Part of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, Avebury is the more intriguing spectacle; a mishmash of the quaint, medieval, neolithic monuments, ditches, hedgehogs and druids.
Thousands of years of chalk dust, stirred up by the tread of leather along the Ridgeway and around the ancient stones and mysterious monuments that dot the Wiltshire landscape was our destination. I had read somewhere to expect my visit ‘to not be an empty experience’, so felt wholly unprepared as we headed west through the usual traffic hell towards our destination having only bothered to check where we could eat lunch.
This part of Wiltshire lies just south of the popular Cotswolds, so thankfully doesn’t get quite the volume of tourist traffic through the pretty medieval villages and market squares; but with no time to stop and explore, we beetled through Hungerford, Ramsbury and Marlborough (pronounced Mawlbra, not the Marlboro of the tobacco fame that I had been using), past the mysterious Sillbury Hill and into the village of Avebury. It felt as though we had entered a film studio with sets that didn’t feel as though they should all be together in the same scene. Parts of the village lie within the stone circles, and out in the countryside is an astonishing array of neolithic sites, some obvious in their function, others not. The stones are everywhere; in their rightful places inside a circle, or barely noticeable lying face down in the grass, as a gatepost, or simply broken up and now part of a strong house wall. More integrated you cannot get – landscape and structures that sit within it, have melded and if I had bothered to stop and listen, the wind could have told me a thing or two about this unusual place.
The Henge consists of a huge bank and ditch approximately 1.3km in circumference. The Stone Circle which lies within it is the largest in the world and contains within it two smaller inner circles. A shadow of it’s former self I expect with the hand of man and the elements all taking their toll on the landscape. Avebury has a long and fascinating history, too long and fascinating for me to do it justice here, so if you want to know more, the National Trust is a good place to start.
We left the stones and gaggles of tourists behind and set off on a circular walk that skirts around the site and takes in Overton Down and its source of Sarsen stones, prominent burial mounds covered in trees in a treeless landscape, known as ‘hedgehogs’, Overton Hill, and for part way along the Rideway’s starting point (which ends 87 miles away in my neighbourhood at Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns), and walking for some way along the river Kennet, a clear and pretty stream that gains traction as it passes through the North Wessex downs eventually joining the River Thames at Reading before finding it’s way through London and into the North Sea.
We knew something was up when we spotted strips of cloth hanging from a prominent tree at the base of West Kennett Long Barrow. We ventured inside and saw that fresh flowers had been placed on the natural rock shelves at the rear of the 5,600-year old Neolithic tomb.
Beneath us, enigmatic Silbury Hill claimed the landscape. Begun as pile of dirt some 4,000 years ago, it has grown to an impressive 30 metres in height and 160m in width with no evidence or clues to it’s purpose. But that doesn’t matter, why everything has to have a function that we can understand is something for the academics to ponder.
My friend was fortunate to have climbed the hill when a child, so envious of her as would have loved to climbed to the top, but know I would be contributing to it’s erosion, so for once, obeyed the signs.
We rejoined the river Kennet and wend our way back towards Avebury and our overdue lunch. At the pub we joined crowds dressed in what can only be described as New Age; bad hair, cloaks of all shapes and sizes, old sheets, pheasant feathers stuck into top hats, a curious lack of teeth, serious beards, dogs and clouds of wacky-backy. So far so normal, until we spotted the goats horn cup and gnarled staff. The penny dropped: it was the spring equinox, despite the perishing wind and overcast skies, and our dining companions were here to celebrate and commune with the stones. But which of them were the druids and where were the oak leaves? I had to wait until I was home to Google and recognised some of them from their websites including none other than the Archdruid of Avebury and Keeper of the Stones Terry Dobney.
How very British: to be so casual about having some of the greatest heritage in the world, impressive, accessible, cared-for in a not too nannying way, and despite its age, the area is alive and well in a landscape full of rich memories, ancient tracks, inspiring views, people cycling, camping, worshipping and walking – living!
The perfect end to a full and enriching experience, and delighted I had not returned empty-handed.
PS: How many rangers does it take to put the clock forward at Avebury stone circle? Watch the video to find out why moving the stones for British Summer Time is extra-tiring work during a leap year.