Fifty years ago my mum said we might go and camp at Stonehenge and
watch the sunrise on midsummer’s day. This sounded fun, and I dug out
of a dusty cupboard what I thought was my dad’s wartime tent, but
sadly turned out to be only a canvas chair, wide-bummed officers for
the use of. We did go to Stonehenge for a picnic; we parked near a
trilithon and sat on one of the fallen stones to eat our sandwiches.
There were no fences, souvenir shops, druids, travellers, hippies, or
police, but life was different then.
interest was reawakened in 1965 by Gerry Hawkins’s book Stonehenge
Decoded. Hawkins, a friendly chap whom I met some years later for
lunch at the Explorer’s Club in New York City, had pulled off a clever
trick. Computers were new in the mid-60s, and not generally available.
So I and many others were amazed that he had got his hands on one and
used it to investigate an ancient mystery. What was more, he claimed
that his new computer revealed that Stonehenge was an old computer,
built to record and predict dates.
Stand behind one of the stones and look past the edges of it and
another stone, and you see a point on the horizon. Hawkins fed the
positions of the stones into his computer, and found many alignments
which pointed to rising and setting points of sun and moon.
Unfortunately there are so many alignments – 27,000 according to
Hawkins - that they are bound to do so, just by chance; so even the
most brilliant computer analysis can’t prove much.
We still don’t know exactly why the stones were erected, although it
seems mainly to do with the winter solstice. On the shortest day of
the year – around 21 December - the sun rises exactly on several
obvious sight-lines between the stones. To predict the exact day, year
after year, would surely have been good for the street-cred of the
priests. More important the agricultural community could then begin to
think about planting new crops.
What surprises me most about Stonehenge is not that the druids have
claimed it for their own, but that the Christians have not done so.
After all, they decided to attach the nativity story to the pagan
midwinter festival; so why not claim that Stonehenge was an early