for the first time. There has been some fantastic work achieved by English Heritage and its partners.

New visitor centre is no eye sore

The new visitor centre sits just a short ten minute shuttle ride from the stones and sympathetically fits into the landscape without fuss, avoiding the inevitable concern that such things can cause an eye sore. This is where you get free coach parking and start your group trip. The fact you are not immediately greeted by the stones helps build the anticipation; well, as long as you don’t spot it when travelling along the A303 that is.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire

Pictured: The Stone Circle remains the highlight.

Start by browsing the excellent new exhibition which tells the story of the changing understanding of Stonehenge over the centuries. It’s a good size and although there is much to see, it is easy to digest it all, with a light and spacious feel to the place. The 360-degree virtual experience (pictured below) lets you ‘stand in the stones’ before you enter the gallery. This three minute film, based on state-of-the-art laser scan images of the stone circle, transports you back in time, through the millennia and both the summer and winter solstices.

In the exhibition’s galleries your group will see displays of objects never seen together before. The reconstructed face of a 5,500 year-old man buried in a long barrow 1.5 miles from Stonehenge – said to be the most advanced reconstruction of a Neolithic man’s face to date - is a highlight. Two rare 14th century manuscripts, which are among the earliest known drawings of the monument, Roman coins and jewellery, as well as early surveying equipment are also on show.

360 degree stone circle at Stonehenge exhibition

There are video screens that reveal what we know and what we believe might have been, giving you the context for a much more rewarding and enjoyable visit. It’s very well done.

The shuttle to the stones offers disabled access and when you get there I do urge you to either pre-arrange a guided tour, or to use the audio guides to help enhance your visit.

Further changes – what’s to come?

Of course this is just phase one of the project. By the summer, the immediate area around the monument will be free of modern structures. Work will now begin to demolish the existing facilities and car park and return the area to grass. The restoration of the landscape around Stonehenge will be completed in time for a summer 2014 visit.

Visitors looking at Information Screen at Stonehenge Visitor Centre

Pictured: The new exhibition uses the latest technology to explain what we know about Stonehenge.

English Heritage and its supporters are working hard to create a peaceful environment at Stonehenge; the A344 road is now closed and will be grassed over, and a campaign to create a tunnel for the nearby A303 is ambitious but would be the icing on the cake.

There will be new opportunities to walk and explore the surroundings of the monument, including the Avenue, Stonehenge’s ancient processional approach, guided by new interpretation panels specially developed with the National Trust.

New timed ticket and group discounts

Pre-booking timed tickets are now needed for a group visit to Stonehenge. This helps minimise queues and avoid over-crowding at peak times. You can get a ten per cent group discount when taking a party of 11 or more people and there is free entry for a group travel organiser and the coach driver. A two hour visit is recommended although this is perhaps a little optimistic; I think you would need more time to fully appreciate the whole experience.

Stonehenge is a national treasure; and although the Stone Circle is still the highlight, a visit is now so much more.

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