Visit Avebury: the number 2 World Heritage site
Forget Stonehenge. In fact you can even dispense with the Pyramids. When it comes to World Heritage sites, Avebury in Wiltshire is where it’s at. Voted second-best heritage site in the world by travel experts at Which?, it was beaten only by the ancient Mexican city of Monte Alban.
The three Neolithic stone circles at Avebury date from 2600BC, around the same time Stonehenge was being created. Stonehenge, in fact, had to take its stones from the Avebury area, there’s only 17 miles between them. But Avebury is much bigger than Stonehenge – it’s actually the largest stone circle in Europe and, according to the Which? experts, ‘the best-preserved and most impressive example of European prehistoric sites’. So why does Stonehenge get all the attention?
A better marketing plan? Easier to capture in one says-it-all-photo? Who knows, says David Hutchinson, my Blue Badge guide for our three-hour tour. The Avebury stone circles are spread over a large area – 43 acres in total. There’s a small village in the centre – yes, you read that correctly – and because of that wonderfully random fact you can wander around the stone circles happily, touch them, sit on them, hug them if you like. Of course that creates its own problems and as visitor numbers increase it’s likely that the National Trust, which owns the land and the stones, may be forced to take action to protect this Stone Age heritage. Which is all the more reason to get there quickly.
The Avebury stone circles are just part of an ancient local landscape that includes burial chambers, a sanctuary circle and the man-made Silbury Hill; all linked by processional avenues still partly marked by large standing stones running parallel with the modern road – a silent reminder of who-knows-what ancient rituals and mysteries.
And that’s the thing. We just don’t know what secrets these monuments hold. From excavations and certain records we know some of the ‘who’ and the ‘how’, explains David. But we just don’t know the ‘why’. Why did somebody create a man-made hill several centuries before the stone circles were erected? What functions did the sanctuary circle perform? Who were the people buried in the seven stone chambers in the West Kennet Long Barrow?
What we do know is that this area was cleared for farming sometime around 3000BC, and as people moved from being nomadic hunters to settled arable dwellers they began to create monuments. We know that the New Stone Age site of Avebury was abandoned by the Iron Age, received some attention from the Romans but was largely overlooked until medieval times when a village began to grow around the stones. Not to any great gain, many stones were pushed into the ground or removed as the suspected work of the devil during this time.
The area was recorded by antiquarians John Aubrey and William Stukeley during the 17th century for its historical interest – though they were pretty annoyed to find the locals burning stones and breaking them into small pieces to use in their buildings. There was no archaeological investigation until the 20th century and the fact the circles can be visited in their present state today is largely due to the conservation work of Alexander Keiller. Keiller’s father made a huge amount of money in marmalade, freeing up his son to protect this legacy, restore much of the circles and move into Avebury Manor, which he would later give to the National Trust. Keiller has filled gaps in the original circles with stone markers. Interestingly, there are a remarkable number of very old stone buildings standing around very close to these gaps!
But what of the rest? What rituals or ceremonies took place in the stone circles? Was there, as certain archaeologists suggest, separate sun-worship and moon-worship circles? Was it created as an astronomical map? A calendar? A site for solstice celebration? These days, druid circles and other groups congregate in Avebury at key dates in the pagan calendar to perform ancient rites, so many they have to split the weeks between them.
Guided tours and more information
It’s a wonderful landscape to wander around; there’s a museum displaying local archaeological finds, a National Trust shop and tea-room (amazing cakes!), a pub called the Red Lion and a gift shop selling cool crystals. You could wander around by yourself but you’d be missing a lot without the services of a guide. The National Trust runs daily small tours around the stone circles - check the website for details -or for insight into the wider area hire the services of a guide such as David, who can offer bespoke tours across six counties, with a choice of hundreds of heritage sites. Devise your own trip, or visit his website, www.heritage-holidays.org.uk, for suggestions, contact David by phone 01722 782893 or email email@example.com.
For more information on what to do in Avebury and the surrounding areas, check out www.vistwiltshire.co.uk
Where to stay in the area
There are a few small guesthouses in Avebury itself and the nearest big towns are Calne and Marlborough. If you're travelling by train, Chippenham and Swindon stations are equidistant, though Chippenham is a better bet for nice hotels. I travelled with First Great Western from London Paddington. For train times and tickets phone 0845 700 0125 or visit www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk.
Just a five-minute drive from the station is the Bowood Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort, a modern four-star hotel built a few years ago by the Marquis and Marchioness of Lansdowne on their family estate – as they point out in the welcome letter you will find in your room, they’ve been welcoming guests to Bowood for over 250 years. If you stay here between April and September, you can visit their family home too with its Capability Brown Grade II listed park and formal terraced gardens, collections of art and family memorabilia.
Set in acres of green parkland, the spa must have one of the prettiest settings in the UK, the glass-walled pool area giving views over lush lawns and trees. I sat on a sunlounger doing some gentle birdwatching – wagtails, swooping flocks of swifts, moorhens, and was that an osprey sweeping over from Osprey Wood? There are marked nature walks and jogging tracks around the grounds and, because it’s a working farm, the occasional tractor trundling up the road behind you. That added to the nippy golf carts and groups of strolling golfers make it a lively spot for a walk, I also pass a pleasant man with a dog and wonder if it’s the Marquis.
There’s plenty of roaring log fires around the lounges, making it a cosy place to curl up with a book – even better if you do it in the library, with lots of vintage leather-bound volumes to hand. There’s draughts, Scrabble and snakes and ladders on the shelves – the hotel is very family-friendly and there are special family times in the pool and spa area.
The Shelburne restaurant is big and bright and serves plenty of local fare – with starters of rabbit terrine, poached salmon and scallops averaging £8/9; mains like 28-day aged beef (£24.50), turbot (£19.50) and Wiltshire venison (£24.95). There’s a nice selection of desserts for £6.50 and a cheeseboard for £9.50.
More information and booking
Bowood Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort is at Derry Hill, Calne, Wiltshire, SN11 9PQ; phone 01249 822228, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.bowood-hotel.co.uk. Midweek breaks cost from £106 per person sharing, including bed, breakfast and dinner.