Saturday, April 14, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones: part 4

We arrived at Stonehenge at 7 p.m. on a Sunday night, and presented our Special Access letter from English Heritage – a useful document that for a fee allows after hours, inside the rope privileges. “Ah, yes, Mrs. Kernaghan," said the man in charge. "We've been expecting you." Feeling like visiting dignitaries, Kernaghan and party of three headed down the concrete connecting tunnel under the A360.

Stonehenge looms. It broods. It overwhelms. It's managed to survive love-ins, rock festivals, graffiti artists and millions of trampling feet and still retain its ponderous dignity.

As a researcher I knew I should be taking notes; but your instinct, once inside the circle, is simply to gawk. I felt a curious sense of unreality. This was how I had felt when I first saw men walk on the moon. Stonehenge is so familiar an icon, so much a part of everyone's cultural landscape, that it's hard to convince yourself that the stones are real, and not a painted plywood movie set.

I stood on the entrance causeway with my back to the road, watching the sun set between the megaliths in lavish technicolour. I was lost in contemplation of the past. This was Stonehenge as my heroine Naeri must have seen it, on that evening four thousand years ago when the final trilithon was raised....

An indignant voice shouted from behind the roadside fence: "Hey, lady. There's a thousand people out here, all trying to take pictures, and you're standing smack in the way!"

The last colours of the sunset faded, and darkness fell. The crowds of photographers behind the fence put away their equipment and drove off. We decided to wait for moonrise.

Other after-hours visitors have reported noises "as of giant catherine wheels spinning upwards", and flickering lights round the trilithons. Mysterious currents of energy are said to emanate from the stones. Guy Underwood, in The Pattern of the Past, speaks of Stonehenge as a kind of giant condensing battery, a focus of powerful cosmic forces. I'd drawn heavily on his theories when I was writing The Sarsen Witch and was anxious to test them at first hand. I pressed both hands against the lichen-encrusted surface of a trilithon. But on this particular night the generator must have been turned off. All I could feel was the lingering warmth of the September sun.

By nine o'clock it was full dark, and there was no sign of the moon. Black and featureless against the night sky, the stones took on a menacing look. My husband, standing by the Slaughter Stone, theorized on how it got its name. Stop that, Dad," said my daughter, shivering. I felt my own hair stir on the back of my neck. In a place so crowded with ancient ghosts, we were beginning to feel that we’d outstayed our welcome.

When we left there were still people gathered outside the fence. "How is it you got to go inside?" asked one woman. She sounded a little aggrieved.

"Special access," replied my daughter enigmatically.

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