The Great Stones Way is one of those ideas so obvious it seems amazing that no one has thought of it before: a 38-mile walking trail to link England's two greatest prehistoric sites, Avebury and Stonehenge, crossing a landscape covered with Neolithic monuments.
But like any project involving the English countryside, it's not as straightforward as it might seem. The steering group has had to secure permission from landowners and the MoD, who use much of Salisbury Plain for training. They hope to have the whole trail open within a year, but for now are trialling a 14-mile southern stretch, having secured agreement from the MoD and parish councils. The "Plain & Avon" section leads from the iron age hill fort of Casterley Camp on Salisbury Plain down the Avon valley to Stonehenge. Walkers are being encouraged to test the route, and detailed directions can be found on the Friends of the Ridgeway website.
It's an area all but the boldest have avoided: negotiating the MoD areas needed careful planning. Few walkers come here and not a single garage or shop along the Avon valley sells local maps. The Great Stones Way should change that.
What makes the prospect of the Great Stones Way so exciting is the sense that for more than a millennium, between around 3000 and 2000BC, the area it crosses was the scene of frenzied Neolithic building activity, with henges, burial barrows and processional avenues criss-crossing the route.
Artificial islets, or crannogs, are widespread across Scotland. Traditionally considered to date to no earlier than the Iron Age, recent research has now identified several Outer Hebridean Neolithic crannogs. Survey and excavation of these sites has demonstrated—for the first time—that crannogs were a widespread feature of the Neolithic and that they may have been special locations, as evidenced by the deposition of material culture into the surrounding water. These findings challenge current conceptualisations of Neolithic settlement, monumentality and depositional practice, while suggesting that other ‘undated’ crannogs across Scotland and Ireland could potentially have Neolithic origins.
Summer solstice is launch date for live feed from camera close to the stones
For thousands of years people have made the pilgrimage to Stonehenge to gaze in wonder at the interplay with the monument of the sun, moon and stars, but from Friday a virtual version of the looming sky above the circle will be available to people from around the world.
A live feed from a camera set up close to the stones is being set up – appropriately enough on the summer solstice – to allow people to tune in to the monument whenever they want.
After dark, the live feed is replaced by a computer-generated image of the night sky as it would be at the moment a viewer clicks on the link to the website.
English Heritage hopes that the feed will allow those who cannot make the trip in person to experience sunrise, sunset and the ever-changing night sky, and even make them feel closer to the ancient people who created the stone circle.
The Stonehenge Skyscape project may also be used as a method of worship for those who believe that the stone circle and landscape is a deeply spiritual place.
Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said: “Stonehenge was built to align with the sun, and to neolithic people the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape.
“At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, cycles of the moon and movements of the sun are likely to have underpinned many practical and spiritual aspects of neolithic life.
“Stonehenge’s connection with the skies is a crucial part of understanding the monument today and we are really excited to share this view online with people all over the world. If someone can’t travel to Stonehenge, they will still be able to witness what is happening there from wherever they are. People on the other side of the world will be able to see sunrise at Stonehenge.”
As part of the project, English Heritage has joined forces with the space scientist and science educator Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who will host a star and moon-gazing event next month.
She said: “Imagine our neolithic ancestors sitting around a fire looking up at the heavens and telling stories inspired by the movement of the planets, the patterns of the stars and of course the sun and the moon.
“Stonehenge Skyscape offers a mesmerising insight into our ancestors’ lives and hopefully, beyond visiting the website, it will inspire people all over the world to go outside and look up.”
Aderin-Pocock said the project could help people who were were losing their connection with the night sky because of light pollution. “People who are aware of Stonehenge but not able to make the trip can see the sunrise, the sunset and the stars there. It gives global access to something really amazing. It could also help people who are stressed. There’s something very peaceful about gazing at the sky.”
Stonehenge Skyscape is a composite representation of the sky above the stones accurate to within a window of approximately five minutes. After dark it switches from a photographic depiction to a computer-generated one, which accurately displays the live location of the stars and visible planets.
Neptune, Uranus and Pluto are consciously not included because, being invisible to the naked eye, they were undiscovered until the 18th century or later.