I think every job I have done for Golden tours has taken me to Stonehenge – Stonehenge and Bath, and Windsor, and Oxford and Salisbury and any combination of those places. It is the one place everyone seems to wants to go to and I am quite happy to take them there. However, I rarely go up to the stones themselves these days, being happy to stay at the new Visitor Centre and write these posts or work on the Guidelines magazine while I drink my free cup of tea and eat my lunch provided by the company. Time is so tight on these tours that people are provided with a box containing a cheese salad roll, a packet of crisps, two biscuits, a few raisins and a bottle of water which they can eat on the coach.
The latest day-trip was different, however. I usually report for work around 7:30 am, returning to London twelve hours later but last Tuesday I did not have to get there until 9:30 and returned around 11:00 pm. This was because we had a private evening visit in which we were allowed to walk amongst the stones rather than around the outside, with guards ready to pounce if we strayed beyond the boundary rope – or even leaned over it.
In nearly forty years of taking people there I have never been able to do this. It was not actually the first time I had been able to touch the stones: I have a childhood memory of having a picnic there with the family before they brought in rope barriers and entrance fees in 1977, not long before I came into the guiding business.
This may seem like a small matter – being allowed to go a few feet further than you are normally. In fact, it was a totally different experience not least because we were the only people there. Having somewhere to yourself should not make such a difference to the way you visit it but in practice it does. I had been rather sceptical of the way the Stonehenge experience had been redesigned with a fancy new visitor centre and minibuses shuttling people up to the stones. However, the evening visit really did make you feel you were going back to what the place was like when it was first built.
This was not least because it was very cold and windy. The Salisbury Plain is an exposed place at the best of times but on a breezy evening you can really feel the wind cutting through you. I thought that we would not have enough time there on our schedule, especially as English Heritage only allow twenty six people in at a time, so I had to divide the group in two with one half walking around the perimeter, the other inside the stones. That cold wind, however, meant that people were happy enough with around twenty minutes to take their photos and see the stones at closer quarters – without touching them.
Even I took a bunch of photographs, which you can see here. We had a good, if long, day and the tips when we returned were excellent (after a couple of mediocre trips tipswise). Some things are always important for a tourist guide.