A visit to Avebury

Thursday 2 January 2020. On a cold and overcast winter’s day we visited the village of Avebury, situated on the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire. The village is partly contained within an enormous Neolithic henge also known as Avebury, a remarkable, awe-inspiring monument dating to around 2,800 BCE. The henge – an earthen embankment with an inner ditch – encloses the largest stone circle in Europe, partially restored, which in turn encloses two smaller stone circles and a recently discovered stone square. Avebury and other Neolithic monuments in the area, including the West Kennet Avenue, the West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill and Windmill Hill, comprise the Avebury Neolithic landscape, which in turn forms part of the much larger UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites’. Much of the Avebury Neolithic landscape is owned and managed by the National Trust.

Avebury and environs. Image courtesy Ordnance Survey

Before arriving in the village proper we pulled up along the B4003 at a small car park located at the southern end of the remaining stones of the West Kennet Avenue, a Neolithic ceremonial way dating to around 2,600–2,500 BCE and originally comprising a hundred or so pairs of large sarsen stones. The avenue winds across the landscape for a little more than two kilometres between the southern entrance to the Avebury henge and the Sanctuary, a stone-and-timber circle on Overton Hill (located nearby) whose earliest iteration dates to around 3,000 BCE. Its less-well-known counterpart, Beckhampton Avenue, runs between Avebury’s western entrance and Beckhampton. (The henge also has northern and western entrances.) A brief walk among the stones sufficed for now; we would return to the avenue, from its northern end, later.

Looking north towards Avebury along the West Kennet Avenue

We continued a very short distance north along the B4003 then turned left onto Beckhampton Rd to reach the convenient National Trust car park on the southwestern edge of Avebury village (£7 fee per car for non-members). We then walked 500 metres along a laneway to the Old Farmyard.

Walking from the National Trust car park into the village

The Old Farmyard – presumably an old, er, farmyard – is a recreation area managed by the National Trust. Within the former farmyard is the Stables Gallery, which displays Neolithic artefacts excavated from Avebury, Windmill Hill and the West Kennet Avenue, and the Barn Gallery, a seventeenth-century threshing barn featuring interactive displays and children’s activities. Together the galleries comprise the Alexander Keiller Museum. Alexander Keiller was a wealthy gentleman archaeologist who, in 1924, bought and excavated Windmill Hill, the earliest monument in the area, dating to around 3,700 BCE. From 1934–1936 Keiller excavated the West Kennet Avenue, then in 1937 bought and excavated Avebury henge. While doing so he lived in the adjacent sixteenth-century Avebury Manor, whose charming old dovecot can still be seen in the Old Farmyard. Keiller eventually sold for a nominal sum 384 hectares of land, including Avebury and Windmill Hill, to the National Trust.

Sixteenth-century dovecot at the Old Farmyard

We ate our packed lunch at one of the Old Farmyard’s picnic tables then entered the henge.

Northwest sector of the henge

The construction of Avebury henge began around 2,800 BCE. Over subsequent centuries the bank was enlarged (it has since worn down markedly) and the three stone circles – outer, northern and southern – as well as a newly discover square were installed. The outer circle was originally composed of around one hundred large, upright sarsen stones of varying shapes and sizes (unlike those of Stonehenge, which are relatively uniform). The northern circle may once have comprised twenty-seven stones, of which two remain standing, with two fallen. The southern circle was once composed of a large inner stone (‘the Obelisk’) surrounded by a recently discovered square structure (which may have been built in commemoration of a much earlier wooden building). Around the square were twenty-nine or so smaller stones in circular formation. Today, High St and its continuation Herepath or Green St (yes, that’s what it’s called) run east–west through the henge, while the A4361 bisects it north–south, effectively dividing the henge into four quadrants or sectors. The entry/exit points of the modern roads correspond to the henge’s four original four causeway entrances.

The henge and stone circles. Image courtesy National Trust

In the northwest sector, adjacent to the Old Farmyard, many of the stones are extant; they were dug up and restored to an upright position by Alexander Keiller during the course of his excavations. (He restored those he found in the southwest sector too.) From the northwest sector we passed into the southeast sector, where far fewer stones remain. Many of the stones disappeared relatively recently, over the past three centuries. They were used in the village houses for instance. We moved through the extraordinary monument as one might move through a gallery or museum – or even a church – enthralled, almost with reverence.

Some of the stones are simply enormous, like the one pictured below, one of the outer stones of the southern circle in the southeast sector, near the Beckhampton Rd crossing. That’s Avebury Chapel to the left.

One of the outer stones of the southern circle, southeast sector, near Beckhampton Rd crossing. Avebury Chapel is to the left

From the southeast sector we passed through the stones marking the henge’s southern entrance…

The stones marking the southern entrance in the southeast sector

…and crossed the B4003 to the northern end of the West Kennet Avenue, where, initially, concrete markers indicate where stones once stood. Ahead of us awaited the extant stones. From this point they run for some 500 metres over a crest, down to where we had earlier stopped by the side of the B4003. The remaining kilometre or so of their original course to the Sanctuary is not marked.

Along the West Kennet Avenue (towards the remaining stones)

The stones of the West Kennet Avenue seemed more refined, more elegant somehow than those of the henge. Perhaps they’re just smaller…

After posing for family selfies in front of one, we walked back towards the henge, which we then set out to circumambulate (we didn’t quite make it in the end). From the southern entrance we walked counterclockwise along the embankment of the southeast sector, where just a couple of outer-circle stones and a handful of southern-circle stones remain, as far as Herepath or Green St.

We crossed the narrow road into the northeast sector, where, like the southeast sector, few stones remain. The embankment path disappears here, so we walked inside the henge.

We ambled along and presently came to the northwest sector, where, as we have seen, quite a number of stones of the outer circle were restored by Keiller. We finished up at the pretty Henge Shop on High St, managing somehow to miss visiting the southwest sector. Never mind.

We now had to press on to Semley, but we had one more monument to visit: Silbury Hill. Dating originally to around 2,400 BCE, and built progressively over generations, Silbury Hill lies just south of Avebury on the A4. At forty metres high with an area of around two hectares, it is the largest artificial prehistoric mound in Europe, with no evident purpose. It contains no burials, for instance. It is part of the Avebury Neolithic complex and of the larger ‘Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites’ UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an extraordinary site.

Silbury Hill

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