Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Stonehenge and Virginia Stephen Woolf

Virginia and Vanessa and their brothers, in the prewar years, always spent August and September on "holiday."  During their 1903 holiday, they stayed in the Salisbury area. They were, therefore, able to return to Stonehenge a second time for a leisurely and (pleasantly) lonesome visit on September 5. I include much of Woolf's description because it shows how different the experience of Stonehenge was from how it is possible to experience it today, when it has become a very controlled and reconstructed world heritage tourist site. I was especially taken with Woolf's picture of the shepherds on Salisbury plain: what she is describes is not what you would see there today. 

Not quite Woolf's black-cape clad shepherds, but he does have a staff. 

I was also impressed with what a strong writer she was at this point, and with her touch of self irony in describing so romantic a scene as the shepherds. I took the time to really think about what it might like to stay in a spot for two months on holiday and have the ability to return to favorite destinations. Most of us see Stonehenge once and must move on (even if we happen to be living nearby, as I was in London).

Woolf's Stonehenge

It is also interesting to me that Woolf was reading Hardy's Tess at this time, and mentions it in her journal, but says nothing about imagining Tess at Stonehenge. I also find it fascinating that Woolf saw Stonehenge so strongly through a religious lens: when I was there I was interested in it primarily as a historic cultural site, an archeological "treasure." (And I just might have seen Tess ... :))

Woolf's diary of  Sept 5, 1903 
… our two visits to Stonehenge have impressed such pictures on my mind as I never wish to be obliterated. 
We made a second expedition today … I would rather call it a pilgrimage: because in truth we went with all reverence  with a pure design to enjoy ourselves. A day spent happily in the open air, counts, I am sure ‘whatever Gods there be,’ as worship; the air is a Temple in which one is purged of one’s sins.
We drove [in a horse-drawn cart] over the Downs, instead of the by-road, a straighter and more interesting way … a showery morning … 
On the plain itself, the only people we passed were shepherds, they drift about in the wide space with their flocks, just as though they were in the Bible; they take advantage of this wet weather too; to add one bold stroke to their appearance, which, I as an artist would hesitate to introduce; I should be half afraid of over picturesqueness: they wear long black cloaks reaching down to their heels, & flapping in capes round the shoulders:  in one hand too they grasp a real shepherds staff. You may actually see one of these figures lying on his elbow, wrapped in his cloak, his dog lolling out his tongue beside him, & his flock grazing all around.
We lunched—& we walked across to Stonehenge & sat within the Circle. Our choice of a day gave us the whole place to ourselves. The solitary policeman whose strange lot in life is to mount guard over Stonehenge had taken shelter behind one of his charges. The apoplectic sheep, who can imitate a standing motor car which is still palpitating to perfection, were grazing outside the Circle, & as far as we could see we had not only Stonehenge,  but the whole ocean of plain entirely to ourselves. One can imagine why this spot was chosen by the Druids—or whoever they were—for their Temple to the Sun. It lies very naked to the sun. It is a kind of altar made of earth, on which the whole world might do sacrifice.


  1. V.S. Naipaul's poetic masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival, is set on Salisbury plain. The narrator goes to live in a cottage near Stonehenge; it's on an estate that is partly a ruin. I don't remember anything specific beyond that but that he goes back and forth in time to ancient pre-history in the English countryside up through other recorded times to the declining present society, with memories of his life in (maybe) Trinidad. He is pulling himself through his depressive state of mind; there is some archeaological mystery too.

  2. Thanks Ellen. I have stayed away from Naipaul as a reactionary, but that novel sounds very interesting and melancholic.

  3. Lovely! This brought back to me my own visit to Stonehenge on an early morning in 1968. Not one human soul was there, not a guardian, no shepherds. We had it to ourselves completely and walked among the stones in wonder. Drove by it many years later and the highway and the crowds is not a sight I ever want to see again.

  4. Thank you, Diane, for your usual incisive, sensitive comments - if you wrote travel books, people of taste would read them! ;)


  5. Thank you Arnie and Diana. Diana, I saw Stonehenge with a tour group but was able to enter into it--and there were not many people there, no museum etc ... It never dawned on me that my experience might be something that would very soon end. And yours sounds even more other-worldly.