A group of people, standing in pairs at the centre of the stone circle, were performing a solemn ritual with exaggerated hand movements and stamping on scraps of paper. Perhaps an obscure Wiccan ceremony, or just a bonding exercise. Such sights are commonplace at Avebury, where visitors are drawn to the power and mystery of the ancient stones.
The Historic Monuments of Avebury
The stones are the remains of the largest stone circle in Europe or, more accurately, of a circle surrounded by a ditch and with two smaller circles inside. An information board tells you that it is “14 times the size of Stonehenge and 500 years earlier”. Over the years some of the stones have been removed, and houses have been built in and around the prehistoric site. Today the village meanders through the circle, and sheep graze peacefully beside the stones.
But there is much more to Avebury than this. Nestling among an ancient landscape of rolling hills and cornfields is a wealth of prehistoric monuments, all presumed to have been part of a ceremonial complex more than 4,000 years old. West Kennet Avenue, a processional route once lined with a hundred pairs of stones, linked the “new” circles at Avebury with the even older shrine at The Sanctuary. The stone and timber circles of The Sanctuary are sadly long gone, but wooden stakes mark their position.
Nearby is the West Kennet Long Barrow, a communal neolithic tomb with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. We walked inside the first of its five chambers, shivering in the eerie gloom, then emerged to the sight of the mysterious Silbury Hill rising up into front of us.
Ancient Mysteries of Avebury
The whole area is shrouded in mystery. Like nearby Stonehenge, the exact significance of the monuments is unknown. It is assumed that they were used for religious or ceremonial purposes, but the details are hazy, leading to more questions than answers. Was West Kennet Avenue for human pilgrims, or a route for the spirits of the dead? Was there a practical or astronomical significance to the placing of the stones? And why is there such a concentration of remains in this particular area?
But it is Silbury Hill that is the most perplexing. At 40m high, it is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, painstakingly constructed from tons of chalk and earth. Yet no-one has any idea of why it was built, or for what purpose, if any. Perhaps, I reflected, as I listened to a guide comparing one of the stones to the shape of a woman, this is the attraction of Avebury to modern visitors. Without any clear idea of the site’s significance, we are free to make of it what we will.
This is a great place for families. Unlike Stonehenge, you can get right up to the monuments, and we saw children happily running between the stones and up and down the sides of the ancient ditches that encircle them. And there are plenty of places to sit on the grass, or beneath a tree, to enjoy a picnic.
The Visitor Centre is well set up for families, too, with child friendly displays and activities. As I watched a mother playing a game of giant chequers with her son, I thought that the real mystery is why so many tourists seem to prefer Stonehenge.
Avebury: A Few Practicalities
- There is no charge to visit the monuments, although there is an admission fee for the Avebury village car park and the Visitor Centre.
- You can walk or drive to the other sites from the centre of Avebury. There is free car parking at Silbury Hill, The Sanctuary and West Kennett (the Long Barrow is a short walk up the hill).
- Visitors using public transport can take a bus from Swindon railway station (the bus trip takes around half an hour). Coach tours from London are also available.
- Together with Stonehenge, Avebury is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The two sites are around 40 km apart so it is possible to visit both in a day.