After visiting Stonehenge last year, I learned that it shares its UNESCO World Heritage site recognition with other Neolithic stone circles, Bronze Age stone avenues, and tombs in nearby Avebury. Having been previously unfamiliar with these sites, I was excited to explore them on our return trip to the area.
I will admit upfront that I didn’t allow enough time to see all the sites in Avebury in the one afternoon we had there. Bad weather made it even harder for us to enjoy. Still, now that we have been once and have a better understanding of the monuments and the landscape, I hope we can return at least once more to see more of the sites.
The Prehistoric Sites at Avebury
The sites include Avebury Henge, Silbury Hill (the largest prehistoric mound in Europe), The Sanctuary (a double stone circle from 2500-2000 BC), West Kennet Avenue, West Kennet Long Barrow (burial mound), and Windmill Hill. These sites, along with Stonehenge, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1986.
At the center of these sites is the old village of Avebury which has existed since sometime between 500 and 1000 AD. The village now includes its historical church, homes, lodging and dining for tourists, Avebury Manor, and the Alexander Keiller Museum.
Historians believe that the prehistoric sites were used for multiple purposes which changed over time. They believe they were used to connect with celestial observations, for celebrations around solar and lunar cycles, for rituals with processions and the need for inclusion or isolation/exclusion of people (alive or dead) or supernatural, other religious ceremonies, or performances.
Archaeologists believe that the stones were purposefully buried or removed over time for a few possible reasons. Over time, as religious beliefs changed, the use of the sites changed. Perhaps stones were buried as inhabitants wanted to remove the connection with religion or the supernatural. Eventually, the land became used for farming and the stones may also have been removed to make the land more usable for agriculture. Archaeologists have also found that some of the stones were moved for practical purposes, being used in new places for walls, pavement stones, or site markers, essentially being recycled or re-purposed.
Avebury is a National Trust site which is run in cooperation with English Heritage. Here is the National Trust’s website on Avebury and here is English Heritage’s website. Both are useful when planning a visit.
If you plan to visit the Avebury sites, I think the best place to start is the village of Avebury and the Alexander Keiller Museum. That way, before you see the actual prehistoric sites, you can learn about the history of each site, the area, and the people who have inhabited it over time.
Entrance to the sites themselves are free, but you do pay for parking and for museum entrance. The public parking lot for the village and the museum is on the edge of the village and requires a short walk, though closer, handicapped-accessible parking is available.
From the village and Avebury Henge, you can walk to the other sites. Dogs are allowed (on leashes) and tours with guides are available. English Heritage suggests that from the Avebury stone circles, it should take the following amounts of time to walk to these other sites: 25 minutes to Silbury Hill; 35 minutes to West Kennet; 45 minutes to the Sanctuary; and 40 minutes to Windmill Hill. You can also drive to the sites. If you do, parking is limited and usually just in areas where you can pull off and park on the side of the main road.
The English Heritage site notes that Silbury Hill is privately owned and there is no public access, but I believe you can still observe it from public lands. If you remain observant throughout the area, you can actually see many barrows (burial mounds) all over the countryside.
Now that I have been there, I have an idea of how I’d approach a return visit. Based on Google Maps’ estimate, it looks like a person could walk a circuit that includes all the sites in about 2 and a half hours. That, of course, would be a non-stop walk. Factoring in time to stop, observe each site, and take rest and snack breaks, on a future trip, I would allow (at least) double that amount of time for me and my family. I might also factor in some driving between sites, as opposed to walking the whole thing, though I do think that walking the landscape helps give you a fuller appreciation of the scale of the sites, and helps you imagine what they may have been like thousands of years ago. Everyone is different though, so make a plan that works for you!
The Village, Manor, and Museum
Avebury Manor is a 16th century manor house that has been inhabited in different forms over hundreds of years. It’s been a priory, a college, and a private residence. In 1935, it became the home of Alexander Keiller, the archaeologist responsible for uncovering much of Avebury in the 20th century. While Keiller was not the first to investigate the sites, his archaeological digs are responsible for finding many of the artifacts and information known about the sites today. The Alexander Keiller Museum shares this information and tells the archeologic history of the sites.
The Alexander Keiller Museum exists in two buildings, a 17th century threshing barn and the former stables of the manor house. The exhibits have hands on activities for children. There is a large farmyard area next to the museums where children can play and yard toys are provided. Between the museums you can see the old manor’s Dovecote, a building that housed doves which were raised for food. Of course, there is also a café and gift shop.
The Trust offers year-round activities (like 10K runs, children’s workshops, yoga, and art exhibits) throughout the sites and museums in Avebury. You can find these offerings on their website.
When we visited, there was a second-hand book sale on site, proceeds benefiting the upkeep of the Avebury sites. I love visiting the UK because I can stock up on English language books, even better when they are used and inexpensive! Here, I bought a copy of McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery In Ireland. My mother’s family are McCarthys who immigrated to the U.S. many generations back, so it should be a fun read for me. (I make no money from sharing that link to Amazon, btw. I’ve been too lazy to set up ways to monetize this blog, for better or for worse.)
After spending time in both museum buildings, in the book sale, and playing in the farmyard, we were ready to walk out to the henge to actually start seeing the sites. Right about then, it started raining. We passed the time a bit in the gift shop and café, but finally had to brave the rain because it was getting later in the afternoon and we weren’t going to have much time.
Walking Among the Stones
From the village and the museum, you can walk right out to the Avebury Henge. We walked though one section of it. In total, 36 stones now stand upright in the circle. 15 survived over time on their own. The rest were repositioned after being found during the Keiller excavations which re-erected 50 stones in total in the henge and along West Kennet Avenue.
We enjoyed seeing the part of the stone circles that we did, but to be honest, I had us move along quickly because we were getting short on time and wet in the intermittent rain showers. Because of that, I decided to drive to the next site we wanted to see, West Kennet Avenue.
We spent more time at West Kennet Avenue than in the circles. This, to me, was the best part of our visit because most of the time we were there, we were alone. We were able to take our time and walk through the Avenue. We could walk right up to the stones and touch them and really look at them. We could just stand there and take it all in.
I talked to my son about what we learned in the museums so we could appreciate that information again in the moment. We discussed how hard it must have been to move and erect the stones. We imagined what it would have been like to walk in a procession up the Avenue. My son enjoyed looking at the rocks up close and coming up with ideas for what could have made certain markings or scratches or features he observed on the surfaces. This was the quiet, undistracted, hands-on, contemplative experience I felt was lacking at Stonehenge. (My post on that here.)
At that point, the rain returned and we ended up running back to the car to escape it. It was time to head back to Bracknell for the evening, so regretfully, we didn’t get to see the rest of the sites at Avebury.
Fortunately, I think we will have at least one more trip back to the area before we leave Europe. I hope we can return to Avebury to see the rest of the prehistoric sites. Now that I have been once and have a better understanding of the landscape, I can plan our time better (i.e. give us more time), and hopefully the weather will cooperate!