"We passed over the goodly plain, or rather sea of carpet, which I think for evenness, extent, verdure, and innumerable flocks, to be one of the most delightful prospects in nature."—"Evelyn's Diary," 1654.
There is not a county in England which does not pride itself upon some outstanding characteristic which places it in a category by itself. And if there be a thing particularly characteristic of Wiltshire, it is "the Plain" of which John Evelyn above quoted has written so kindly.
The word Plain is somewhat misleading, for the surface of the Salisbury Downland is anything but even, as poor Samuel Pepys found to his cost when he traversed it in 1668, and on his journey encountered some "great hills, even to fright us." The actual truth lies midway between the "evenness" of Evelyn and the "great hills" of Pepys, and to the man of Wilts that word "Plain" will ever summon up a vision of rolling downs, a short, crisp, elastic turf dotted with flocks, and broken here and there by some crested earthwork or barrow, which rears itself from the undulating Down, and breaks the skyline with its sharp outline. It has been estimated that fully one-half of Wiltshire consists of these high bare chalk downs which rise in bold rounded bluffs from the valleys which thread their way through the county. It is impossible to escape them. The Cotswold shepherd looks downward on their folds, and marks the gleaming white of the occasional chalk pit which breaks the surface of their scarp.
The huntsman in the Vale of the White Horse, and the farmer on the fringe of the shady depths of the New Forest alike live in the presence of the Wiltshire Downs. There is something of grandeur in the immensity of their broad unbroken line stretching as they do, or did, for mile upon mile, limited only by the horizon, a rolling sea of green pasture.
And the very heart of the Downs is the Plain of Salisbury, that broad stretch which is bounded on the west by the wandering valley of the river Nadder, and on the east by the trickle of the Bourne, between which the "Hampshire" Avon divides the area with almost mathematical accuracy in two equal triangles; and Salisbury lies at the apex of each.
The pasturage of the Downs, and the rich woodland of these valleys must have been important factors in those old days, when the builders of Stonehenge pushed inland from the coast, seeking a spot wherein they might settle. As ageneral rule, it may be held with considerable certainty, not only in Wiltshire, but also in other parts of England, that our early settlers from the Continent elected to live on the downland rather than in the valleys. Go where you may over the Plain, its turfy surface is scored by terraces or "lynchets," telling the tale of the ancient ploughman's furrows on the slopes, and side by side with them lie the scars of what were once cattle enclosures, farms, and stockaded villages. Nor is the explanation far to seek, for the valleys afforded shelter to the wolves, and were in places obstructed by undrained marshes, unhealthy and unfitted for the herdsman and his flocks, and impenetrable as regards roads.
Midway between the valleys of the Nadder and the Avon lies "Stonehenge," a Megalithic Monument without an equal in this country, about which the legend of the peasant, as well as the speculation of the savant have gathered in an ever-increasing volume.
The bibliography of Stonehenge alone comprises nearly a thousand volumes, and it is hard to pick up an old magazine or periodical which does not contain some notice of it. County historians, astronomers, Egyptologists, and antiquaries have argued, as old Omar would say, "about it and about" until the man of ordinary tastes who chances to visit the spot and to study the stones, finds himself confronted with such a mass of evidence, of theory, and of fantastic speculation, that he sadly turns aside befogged, or maybe fired by the example of others evolves from his inner consciousness yet another theory of his own to add to the already plethoric accumulation on the subject. The object of the following pages is not to propound any new theories, but rather to reduce the existing knowledge of Stonehenge to a compact compass, and to make it readily accessible to that vast body of individuals who take an intelligent interest in the stones, without having the leisure or opportunity of following up the elaborate stages by which certain conclusions have been arrived at. In short, it is a plain statement of the facts about Stonehenge which may serve either as a guide to the visitor, or as a useful remembrance of his visit.