Shedding light on Stonehenge and the summer solstice

Stonehenge is a large henge or stone circle in Wiltshire, and an internationally recognised travel destination. Huge standing stones were dragged to the site and placed in the landscape in the era 2,500 BC. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Shedding light on Stonehenge and the summer solstice

Shedding light on Stonehenge and the summer solstice

Stonehenge is synonymous with celebrations for the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, as crowds usually flock to see the sun rise from behind the site’s famed Heel Stone. A day of great importance, particularly among the Druid and Pagan communities, for the first time ever the celebrations will be streamed digitally in 2020. English Heritage, which looks after the Wiltshire site, will live stream the sunrise on its social media channels on Sunday 21 June, giving viewers around the world the chance to experience this incredible sight for themselves.

With a history stretching nearly five millennia, the ancient mystical site, together with a stone circle at nearby Avebury, forms part of the 6,500 acre Stonehenge and Avebury UNESCO World Heritage Site. As well as being a wonder of the world and a masterpiece of engineering, the prehistoric monuments have great spiritual and cultural meaning.

But with limited evidence around how it got there, or why it was built, the vast stone complex has spurred a number of highly creative theories. From aliens and giants being involved in its construction, to its use as a burial site, a music venue, and even being the result of an ancient team-building exercise, its past is riddled with mystery. Join us as we take a step back in time and explore the history of one of Britain’s best-known landmarks.

 

Delving into history

What we do know is that construction didn’t take place all at once. The first structure to be built at the site around 5,000 years ago was an early henge monument, a circular earthwork enclosure, with the stone circle added during the late Neolithic period – estimated to be around 2500 BC. This was undoubtedly a mammoth undertaking involving hundreds of people using only primitive tools.

The larger sarsen stones – one of two types of stone used for the monument – were arranged in two parallel formations to form a horseshoe and an outer circle. These stones weigh an average of 25 tons and scientists believe they originated in quarries around 20 miles to the north of the site. The smaller ‘bluestones’ were erected between the two sets of sarsens to create a double arc, and their roots have been traced back to the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales, some 200 miles from Stonehenge.

As with the origins of the monument itself, various theories exist as to how the stones came to be in the region. Some suggest that Neolithic builders used sledges and tree trunks to form rollers, or that they floated the stones on barges along the Welsh coast and up the nearby River Avon. Scientists have also championed the idea that the huge stones were moved by glaciers and vast ice floes during one of the Ice Ages. For those that dream of exploring Stonehenge, it’s possible to take a Virtual Tour until they can visit the site themselves.

 

Stonehenge and Paganism

Physician William Stukeley linked Stonehenge to Druids – followers of a Celtic spiritual tradition widely considered to be similar to modern Paganism – in the 18th century, with a theory that the site was built by them as a temple. While there is no evidence that Druids were alive at the time Stonehenge was built, the site remains a place of spiritual importance, partly due to how the stones align with the sun for both the summer and winter solstice.

 

The role of the sun

Based on archaeological evidence, it’s thought that the Heel Stone – an outlier to the north east of the main arrangement – may have had a partner stone to frame the sunrise in midsummer. From a central vantage point within the main stone circle, it’s possible to see the sun rise to the left of the remaining stone.

Numerous burial mounds and other archaeological findings from the surrounding area date back to the Bronze Age, while a major hillfort, a little over a mile from Stonehenge, can trace its roots to the Iron Age. Further archaeological excavations have found numerous Roman objects in the region too, suggesting that the site carried great ritual importance throughout their time in Britain too.

For budding astronomers keen to see more, English Heritage have also created Skyscape – an immersive experience detailing the skies above the iconic stone circle.

 

Recreated Neolithic houses

Five recreated Neolithic houses, complete with replica artefacts similar to those recovered from excavations at the nearby Durrington Walls settlement, help to showcase what life was like for people in the region at the time of Stonehenge’s construction. Even while sat at home today, it’s easy to imagine how they lived just by looking at the circular huts, built using chalk and straw daub with thatched roofing.

 

Major sites in the surrounding area

The entire landscape around Stonehenge is rich in archaeology, with more than 350 ancient monuments and burial mounds discovered to date. Recovered items include everything from arrow heads and battle axes to antler picks and flint hammerstones, with each piece and every site playing a key part in understanding life in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. Highlights of the Stonehenge collection of artefacts can be viewed on the English Heritage Website.

 

Stonehenge Avenue

Linking the River Avon with Stonehenge and measuring just under two miles across Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge Avenue forms what may have been a procession route to the stone circle. Formed of two equidistant banks, it was first discovered in the 18th century and runs north east from Stonehenge for around 550 metres before changing direction several times on its route to the river.

 

Avebury

Part of an extensive set of Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial sites – and forming part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Avebury is the location of Britain’s largest stone circle. Constructed during the Neolithic period, somewhere between 2850BC and 2200BC, the site includes a vast set of earthworks and a section of Avebury village. Around 100 stones formed the biggest stone circle, with two further rings found within it. Archaeologist Alexander Keiller excavated the site in the 1930s and a number of the key finds can be found within the museum at the site which bears his name. In recent times, archaeologists working at Avebury have uncovered evidence of an underground square megalith monument within the confines of the stone circle, although its exact purpose is yet to be determined.

 

Woodhenge

Another site close to Stonehenge, Woodhenge dates back to around 2300 BC. Aerial photography played a vital role in determining that the site included a number of timber posts that formed six concentric circles, which may have originally bolstered a ring-shaped building at what was initially thought to be a Neolithic burial mound. Concrete markers now show where those poles were positioned, while archaeological evidence suggests the site remained in use until around 1800 BC. Later evidence of Iron Age and Roman settlement in the region means the site may also have had defensive importance.

 

Silbury Hill

Part of the Avebury World Heritage Site and forming the largest artificial mound in Europe, Silbury Hill compares in height and magnitude to the pyramids in Egypt! The Neolithic site, developed between 2470 BC and 2350 BC, has yielded no signs of ancient burial, so both its use and meaning remain a mystery. The numbers associated with it are staggering – measuring roughly 160 metres across and 30 metres high, evidence suggest that as many as four million hours and half a million tonnes of chalk and clay were needed to create it!

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Get a taste of Britain’s brilliant breweries, dazzling distilleries and vibrant vineyards

Bombay Sapphire distillery, Whitchurch, Hampshire, England. Famed for its glass panels and Victorian architecture.
Get a taste of Britain’s brilliant breweries, dazzling distilleries and vibrant vineyards

Get a taste of Britain’s brilliant breweries, dazzling distilleries and vibrant vineyards

Summer's coming and there's no time like now to sip a glass of wine, fill up a dram, or enjoy some gin to celebrate Britain's vast array of breweries, vineyards and distilleries. And with a host of virtual celebrations coming up, everyone can get a taste of the action, even from home…

From marking World Gin Day on 13 June with a brilliantly blended G&T or enjoying a perfect pint for National Beer Day two days later, to celebrating English Wine Week with a sumptuous tipple, these online tours provide a unique glimpse into the history and heritage of Britain’s brewers and vintners.

 

GIN

Marked globally on the second Saturday of June and founded in England, World Gin Day celebrates the processes associated with distilling natural grains with juniper berries and other botanicals. The widespread popularity of gin in England can be traced back to the Georgian period, and the reign of William III – known as William of Orange – from 1689. Having relaxed restrictions on domestic spirit production, the market for gin boomed, and although a series of new laws were needed to curb just how much was being made, the spirit has remained popular in Britain since.

 

Sipsmith – Chiswick, London

Since launching the first small copper-pot distillery in London for 189 years in 2009, Sipsmith now creates a number of award-winning gins that are shipped all over the world. Fans of the spirit can tour its Chiswick Distillery online, guided by founder Sam Galsworthy and Master Distiller Jared Brown. Having petitioned for a change to historic British law to enable the use of a small still when first setting up the business in 2008, the move paved the way for hundreds of small distillers all over Britain.

 

Aber Falls – North Wales

One of only a handful of Welsh distilleries, Aber Falls in the north of the country is a short distance from the famous Rhaeadr Fawr, a picturesque waterfall within the Snowdonia National Park. As the first distillery to open in North Wales since the start of the 1900s, it produces several hand-crafted gins and liquors using local ingredients – processes that are explored in an in-depth virtual tour of the premises. It provides an insight into what to expect for those dreaming of exploring the distillery, its visitor centre and the spectacular nature of the surrounding countryside in future. Aber Falls is also set to launch its first batch of whisky in 2021, matured for three years to ensure maximum taste.

 

Eden Mill – St Andrews, Scotland

As one of the biggest names in Scottish gin production, Eden Mill produces a core gin range packed with different flavours. This includes a Golf Gin, inspired by botanicals that are found around Scotland’s many coastal golf courses, and in recognition of the distillery’s location close to the ‘home of golf’, St Andrews Links. It’s possible to enjoy an informative journey through the world of Eden Mill on a 360-degree virtual tour, which delves in to the history of Scotland’s first single-site distillery and brewery – where whisky and beer are also produced in addition to its award-winning gin.

 

Bombay Sapphire – Hampshire, England

Renowned for its glasshouses and home to more than 1,000 years of history, the Bombay Sapphire distillery building at Laverstoke Mill in the heart of Hampshire is just as impressive as the gin it produces. The site of a mill since 903AD, and with a listing as a corn mill in the Domesday Book of 1086, the site was transformed to open as a distillery in 2014. Sitting within a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Conservation Area, the modern glasshouses of the distillery juxtapose with the surrounding Georgina and Victorian architecture, while the neighbouring River Test has created a vibrant habitat for native wetland species. For those waiting to visit this exhilarating site, it’s possible to tour it online and delve deep into its rich history.

 

BEER

With the simple aim of promoting British Beer, National Beer Day on 15 June delves into the history and heritage of the drink that so many people know and love. Supported by the British Beer and Pub Association and the Campaign for Real Ale, among others, it is a celebration of what is being created at breweries across the nation. More styles of beer which originated in Britain are now brewed overseas than of any other beer brewing nation – from porter and stout to India pale ale and brown ale, to name just a few.

 

Meantime Brewery – Greenwich, London

Having celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019, Meantime Brewery has grown considerably since launching on a small industrial estate in Charlton. Now found in Greenwich, south London, it produces a tasty array of lagers, pale ales and India pale ales, as well as a limited edition set of seasonal products every year. The brewery’s immersive tour allows people to explore its site from anywhere in the world, or to think of visiting next time they’re in London discovering the neighbouring UNESCO World Heritage Site of maritime Greenwich, which is packed with the Royal Observatory, the Queen’s House and the buildings of the Royal Naval College.

 

Abbeydale Brewery – Sheffield, England

From its location in the centre of Sheffield’s Antiques Quarter, Abbeydale Brewery can brew up to 15 different beers at any one time. Although not usually open to the public, it has a virtual tour thanks to Google Maps and also operates two brew pubs in the city, which is known for its steel production heritage. The brewery’s logo, like its name, was inspired by the frontage of Beauchief Abbey, a medieval monastic house that is now partially restored as a parish church.

 

Greene King – Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

With heritage dating back to 1799, Greene King’s historic Westgate brewery in Bury St Edmunds is a sight to behold. A fully interactive 3D tour of the 1930s art deco building is available online. Giving viewers a state-of-the art peak into the intricacies of beer making, not to mention its striking marble floors and vast giant copper mash tuns, it’s the ideal prelude to returning in person for a tasting session in the future!

 

WINE

Normally held in late May to the start of June, English Wine Week plans to return on revised dates in 2020 to celebrate the hundreds of vineyards that operate all over Britain. It’s a chance to discover new flavours and to imagine wandering among the ripening vines as the year’s crop grows at pace. With more than 550 vineyards across the UK, the majority can be found in England – and especially in the south – where the topography, soil and climate provide ideal growing conditions for sparkling wines.

 

Woodchester Valley Vineyard – Cotswolds

Vineyards across the northern hemisphere start to spring into life in May/June, as the first small bunches of grapes begin to appear. While wine fans aren’t able to visit just yet, they can take a look behind the scenes into the everyday workings of an English vineyard, with a short virtual tour of the Woodchester Valley Vineyard. Located in the heart of the picturesque Cotswolds countryside, viewers can glean an insight into the world of winemaking and the processes involved, and get dreaming of when they can tour its lush green fields in future.

 

WHISKY

Britain is also renowned for its whisky, with Scotland home to more than 120 distilleries spread across five areas. Discover more about Scotland’s national drink, its distinctive tastes, and how it is made by exploring the distilleries virtually with VisitScotland’s Whisky Map – great for planning a tour of the region’s whisky heritage in the future.

 

Talisker – Isle of Skye, Scotland

Said to be the oldest functioning distillery on the Isle of Skye, Talisker can trace its origins back to 1830. Set on the shores of Loch Harport, the distillery produces a sweet, full-bodied single malt whisky and has scooped a number of international awards. Dream of supping a dram against the backdrop of striking views of the loch and the Cuillin – a set of rocky peaks on the island – or choose to tour the working distillery from the comfort of home.

 

The Glenturret – Perthshire, Scotland

Having been established in 1775, The Glenturret distillery is nestled in the Perthshire countryside and claims to be Scotland’s oldest distillery still located in its original premises. Using waters from Loch Turret and several traditional techniques, including mashing by hand, The Glenturret creates single malt whiskies that are chock-full of flavour. Those keen to delve into the world of Scottish whisky can see every corner of the distillery on a virtual tour, helping them get one step closer to seeing the spectacular Perthshire countryside and the distillery in person.

 

Laphroaig – Islay, Scotland

Embark on a 360-degree virtual journey around Laphroaig to learn more about one of Islay’s most famous distilleries. Situated on a small island off the west coast of Scotland, the distillery has been producing whiskey for more than 200 years. Awarded a Royal Warrant by Prince Charles in 1994, reflected by the coat of arms which features on every bottle, its single malt scotch whisky has a rich flavour and is aged for at least ten years. The distillery also runs a Friends of Laphroaig Club, where members are given a lifetime lease of up to one square foot of the distillery’s land, and rewarded with a dram of whisky if ever they visit the premises.

 

Penderyn, Brecon Beacons, Wales

Imagine taking in the picturesque surroundings of the Brecon Beacons while enjoying a dram of whisky at the Penderyn distillery. An informative walk-through is available to guide whisky-lovers through the processes that are involved in the creation of its award-winning single malt whiskies, an experience usually reserved for those who are unable to access the distillery’s viewing platform. Founded in 2004 in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons National Park, Penderyn relies on water from the park to give its whisky its distinctive taste.

Explore Britain from home with these modern TV classics

Gas Street Basin at the heart of the city centre, the meeting point of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and the Birmingham Canal Main Line. Historic buildings. Passenger boats moored.
Explore Britain from home with these modern TV classics

Explore Britain from home with these modern TV classics

Gas Street Basin at the heart of the city centre, the meeting point of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and the Birmingham Canal Main Line. Historic buildings. Passenger boats moored.

April 2020 saw the announcement that smash-hit British crime drama Life on Mars will be returning for a final series, 13 years after the last series aired. Co-creator Matthew Graham has revealed the new episodes are to be set in the 1970s, 80s and modern-day Manchester and London.

While fans eagerly await the release, they can dive into a host of other modern British TV classics, from gripping crime shows to side-splitting comedies and rich period dramas - all ready and waiting to be binged.

 

Crime Dramas

Life on Mars

A British crime drama gem, Life on Mars follows the case-busting journeys of Manchester police officer Sam Tyler (John Simm), who wakes up in 1973 following a road accident in then present-day 2006. Combining gripping story lines, nostalgic British scenes and an epic soundtrack, the show saw two hugely successful series, filmed in 2006 and 2007, and gained a cult following. Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Life on Mars, quickly followed, as did remakes in America, Spain, South Korea and Russia.

A key filming location is the Brutalist Stopford House, a short distance from Manchester central in Stockport. Built in 1975, this council building was used as the setting for the Manchester and Salford Police station in the series, giving audiences an authentic look into Britain’s past.

 

Broadchurch

Once audiences have exhausted all episodes of Life on Mars they can fill the crime series-shaped void with the thrilling Broadchurch. Staring Scottish Dr Who actor David Tennant and The Crown’s Olivia Coleman, three exhilarating series of the show were filmed between 2013 and 2017. Based in a fictional town in Dorset, the series' location was partially inspired by the home of writer Chris Chibnall, who lives on the picturesque Jurassic Coast. The vast coastal views of West Bay played a starring role in the show, as did the town of Clevedon, near Bristol. Broadchurch tips its hat to the Dorset-born poet and novelist Thomas Hardy throughout the series, with the surname used for one of the main characters being Detective Inspector Alec Hardy.

 

Sherlock

A modern day adaptation of the seminal Arthur Conan Doyle detective novels, the BBC created four seasons of Sherlock, filmed from 2010 and 2017. Watched by audiences in over 200 countries, the show stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and is set in contemporary London, with filming split between the British capital and Cardiff. The location shots for the fictitious detective’s famous home, 221b Baker Street, were filmed at 187 North Gower Street in Bloomsbury. Fans will no doubt recognise Speedy’s Café which is located next door, an eatery that has added a special ‘Sherlock’ breakfast to its menu. 221b Baker Street, the address made famous by Conan Doyle in 1887, has been recreated in the shape of the Sherlock Holmes Museum.

 

Vera

Still keen to to dive into a much-adored British crime series? One of the most established is Vera, which ran over 10 series from 2011 to 2020 and was enjoyed by more than twenty counties across the world. Based on novels by Ann Cleeves, this British drama followed the eternally frumpy and slightly unorthodox Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, played by Brenda Blethyn, and her work with the Northumberland & City Police (a fictional police force). Set in north-east England, many stunning corners of Newcastle and Northumberland were used as filming locations including Whitley Bay, the stunning Farne Islands and St Cuthbert’s Cave.

 

Period Dramas

Call the Midwife

Viewers with a penchant for period dramas will not want to miss Call the Midwife, which returned for an incredible ninth season in early 2020. Based on former nurse Jennifer Worth’s trilogy of memoirs, created by Heidi Thomas and starring British comedy heroine Miranda Hart, the show follows a team of midwives who confront everyday life in London’s East End in the 1950s and 1960s, a backdrop of vast social challenge and change. The series has been sold to more than 100 countries, so international fans might recognise the 2019 festive special, which saw the midwives change their usual scenery as they headed to Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, a string of idyllic islands that are renowned for bird watching and wildlife, in addition to striking coastlines.

 

Downton Abbey

A chance to peer into the life of Britain’s high society and their loyal staff, Downton Abbey follows the twists and turns of the Crawley family, from post-war into the roaring 20s. Having run from 2010 to 2015, the glamourous six-series classic was a rip-roaring success, with more than 100 countries showing the British drama, cementing its place as a modern British classic.

Although filled with breathtaking scenes of Britain, the most iconic of all the filming locations has to be the family’s expansive estate, shot in Hampshire’s Highclere Castle. Set in 1,000 acres of parkland, the Victorian-built manor house remains home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, whose family have lived on the site since 1679. Julian Fellowes, the author of Downton Abbey, is a long-standing family friend and actually had Highclere in mind while penning the series. The picturesque village of Bampton in the Cotswolds was also used for many of the exterior scenes of Downton Village, including the church, post office and pubs.

 

Peaky Blinders

Now shown in an astonishing 183 countries worldwide, why not join the Shelby fan club and dive into the world of 20th-century British gangsters in the award-winning Peaky Blinders? With five gasp-inducing series (and a sixth series reportedly on the way), this Birmingham-based phenomenon has gone from strength to strength since first being aired in 2013, with the last series gathering an audience of 6.2 million for the first two episodes. Set in the once industrial hub of the UK Midlands, anglophiles can follow the story of gang leader Tommy Shelby, played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, as he and his family rise to become the top dogs of the city, shortly after the First World War. Expect scenes of smoke-filled pubs, mist-covered canals and hours of dramatic suspense. Many of the gritty scenes from the seasons were filmed in the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, a firm favourite with creator and writer Steven Knight, as scenes from all seasons to date have been shot there.

 

Mr Selfridge

Peering into the mind of Harry Gordon Selfridge, Mr Selfridge tells the story behind London’s famous department store Selfridges & Co., which was built in the early 1900s. This opulent British drama follows the life and times of the man himself, Mr Selfridge, played by Jeremy Piven, who was determined to import the American idea of shopping being a leisure activity as opposed to a chore. The high-end department store still stands on London’s Oxford Street, a testament to how much it shaped modern culture. Televised in the UK between 2013 and 2016, Mr Selfridge was comprised of four series and was also shown in the USA, Australia, Israel, Netherlands and Sweden.

 

Outlander

Based on the novels of the same name by Diana Gabaldon, this historical drama sees former Second World War nurse Claire Randall, played by Irish actor Caitriona Balfe, transported back to 18th-century Scotland, in a story that has captivated international audiences for five engrossing series. Filming took place in various beautiful locations across Scotland, including Abercairny Estates, in the town of Crieff, which has been the home of the Moray family since the 13th century. The series transformed the estate into an American plantation house, also known as Aunt Jocasta’s plantation, River Run. Another of the series’ filming locations is St Andrew’s in the Square, in the heart of Glasgow. This former parish church served as a filming location in the fourth series and is now home to Glasgow’s Centre for Scottish Culture. What’s more, there’s a sixth season on the way!

 

Comedies

The IT Crowd

Four series of The IT Crowd was enough to secure its status as a classic British comedy.  Starring Richard Oyoade, Chris O’Dowd and Katherine Parkinson, the hit show aired from 2006 until 2013 and boasts additional performances from kings of comedy Chris Morris, Matt Berry and Noel Fielding. Taking place in a fictional office, which Irish writer Graham Linehan described as ‘a geek’s Shangri-La’; The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge even loaned the show a collection of computers and manuals from the 1970s and 1980, in order to give the set a true air of authenticity.

 

Fleabag

Based on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show of the same name, Fleabag first hit screens and won hearts in 2016. Since its premiere and the subsequent second and final series in 2019, the show has risen to cult comedy status, ranking in the top ten of The Guardian's list of the 100 best TV shows of the 21st century.

Featuring writer Waller-Bridge as the main character, as well as Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, filming was done almost entirely in the borough of Camden, with a cluster of other recognisable locations nestled in the Dartmouth Park area. This includes the guinea pig-themed café, a key filming location on York Rise in Camden that is now a Turkish restaurant.

 

The Inbetweeners

A hysterical coming-of-age comedy, The Inbetweeners follows four boys as they clumsily fight their way through the highs and lows of adolescent awkwardness. Starring British actors Simon Bird, Joe Thomas, Blake Harrison and James Buckley, it spanned three series and won the British Comedy Academy Outstanding Achievement award in 2011.

Mostly filmed in north-west London, areas such as Uxbridge and Watford were used as the backdrop to the series, as well Ruislip, which was the location of the boys’ high school. Fans will no doubt remember the theme park episode, which was filmed at Thorpe Park in Surrey.

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