One of the advantages of my job is that I get to see things along the way. Yesterday was a long road trip to see a client in Swindon but the trade off for me was a visit to one of my favourite places in the UK – Avebury.
One of my many obsessions are megalithic stone circles. For the uninitiated, these start with Stonehenge and cover everything in between. Basically these are stone circles built by our ancestors for reasons we can only guess. Either way, Avebury in my opinion is the most impressive stone circle site in the UK and one that can be enjoyed up close as there are no fences stopping you touching or even hugging the stones – more on that later.
Stonehenge is often cited as the role model for stone circles but compared to Avebury, Stonehenge is the newcomer bristling with innovation. The stones at Avebury predate Stonehenge not by hundreds of years but thousands. Astonishing. Avebury is a dynamic prehistoric landscape that has been developed over thousands of years, never standing still, never actually finished.
Walking amongst the stones in 2012 then is a deeply spiritual experience where we can touch our distant past and feel connected in some unknown way with our long lost forbears. The oldest part of the site itself has been dated at 3000 BC with developments and additions to the site until the site was forsaken in Early Bronze Age in favour, no doubt for something new.
The stones are scattered across a strange location with a village built around and within them and a main road weaving through. It’s quite tidy these days (well kept by The National Trust) and with a decent pair of boots can be navigated quite easily. Not all of the stones have survived the ravages of time with early Christians destroying or burying them and early scientists blowing them up to see what was inside them.
The first thing that strikes is the scale. The stones themselves are enormous and dwarf the sarsen stones of Stonehenge. With at least two thirds buried in the ground the sheer engineering feat of planting these giants is awe inspiring. But I think for me it’s the mystery of the place that endures.
I’ve visited in the rain, sun, mist and snow and every time it never fails to excite. Theories abound of course about the purpose of Avebury and in Aubrey Burl‘s superlative The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany he goes into incredible archeological detail, painting a detailed picture of prehistoric man and his life. This offers up lots of clues as to the use of the site and perhaps why it fell into disuse. It seems ultimately that the bright lights and innovation of Stonehenge overtook the ancient and mysterious traditions of Avebury.
Today these ghosts play amongst the stones and if you can find a quiet morning or early evening just before dusk when you can have the stones to yourself, you can almost hear them whispering. There’s no denying the stones tap into an ancient relationship we have with our environment that we have lost through the millennia. The cycle of life – and worship of it – is at the heart of all megalithic sites, hard wired into the landscape reminding us that we owe everything to the Earth.
I realise it’s all very hippy this – but if you’re interested to read more on Avebury and other sites, then a brilliant place to start is Julian Cope‘s comprehensive The Modern Antiquarian. This wonderful book turned me on to stone circles and has been my companion on many trips.
In the meantime, if you’ve never properly visited a stone circle, then Avebury is an awesome place to start but be warned, they don’t get much better than this and it’ll blow you away.