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Alone with the stones

Thousands of years ago ancient Britons stood in her place. Renata Rubnikowicz spends a weekend in Wessex reconstructing their lives

Where are the white robes? The antlers and the mistletoe? It's very early on a Saturday in high summer, the skylarks are on the wing, and I'm standing in the centre of the world's first stone circle - yes, inside the fence, right in the middle of Stonehenge.

I can brush my fingertips against the pillars, see the lichens close up, measure my 5ft 7in against the 20ft-high pillars and start to form my own ideas of how on earth those ancient Britons did it and why.

I'm with 20 or so other individuals who are not at all stereotypical henge-heads. Motivated by an interest in prehistory rather than mystery, we've signed up for for a weekend of walks through ancient Wessex led by archaeologist Dr Nick Thorpe. This is our first and best reward for a 7am start: to be almost alone in the forest of stones.

The legions of French exchange students and Japanese tourists that make this the second most visited attraction in Britain are probably still asleep. Ours is the only coach in the car park. And it's here that Dr Nick points out the markers of the earliest traces of humanity so far found in this landscape. Three white circles, like mini-roundabouts in the black asphalt, show where wooden monuments were erected about 5,000 years ago.

Inside the stones, Dr Nick doesn't need to give us the big lecture. We had that the previous night, complete with slides, in a hot room in Salisbury Museum. In our daypacks we have a terrifyingly technical document complete with radiocarbon dates, sent out weeks ago so we could swot up, like real archaeology students. After a quick flip through, I stowed it at the bottom of my bag under the mineral water. But on site it begins to make sense.

Dr Nick concentrates on what only those in this privileged position can appreciate, showing us a range of perspectives and how the circles line up with the horizon. It's much easier then to see how the various phases of Stonehenge were constructed and their relationship to each other.

Ancient Brits obviously shared some of their modern descendants' obsessions - such as location, location, location. And while they may not have had Changing Rooms, our ancestors were certainly into changing circles. I begin to understand, too, how the earlier archaeologists arrived at their theories, as Dr Nick points out the sarsen stones - sandstone floated and dragged from the Marlborough Downs - and the bluestones from much further afield, the Preseli Mountains in Wales.

Our captive archaeologist never seems irritated by being asked the same question three times in five minutes, as we each follow the same line of thought at different rates.

Then we're led across a rough field of sheep, and shown the line of the cursus, which some think was built as an approach to Stonehenge. We find various burial mounds along the way.

Talk ranges wildly over the millennia. Some try to put themselves in our ancestors' shoes (Would we be carrying flaming torches? Who are we going to sacrifice and why?); others discuss the latest plans for the site, which involve a new visitors' centre and directing all traffic through a tunnel.

In the distance squats lonely Silbury Hill, like other prehistoric sites in the area, victim of much-bungled excavation in the early days of archaeology.

Back at the car park, now full of coaches and a United Nations of visitors, we head for Old Sarum, the Iron Age hill fort settlement, that was replaced in the 13th century by the new town of Salisbury. Once we're done with exploring, we fall on the picnic.

Later, pottery specialist Lorraine Mepham, who works for Wessex Archaeology, shows us a ceramic timeline. On a long table at her workshop she has spread out finds ranging from shards that are thousands of years old to Victorian mishaps.

When she lets us loose to pick over bits of beaker and fragments of grooved ware, the room buzzes with excitement. Handling this pottery, we are finger-to-finger with our prehistoric ancestors who made it. The excitement continues with a visit to the new Stonehenge Gallery at Salisbury Museum and is followed by a group dinner in Salisbury's Haunch of Venison, a modern restaurant in a medieval building.

Sunday starts with a long walk along Wansdyke to the West Kennet burial chamber. It's a journey into the subtleties of the land. Under Dr Nick's direction, we discover barrows and lines that only a trained eye notices.

Clambering inside the tomb, we find small offerings of wild flowers and ears of wheat. Will we catch up with these pagans at Avebury? No. We dawdle over our picnic, and although the stones at Avebury yield more insights, the only other visitors around are families with ice-cream-smeared toddlers.

Not a druid in sight.

In 2004, archaeological travel specialist Andante Travels is planning to run its Wessex: Walking through a Prehistoric Landscape weekend on July 2-4 and September 10-12. Details: 01722 713800;

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