by Geraldine Charles
Avebury is fascinating! Stonehenge may be more famous, but if I had to choose one monument for interested visitors to Wiltshire, Avebury would win every time. One reason is accessibility – at Stonehenge you can’t usually walk within the stones without arranging special access, while at Avebury you can walk among them, touch them and follow ancient ceremonial routes. And where else can you find a pub within a stone circle?!
But there is far more to Avebury than the henge and stones, and even after visiting regularly for years I still have much more to learn. The whole World Heritage Site is huge, stretching from the Neolithic causewayed enclosure of Windmill Hill to the west, while to the east it includes part of the ancient Ridgeway, a trackway used for millennia. Now 87 miles long, the Ridgeway passes many ancient sites such as Wayland’s Smithy and the Uffington White Horse on its way north, but that’s just the modern leisure route: the path once covered a much greater distance, from Lyme Regis on the south coast to Hunstanton in Norfolk. And still there’s more: dozens of round and long barrows, including the famous West Kennet Long Barrow, sacred springs and rivers, and of course the astonishing Silbury Hill. Few who circumnavigate Silbury know that below the ground they tread lie the remains of an entire Roman town, stretching out as far as Swallowhead Springs to the south west. Roman coins and jewelry have also been found at West Kennet Long Barrow. I have so many questions about this - did the Romans share our awe for Silbury Hill and dedication to Swallowhead Springs and the Goddess of the Springs? Was this a convenient stopping-off place on the long journey to the hot springs at Bath, seen as an extension of that sacred site and perhaps another place to worship Sul, whom the Romans associated with Minerva?
And even this is just a beginning, for it’s clear that the wider area once contained an extraordinary number of sacred sites. The largest henge in the UK lies only ten miles to the south at Marden, with Stonehenge a further ten miles in the same direction. Also south of Avebury are many more barrows, enclosures and features, including a beautiful spring that marks the source of the Wessex River Avon, which passes Marden and Stonehenge on its way to the sea at Hengistbury Head – another fascinating ancient site - near Christchurch in Dorset.
The photo at the top of this article shows part of Lockeridge Dene, a dry valley in which you can see sarsen stones lying about. You’d be forgiven for thinking the stones must be glacial erratics, perhaps dumped here by a melting glacier at the end of the most recent Ice Age. But you’d be wrong. Sarsen is silicified sandstone laid down millions of years ago, then broken up by ice and water in later, colder times. Early writers like John Aubrey and William Stukeley (writing in the 17th & 18th centuries respectively) remarked on the huge number of sarsen stones across the whole landscape, so it’s likely that what we see today is but a tiny proportion of what once lay on the ground: many – probably most - have been removed by farmers and for building.
Lockeridge Dene is just one site where the stones can be found – close by are Piggledene and Fyfield, both with dry valleys and Sarsen stones and it’s generally accepted that the Avebury circles and avenues were built using these, as were long barrows and much of Stonehenge – only the famous bluestones come from West Wales. The sarsen stones can look very otherworldly on a misty day; easily mistaken for unusually immobile grazers - unsurprisingly they’re known locally as “grey wethers” – an old name for sheep.
You really need to walk to get to know this area, and doing so makes the lives of the ancestors more accessible; their reasons for settling here obvious – the underlying chalk geology means plenty of flint underfoot, the soil much easier to work without heavy tools and machinery than the heavy, lumpen clay found elsewhere. But surely the ancestors were just as struck by the intangibles as we are today: the feel of the place, its beauty and wildness, the springs and winterbournes (streams that dry up or plunge underground). The spring waters often steam on frosty days as the underground water is much warmer than the air above, perhaps a sign to the ancestors that below the ground lay not only the underworld but maybe a place of sacred fire – and long before the Romans arrived they were probably also well aware of the hot springs at Bath, only about twenty miles to the west. Did they see a connection?
Recently I went off to find what’s left of a passage grave on Fyfield Down, about four miles from Avebury. Once over 200 feet long, all that’s really left are two standing stones and a capstone. Getting there had its own excitement - signs saying "Bull in Field" usually give me pause. But your intrepid editor wasn’t going to be put off so easily! There was no sign of a bull and I stayed close to the 4 foot high fence: if I felt a bull breathing down my neck I reckoned I’d clear that in no time, even with an arthritic hip.
It has quite an atmosphere; I felt like I was miles from anywhere despite being less than three miles from Marlborough’s busy shopping street and market.
Terence Meaden (1999) has suggested that perhaps this was created as a cromlech (similar to the dolmens found in Wales) and never had an earth covering, and certainly it stands on a mound which doesn’t look like part of the natural landscape. In addition, a mound would have helped lift the enormous capstone (given a temporary ramp) into place.
A well-known dowser, Guy Underwood, visited the site in 1958 and concluded that it was built over a “blind spring” which is said to generate a powerful surface spiral, but I haven’t been able to discover much more about this yet. There is also folklore of course, including the tale of a ghostly dog which guards the mound, and also a story that many people had tried to pull the capstone off without success, even on one occasion with twelve white oxen yoked together – a lovely story with a lunar magic component? Maybe we will never know.
I do know that I can't seem to stay away from Avebury, so expect to hear much more on the subject!
Devil’s Den, Clatford, Wiltshire. [online] The Northern Antiquarian. Available at: https://megalithix.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/devils-den-clatford/ [Accessed 3 Mar. 2019].
Marshall, S. (2016). Exploring Avebury, The History Press
Meaden, G. (1999). The secrets of the Avebury stones, Souvenir Press