There are many ways to enjoy a visit to any one of the thousands of ancient monuments in the UK. This article outlines some ideas about ways to enhance your visit and experience of the site, wherever it may be.
When visiting any ancient site, it’s as well to be prepared for your experience. Clothing, food and drink suitable to the terrain and weather is an essential, as is a good (OS 1:25000 or better) map of the area. To get the most out of your visit though, some additional items will be needed.
- Sketchbook and /or notebook and writing materials – for taking on the spot notes of observations and experiences.
- GPS Unit and Compass – Most Smart phones have these included as standard these days, and free apps are usually available to make best use of them.
- Camera – again at a basic level, most smartphones have decent (5mp or greater) cameras these days. Compact cameras are light and easy to pack, some SLRs need a bit more muscle power, particularly if a long trek is involved!
- Binoculars – can aid with intervisibility – is that a tumulus, or just a bump on the horizon?
- Torch – useful if examining chambered tombs.
- Spare batteries for cameras and other electronic equipment.
- Rubbish bags to remove any tat and rubbish left at the site by less-respectful previous visitors.
So, being fully equipped, what should you look for when you arrive?
Consider why the monument was placed where it is in the landscape – why here? Remember that the landscape changes considerably over time – tree cover may be totally different to when the site was built, field boundaries in the main are relatively recent compared to most sites, modern roads may follow much older trackways, but many have been damagingly carved through pre-existing landscape features (eg, the M3 at Winchester, the A34 at Newbury etc)
Are there any other sites in the vicinity? Signs of ancient settlement nearby, hut circles, cairns, barrows etc? What about further away? Is the site within easy distance of e.g., a hill fort or other defensive postion? What about water sources? Many prehistoric sites (from standing stones to hillforts) have a relationship with water either in the form of springs, streams, rivers or coastlines.
Having considered the placement of the site, and looked at possible nearby related sites, are there any obvious alignments that could be of significance? This is an exercise that may be better performed as part of the pre-trip research, or indeed, after the visit is over and measurements such as compass bearings, GPS readings etc have been taken (you did remember to take your notebook and pen on the visit, didn’t you?) Don’t forget that later religious buildings such as churches and abbeys may have been built on sites of earlier significance, so consider those too when looking for alignments which may show ancient pathways – Alfred Watkins’ book, the The Old Straight Track was actually based on the reasonable assumption that the shortest way between two points is a straight line.
There may also be alignments to celestial markers, such as the well known solstice shafts of sunlight at Maes Howe and Newgrange. Often, to find these accurately, a computer software program may be required to ‘turn back the clock’ to a given date/time and direction. There are several free ones out there (e.g. Stellarium) which can help with this exercise.
Has what you see today been tinkered with in any way by restorers? There are lots of examples of this, where work is obvious – the skylights in West Kennet Long Barrow (Wiltshire), the brick supports at Tinkinswood (Glamorgan) or Bodowyr (Anglesey) are good examples. Other restoration work may be less obvious – Waylands Smithy (Oxfordshire) has been largely reconstructed, as has the Merry Maidens circle (West Penwith). Consider what the site may have looked like when originally built.
Remember to leave the site as you would hope to find it. Clear up any litter, and do not damage the site in any way – ‘take only photographs and memories, leave only footprints’ is a tenet espoused by many groups. We would suggest not even leaving footprints if it can be at all helped!
These are just some simple ideas to get ‘more’ out of a visit to a heritage site. If you have your own ideas, please tell us about them in the comments.