It’s no real secret that the United Kingdom is absolutely peppered with relics and artefacts of bygone empires and civilisations. From Iron age forts and Roman baths to Tudor Castles and towering structures of Victorian industry, the scattered remains provide a narrative of our small Island’s bloody and brilliant history.
Located amongst the gentle, rolling farmland of rural Wiltshire lies Avebury, a perfect example of how superimposed historical sites have become in our modern British landscape. Avebury is a small, quaint English village like many others, complete with a thatch roof pub, a church and social club. Beautiful but not exceptional, this is of course omitting the fact that the village itself lies in the centre of a neolithic henge and is encircled by the largest sarsen stone circle in Europe.
In fact the stone circle that surrounds the immediate vicinity of the village is just the beginning. Beyond the village perimeters there is a multitude of interconnected sites and ruins left by some of our earliest Neolithic civilisations and settlements between 2000-3000 BC. There is even some suggestion that these sites may even have been linked to the world-renowned site of Stonehenge, which lies a mere 20 miles to the south. In this quiet, unassuming spot of English countryside there are traces which tell the stories of some of our earliest civilised ancestors.
The site around Avebury grows out from the village centre like a Neolithic superstructure. From the inner stone circle an ancient ceremonious road known as Kennet Avenue which is adorned on either side by huge standing sarsen stones, strikes out South along the undulating landscape, towards another collection of sites which includes West Kennet Long Barrow, Sillbury Hill and a smaller wooden henge known as The Sanctuary.
As we wandered amongst the huge sarsen stones in the unseasonably warm April weather, the thing that struck us the most was the sheer mystery of it all. The principal theories posed by historians seem to revolve around the notion that the sites served some sort of ceremonial purpose. But in the absence of any primary sources, the place is left quite open to interpretation.
The ambiguous nature of the sites means that the area is a haven for all sorts of visitors and sub-culture groups, from your humble ramblers and layman historians (myself included) to modern-day Druids, Pagans and Wiccans, who believe the site is an epicentre of universal energy and spiritual emanations.
Roughly 2 miles down Kennet Avenue is the most impressive of all the sites surrounding Avebury, the towering structure of Silbury Hill. At first glance it looks like nothing more than a standalone hill. But in reality, beneath the grass that adorns it, there lies a chalk and sarsen stone structure which predates the Pyramids in Giza.
Much like its counterparts on the African continent, there is some suggestion that Silbury Hill may have been a tomb of sorts for a neolithic ruler or king. However several excavations into the hill have provided no evidence of the structures purpose. Like with most of the sites in this area, Stonehenge included, we are left with nothing but educated guesses.
A stones throw from Silbury Hill lies the smaller, but no less impressive structure known as West Kennet Longbarrow. Unlike its neighbouring site, West Kennet Longbarrow has been classified as a chambered long barrow and we can be fairly certain of its use as neolithic burial site. You can still access the tomb through an opening tucked away behind the towering sarsen stones and take a short poke around its myriad chambers.
During our nosey around the interior we even managed to disturb some kind of modern witchcraft as I found a small leather pouch tucked into the crevice of two rocks. Inside was the clippings of someones hair and small incantation on a piece of damp paper. With little desire to stir some arcane spirit, we restored the pouch and swiftly vacated the dark recesses of the barrow.
The sites around Avebury and the village itself are a palimpsest of English history. Neolithic stone circles, encircle a medieval village which is intersected on all sides by modern roads and a flurry of motorised vehicles. The interplay between our ancient history and our modern existence is incredible and despite my usual cynicism of such matters it really does seem as if there is and always has been something about this area that draws people to it.
Whatever theory or folklore you choose to believe, it’s hard not to be entranced by the place. By the mystery of it all and the sheer sense and weight of history. And in an age of instantaneous access to an overload of information, sometimes its nice to just not know.