Today is a big one for me – it’s been on my list for a while. Avebury village sits at the heart of a World Heritage Site with the largest prehistoric stone circle in Britain and the highest neolithic structure in Europe. But it just isn’t very well known. Jeez, what do you need to get famous around here? It’s one of life’s great mysteries. World-renowned Stonehenge gets all the limelight, and I’m going there soon, so perhaps I’ll figure it out.
Driving west I pass through the charming market towns of Hungerford and Marlborough, the journey enlivened by lovely Autumn foliage and the crazy pheasants that launch themselves into my path. Happily, I manage to dodge them all, but it certainly makes for interesting driving, the daft birds!
I arrive at the car park just outside Avebury village and follow the footpath towards the centre. A small settlement of around 600 inhabitants, the village came much later than the stones that surround it. People started to live here in the early Middle Ages, when the stone circle was already several thousand years old. I wonder what they thought of the mysterious monument, and why they decided to live within it?
Even today, the idea of living within a prehistoric stone circle is quite bizarre. As I approach, it’s clear that the stones are everywhere. It must be quite spooky to live your everyday life surrounded by an ancient structure like this, especially when no-one really knows what it signifies. Why was it built? Five thousand years ago, nobody was keeping any records.
What we do know is that construction of the site commenced in 3000 BC and continued over several hundred years. Wow! That’s pretty old by anyone’s standards. First came the cove, a central group of four large stones like a box. Next were two inner stone circles. The huge outer stone circle and henge (surrounding circular bank and ditch) date from around 2600 BC. Finally, the avenues of stones leading out from the monument were built in 2400 BC.
Most people agree that the most likely use for monuments like Avebury was for rituals, gatherings, feasts and other events linked to the religious beliefs of the time. They didn’t have churches or pubs back then, remember. There’s still speculation about the details of construction. The stones are different sizes – did they represent male and female? Are they specifically positioned for astronomical reasons? There’s a lot that we will never know.
The amount of work carried out to build the site using rudimentary tools proves that it had tremendous importance. The henge has a circumference of 1,000 metres. The outer stone circle originally consisted of 98 stones with a diameter of 330 metres. Some of the stones weigh more than 40 tonnes. Our prehistoric ancestors were evidently strong, and determined to get this monument built.
Nowadays, the sheep that graze here don’t seem to be too intimidated by the historical significance of what surrounds them. Unfortunately, villagers in the 14th century were equally unimpressed. The stones were seen as a pagan insult to Christian beliefs, and many were toppled over and even buried.
The wanton destruction continued for many years, with the stones seen as an insult or at best an inconvenience. Some of the huge standing stones were smashed up and used as building materials. I often wonder how the human race has thrived despite unbelievable stupidity and ignorance, but there you go…miracles happen. It wasn’t until the 18th century that serious attempts were made to protect the ancient structures.
Luckily, in the early 20th century, a permanent solution was found. Alexander Keiller, of the famous marmalade family, stepped in to save the site for posterity by buying the whole area – 930 acres. He carried out excavations, re-erected the stones and took aerial photos to educate others about the monuments. He then sold everything to the National Trust at agricultural value only. I’ve said it before, but thank goodness for the Victorians! Keiller lived at Avebury Manor for the rest of his life, and the museum he founded about Avebury and its environs is named after him. What a guy!
Avebury holds the distinction (not inconsiderable in my opinion) of having the only pub in the world that’s surrounded by a prehistoric stone circle. Unfortunately I’m in a bit of a hurry today, there are so many things to see here, so I don’t get to enjoy a drink at the Red Lion. What a shame! I’m following the West Kennet Avenue towards The Sanctuary. Yes, some things are more important than wine!
Sadly, there’s not much to see here today, apart from coloured markers and lovely views, but on this spot in 3000 BC there was another important circular arrangement, first made of wood and then stone. Due to the number of human bones found here, it was clearly a sacred place where important rites were performed. But it’s so long ago, we will never know exactly what took place.
Believe it or not, there’s a monument nearby that’s even older than the Avebury stones. The West Kennett Barrow, just down the road from The Sanctuary, dates from 3650 BC, and it’s my next stop on this tour back through the millennia.
The Barrow is perched up on a hillside, a long burial chamber dug out and lined with sarsen stones – local sandstone blocks. Used for around 1,000 years before it was blocked up, remains of around 50 individuals were found here, together with pottery, beads and a dagger, which were buried with their owners. The countryside around Avebury contains around 30 burial barrows, but this one is particularly big – around 100 metres long and 20 metres wide.
But the best thing about this barrow is that you can go inside and explore the burial chambers. What’s more, I have the place all to myself. It’s hard to find positives about the events of 2020, but it’s a rare privilege to visit treasures like this without the crowds. I text my Dad and he’s very envious. Hanging out in a neolithic crypt isn’t something you get to do every day. I don’t spend too much time inside though, it’s a little bit creepy, even though the human remains are long gone.
My final stop for the day is visible from up on the hilltop. Silbury Hill is another enigmatic but impressive landmark that was built 5,000 years ago for some unknown reason that we can’t fathom today. To be fair, our prehistoric ancestors would no doubt scratch their heads at some of our actions too. This man made structure is the largest in Europe at 40 metres high, as tall as the smaller pyramids.
It’s estimated that it would have taken an astounding 18 million man hours to build the hill. Seriously, what were these people eating? This was all done manually. Their dedication and commitment to whatever it was they were trying to achieve were astounding. Our predecessors put us to shame. Meanwhile, Crossrail languishes – three years late and counting.
I’ve had an amazing day in a mind-boggling landscape. Going back to my initial question about why Avebury is relatively unknown in comparison to Stonehenge, I think it must have something to do with visual impact. There’s so much here, but equally so much is missing and the monuments are dispersed over a large area. It’s therefore difficult to interpret at ground level. Seen from above, the monuments of Avebury make more sense but that’s not how we see them.
Anyway, I’ve had a fascinating time poking around in England’s ancient past. I make my way back to the car past more burial mounds dating back thousands of years, but my mind is on current survival…of pheasants. Please let me not kill any on the way home! That would really spoil my mood.