I learned at a young age that one part of being happy is keeping your expectations low. This isn’t some joke about pessimism. I’m serious. It’s a useful tool to counter disappointment. Obviously this is context dependent. I don’t advocate the crushing of hopes and dreams; I also think anticipating something good is a chief joy in life. But moderating expectations is helpful.
Which is a long way round to saying that the landscape around Stonehenge is pretty darn cool. Stonehenge itself – sure. It’s great. It’s an incredible feat of engineering and its mysterious origins didn’t fail to pique my interest. But I expected that because it’s a world-famous monument weighted with myth and hype (deservedly so) and I kind of felt like I’d been told what to feel in advance. The thing that made the deepest impression on me? Burial mounds.
You see, I wasn’t expecting them.
The Stonehenge visitors centre does a great job at filling in the cultural background, explaining the archaeology and providing a sense of awe about the stones. I learned about the burial mounds (they’re actually called “round barrows” or “long barrows”, the difference being self-explanatory) before heading out. They keep Stonehenge hidden from view at first: from the centre you catch a bus or take a half hour walk down a road and through a small wood before coming out on a grassy plain, wide and windswept, and seeing the henge in the distance.
The barrows are scattered for miles around the stones. You’d mistake some of them them for undulations in the land if you didn’t know that these small hills are actually prehistoric tombs. Walking across a field past a big old mound of dirt and knowing that 4000-year-old bones are buried in there gave me a bit of a thrill. They’re so unassuming – and unexpected. Stonehenge was amazing, but it was precisely what I anticipated it would be. Those round barrows, rising at random, strange as crop dustings, gave insight into how the prehistoric people of this area lived, or at least died, and there was a genuine tingle of discovery in that.
I’ve had a few of these travel moments over the years and increasingly think that arriving in a town or city or region with a rough plan, a handful of ideas or one big attraction, and then being flexible and open to what you might find is the most fun way to get around. Of course it’s vital to be prepared in terms of transport, costs, language, that kind of thing. But the afternoon years ago when I stumbled across the Royal Pavilion in Brighton was brilliant; I’d chosen Brighton on its reputation as a nice seaside town and suddenly had an exotic palace too! I felt like I’d unearthed a treasure.
So I’m glad I saw the impressive stones, but I’m also glad I didn’t know everything about the site beforehand because I got more than I expected.
P.S. The round barrows in the image above are some of the larger and more distinct that I saw. Do an image search if you want to see more – they look kind of cool from the air.