The first time I saw Stonehenge was at night a dozen years ago; it was exactly midnight, in fact. We had taken the train in from London that morning, and it was clear already that great travel karma was already at work, since my friends and I didn’t realize the train stopped in Wells, not at Glastonbury where we were staying, two hours from Stonehenge. We had presumed there would be public transport to the great monument; after all, it was one of the seven wonders of the world, dating back thousands of years – surely someone had figured out how to arrange transportation to it? But no such luck, and it was a Sunday to boot.
Through a series of happy accidents, the bus driver had overheard us lamenting and offered up his son-in-law, the manager of the local rental agency in Wells, who had rented us a Ford Escort station wagon on the spot, the only car he had. Thrilled, we had made it into Glastonbury in time for dinner at a delightful pub after checking into our B & B. Then we had headed out, following the winding two-lane narrow roads that passed as highways in that part of the countryside.
We had also not stopped to consider the henge might be inaccessible at that time of the night, but we only were able to get to the area for 24 hours, and so had decided to visit Glastonbury, home of the famous Abbey, the Tor and the Chalice Well where supposedly the same holy water still ran that Joseph of Aramathea stopped and drank thousands of years before. We also wanted to see Avebury Henge, lesser known but so large that the town ran through it and many of the stones had been broken up to build the stone fences or walls of the farming village. Now, at midnight, we faced an empty parking lot and an irascible guard who was more concerned about the strange weather patterns we had been seeing since night fell, the sky often streaking with jagged lightning bolts. He gestured vaguely across into the darkness to indicate where the monument was, but swore we would not be allowed in. Undaunted, we parked and crossed the road on foot, only to run right into a chain link fence.
It was so dark we couldn’t see Stonehenge in the distance, but suddenly, a light moved towards us, and an accent with an unmistakable lilt that told me this man hailed from Glasgow, called out the same words with which guards everywhere have always greeted strangers: “Who goes there?”
“Americans,” my partner Greg responded, “and we want to see the henge!” In the dark, the snorting laughter told us the guard was coming closer. He was a young fellow, Scots as I suspected, and he was kind and polite and told us in no uncertain terms that if we attempted to breach the fence he would have to shoot us. “Just in the leg,” he added kindly, “no sense doing any permanent damage.” Across the night sky, right at the horizon, a thin band of gray was constantly lit up with lightning streaks. He did take our camera inside, but the flash on the stones and his distance to them gave us merely the impression of thick gold rock.
The next time I saw Stonehenge I was smart enough to come by day. It was bleak, as England often is, even in Summer, and the though I wanted the stones to speak to me, to tell me how they got there and what they were for (despite myriad theories, no one actually knows) there were far too many other visitors and Stonehenge was too close to the road, and the car park and the business of modern life for me to get much of an impression other than the vastness of the rock’s height.
So I am looking forward to my third trip to Stonehenge, July of 2014, when I will be co-leading an intrepid band of pilgrims to Southern England to explore the spiritual mists of that veiled land. We have arranged for a private visit at dawn that morning, and the car park and the road have now been moved away, as I apparently was not the only one who noticed that the great henge’s mystery was better served without modern-day interruptions. I’m not sure what to expect this time, except quiet and the peace and tranquility of our sunrise ceremony. And if the stones tell me anything, I’ll be sure to write about it.