Secret Stones: Britain Has a Wealth of Fabulously Evocative Prehistoric Sites, from the Well-Trodden Likes of Stonehenge and Averbury to the Abundant but Lesser Known Structures of Dartmoor National Park. Keith Wilson Offers His Tips for Capturing These Ancient Remnants of Humanity's Distant Past

Article excerpt

At 4.45am on June 21, the sun will rise at its most northerly aspect on the horizon behind, the grey standing stones of the world s most famous Neolithic structure, Stonehenge. Despite the early hour, won't be a quiet, tranquil event, observed by only a few. Instead, hundreds of people will converge on these ancient stones for the start of the longest day of the year--the summer solstice--and for these devotees, it's an event definitely worth getting out of bed for.

In recent years, Druids, covered from head to foot in white cloaks, have adopted a starring role in these festivities by performing a quasi-religious pagan ceremony to mark the solstice. Ironically, Druidism has no historic connection to Stonehenge at all--these huge stones were erected between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, hundreds of years before the first Druid felt a compulsion to bow down before the sun.

CIRCLES OF MYSTERY

Stonehenge is part of a World Heritage site that includes the remains of several older and larger stone circles at Avebury, 32 kilometres north of Stonehenge in Wiltshire. With no written records of the period, the purpose of these structures is shrouded in mystery, but with several hundred Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds located in the vicinity, it's generally agreed that Stonehenge and Avebury are ancient astronomical and religious sites for the burial and worship of ancestors.

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The raised profile of Stonehenge at this time of year also draws attention to Britain's other megaliths (stone structures from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages) and prehistoric sites, most notably the hundreds of other standing stones and stone circles that stretch from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland's west coast to Dartmoor in Devon.

While Stonehenge and Avebury are rarely free of visitors, the more remote locations and rugged geography of many of Britain's other megaliths has helped enhance the sense of mystery that surrounds them. For the photographer, this provides more opportunities to create compositions that show the standing stones as an extension of the local landscape, rather than as a landmark oddity. For example, the sparsely populated islands of Orkney off the northeast coast of Scotland are renowned for their windswept expanses of heather moorland and peat bogs. It's a harsh environment, with barely a tree in sight, and the winters are long, dark and bitterly cold. Against this backdrop, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness, both erected more than 4,000 years ago, provide a dramatic focal point to an otherwise monotonous surface terrain.

There's little in the way of natural colour or dramatic mountainous backdrops, so the stones themselves provide the dynamic shape and leading lines essential for the compositional dynamic of an attention-grabbing landscape photograph. The same can be said for the Standing Stones of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, another circle of stark grey granite slabs, standing several metres high. Callanish provides a more atmospheric backdrop for the camera, situated close to a headland on the weather-beaten west coast of the island, within sight of the sea and hills, which meet some of the highest cliffs in Britain.

NORTHERN SUN

The weeks either side of the summer solstice contain the year's longest days, and in Britain's northernmost reaches the sun only spends a few hours beneath the horizon between sunset and sunrise. With so much daylight available, there's no better time for composing a variety of images of these ancient structures. From late May to mid-July, the distance between sunrise and sunset on the horizon is at its narrowest arc--roughly between northeast and northwest, so you can plan your shot knowing that the northern aspects of any standing stones will receive the warmest light at both ends of the day.

The stone circle at Castlerigg in the Lake District of northwest England has one of the most picturesque settings of Britain's megaliths, with impressive views of Helvellyn and other mountains to the southeast. …

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