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When dealing with prehistory (before the written word) arguments will abound as to 'who, when and why', and no more so than the famous monument on Salisbury Plain, the circle of stones known the world over as Stonehenge. 5,000 years ago, give or take a decade, work began here with an initial earth bank and ditch with some form of wooden structure within. Debate continues as to what exactly was placed within the earth circle and further debates are put forward about the various phases of constructing the stone circle, where the stones came from and the importance of the Moon and Sun in the process of worship at the site. For a lot of day trippers it's Stonehenge's iconical status that brings them here in their thousands whether they are familiar with the documentaries churned out by travel channels, read Tess of the D'Urbervilles or have watched National Lampoon's European Vacation.
Most visitors will arrive by private car, organised tour bus or by public transport. In the latter case the only bus service that calls at Stonehenge is "The Stonehenge Tour" which provides an regular link with Salisbury railway station, which has connections from London and other parts of southern england.
Until recently, most people felt that they could 'do' Stonehenge in an hour. However this is no longer the case as a new visitors centre has been built approximately 1.5 miles away from the stones, and unless you fancy a long walk from Amesbury, the only way to access the stones is by taking a land train or shuttle bus from the visitors centre. However the visitors centre is also much better equipped than the previous facilities with an interpretive centre, exhibitions, cafe, toilets and obligatory gift shop, so a minimum of 2 hours is now required for any sensible visit to Stonehenge.
You can find out more about Stonehenge from the English Heritage website, and see important collections from the World Heritage Site, at Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes and Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.]
A free audio tour for paying visitors is available (in 10 languages) but during summer weekends they can be hard to get hold of, especially if you find yourself arriving just after a couple of coach loads of day visitors from London sandwiching Stonehenge between a morning at Windsor Castle and an afternoon in Bath. An English language version of the Audio Tour can be downloaded to iPhone and Android devices in advance of a vist from the English Heritage website.
Access to the inner circle is available prior to the main site opening or just after closure. Arrangements for a 'Special Access' visit can be made through English Heritage or one of London's day trip tour companies that pre-book inner circle visits on a daily basis. Other than that regular visitors are kept behind a small rope fence, which helps keep other tourists from walking in front of that all important shot.
While circumnavigating the site and listening to the audio tour one may be left wondering how many people visit this site and pay their £14.90 (£13.90 if booked online via the English Heritage website) to get in. Over one million people make the journey to Stonehenge every year boosting the turnover of English Heritage and helping the conservation of other historically important places.
Further update: 21 January 2014
The recently opened visitor facilities and exhibitions are housed in a new building situated 1.5 miles away from Stonehenge to enable the immediate area around the monument to be free of modern structures. Work to demolish the existing facilities and car park and return the area to grass has begun and will continue for a few months. The restoration of the landscape around Stonehenge will be completed in summer 2014.
Entrance to Stonehenge is now managed through timed tickets and advance booking is required. For opening hours, prices and online booking, visit the Stonehenge website.
Free entry is available to members of English Heritage, National Trust (UK and NI only), Historic Scotland, CADW and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.
Free entry is also available to local residents of Allington, Amesbury, Boscombe, Bulford and Bulford Camp, Cholderton, Durnford, Durrington and Larkhill, Figheldean, Idmiston, Maddington, Milston, Netheravon, Newton Toney, Orcheston St George, Orcheston St Mary, Rollestone, Shrewton, Tilshead, Wilsford, Winterbourne Dauntsey, Winterbourne Earls, Winterbourne Gunner, Winterbourne Stoke and the Woodfords. You may obtain a free Local Resident's Pass valid for one year from Amesbury Library on production of proof of address and photo ID. The pass allows entry for one adult and three accompanying children.