A visit to Stonehenge in 1853 (maybe)

Most people who visit Stonehenge seem to write about the experience in platitudes repeated from guidebooks (“It is hard to imagine the intense industry of the people who set the stones upright here some thirty-four hundred years ago”) – or about things that have little to do with the stones (“Ask Mummy to tell you about Stonehenge. Love from Dad”, on a 1924 postcard, tells us more about Dad than Stonehenge).

Rarer and much more interesting are those texts that capture something of the occasion. On his web page of postcards with messages, Bob Bradlee reproduces this wonderful, brief evocation from a soldier stationed on Salisbury Plain:

“Down here for a week. Firing our first live shells tomorrow. Can see Stonehenge quite well from our hut. Had a walk there last night – it is marvellous how ever they built it. Reveille was at midnight on Sat & we arrived 9.30am on Sunday. ABC” (Undated postcard, around 1920)

When I wrote about Bill Brandt’s photos of Stonehenge two or three years ago, using such texts, I tried to piece together the way visitors’ experiences of the stones and their setting changed down the centuries [1]. It was Bradlee who told me about one of the most precious pieces, printed – we thought – in 1856 and apparently written by an American, Frank Leslie, for publication in Frank Leslie’s New York Journal.

Thirty years before, wrote the unnamed writer, “while pursuing a journey on the outside of a stage-coach”, he (or she) had passed Stonehenge silhouetted against “a crimson wall of light” during an autumn sunset, and had resolved to return, the memory kept alive by “numerous pictorial representations”. Now he left Waterloo station in London early in the morning, and was in Salisbury before noon. Faced with a “walk of nine miles beneath the sultry sun of August”, he decided to opt for “a gig and a driver from an accommodating stable-keeper”, and set off at once “towards the Plain”.

They passed Old Sarum (the iron age hillfort and former site of Salisbury) on their right, probably on what is now known as the A360, as they soon reached “the edge of that vast series of undulating downs… Salisbury Plain”. The writer was “agreeably surprised” to find that since his last visit, the endless “barren down, cropped only by a few sheep”, had been fruitfully ploughed up, and now sported “a broad and gently-whispering sea of wavy corn”, ie wheat or barley, over “many thousands of acres”.

“About half-way to Stonehenge”, which was “beyond the limits of cultivation”, he left “the dusty road” and continued “over the swelling slopes of the grassy plain. Owing to the undulating surface of the ground, the ‘stones’ are not visible in this direction until you have approached to within something less than two miles.” At Stonehenge, “picnic visitors, whose carriages are drawn up in rank… spread their table-cloths upon the prostrate columns, [and] light their camp-fires… with laughter and merriment”. “Silly sheep” grazed quietly, while shepherds eyed “the gay ladies”. By the time he left, however, there was noone there but “one old veteran with a wooden leg”.

All Bob and I had was a cutting of this piece, and he had estimated the 1856 publication date from its page numbers. I’ve just bought a copy of the text on eBay. Only when I opened it up to read it did I realise that this identical version was published not in Frank Leslie’s New York Journal, but in The Leisure Hour. The story was in issue No. 94, which came out three years earlier, on October 13 1853. The Leslies presumably copied it, with or without The Leisure Hour’s knowledge. It was printed in London, so the writer is more likely to have been British than American – but remains anonymous. A little closer to the source… but not there yet.

And now you can read the entire text on Google books, scanned from American library copies of The Leisure Hour.

1. A photo by Bill Brandt, and the intimacy of perceptions of Stonehenge and landscape. Landscapes 9 (2008), 1–27

2 thoughts on “A visit to Stonehenge in 1853 (maybe)

  1. Chapter LX of Lavengro by George Borrow (1803-1881) is also worth a read. Here’s a brief extract:

    “I felt chill in the damp air of the early morn and walked rapidly forward. In about half an hour I arrived where the road divided into two, at an angle or tongue of dark green sward. “To the right or the left” said I, and forthwith took, without knowing why, the left hand road, along which I proceeded about a hundred yards, when, in the midst of the tongue of sward formed by the two roads, collaterally with myself, I perceived what I at first conceived to be a small grove of blighted trunks of oaks, barked and grey. I stood still for a moment, and then, turning off the road, advanced slowly towards it over the sward; as I drew nearer, I perceived that the objects which had attracted my curiosity, and which formed a kind of circle, were not trees but immense upright stones. A thrill pervaded my system; just before me were were two, the mightiest of the whole, tall as the stems of proud oaks, supporting on their tops a huge transverse stone, and forming a wonderful doorway. I knew now where I was, and, laying down my stick and bundle, and taking off my hat, I advanced slowly, and cast myself – it was folly, perhaps, but I could not help what I did – cast myself, with my face on the dewy earth, in the middle of the portal of giants, beneath the transverse stone. The spirit of Stonehenge was strong upon me!”

  2. Great Catch! Lucky for you, I missed that one on eBay, or we might have gotten into a bidding war. When (often) asked Why Stonehenge?
    My curt reply is: “Obviously you have never been there, visit there someday, and you will understand.” The long version is becoming a tome.

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