Avebury: Tales of the Prehistoric Cathedral of Wiltshire
PUBLISHED: 15:33 26 May 2020 | UPDATED: 15:33 26 May 2020
In the strange time of self-isolation in which I’m writing this, we’re having to content ourselves with the familiarity of our homes. I’ve been musing about my favourite places, and I’d like to share with you a place I love, one that’s full of energy, that I go to when I need to recharge my batteries
Avebury is a strange place. Unlike Stonehenge on its bare plain, Avebury seems deceptively cosy; a village, including a pub, the Red Lion, nestles in among the earth embankment and ditch – the henge – alongside the stone circles. But this is the largest megalithic complex in England, and the wider sacred landscape stretches out several miles beyond. The village – particularly proximity of the Christian church – may also be the reason why there are few folktales about Avebury. Any tale that explained how the stones got there is now lost. In contrast, the Rollright Stones near Chipping Norton are blessed by a story of how they were formed: when a witch challenged a king that he’d be king of England if he could see Long Compton in seven paces, he took the chance, failed, and he and his knights were transformed into stone. Nor is Avebury like the Weddings of Stanton Drew in Somerset, the forms of dancers frozen in place at a wedding – they were dancing on the Sabbath. Even Stonehenge was said to have been brought from Ireland by the magic and cunning of Merlin the wizard.
The sacred structures of Avebury were begun around 5000 years ago, in Neolithic times, the New Stone Age. They were worked on, added to, and used for about 1000 years – into the Bronze Age – before being abandoned. That period of activity was about as long as Avebury’s church has been standing! Today, of course, the stone circles, avenues, henges, hills, and burial mounds are all in use again – by modern pagans, and by anyone who’s drawn to explore these ancient places. Back in the Middle Ages the place would have looked rather different. From the 14th century, the villagers set to burying some of the stones, possibly fearing their power, but there were stones standing then that are no longer there today, since less superstitious folk in the 17th and 18th centuries simply broke up stones they thought were in inconvenient places and used the pieces as building material (it’s said, though, that village houses that include the stones suffer from poltergeist activity!). In those centuries, however, Avebury and Stonehenge were put on the map – through the work of the antiquarians John Aubrey in the 17th century and William Stukeley in the 18th century. Both men thought that these prehistoric monuments were erected by Iron Age druids, for they had no idea that earlier ages than that had existed.
Avebury’s church sits just outside the henge. The two have had an uneasy relationship. Building the church right next to the henge meant that the power of the church could counteract the evil power that was perceived to inhabit the stones. Clearly works of the Devil! An idea reflected in the names of some of the stones: the Devil’s Quoits, the Devil’s Brand-Irons, the Devil’s Chair. Snakes are said to be unable to live within the monument – though if it be the Devil’s you’d think they’d be rife! – and there’s a carving on the church font of a bishop, or St Michael, with serpents – dragons – on either side which he is banishing away. However, to the villagers, it seems, the stones were friendlier than the church wanted people to think. It’s said that if you sit on the Devil’s Chair on May Eve and make a wish, then it will come true.
Today, stepping into the stone circles still gives a sense of the sacred. There’s one large outer circle, plus two smaller ones within. You’ll often see people hugging the stones. For me, almost more special than the stones are the four copper beeches that stand on the embankment, spreading their intertwining roots down it, and festooned with votive ribbons. If you lay your hands on them you can feel you’re sensing the pulse of the earth. Getting the beeches to myself is a treat, and I am always reluctant to move on. These trees are supposed to have inspired Tolkein’s ents – the slow-talking tree men in The Lord of the Rings.
You can walk along the embankment till you reach the oak trees by the road, which you can then cross to proceed up the Avenue of megaliths towards the Sanctuary. Now simply a set of concrete posts to mark what was once there, the Sanctuary originally comprised stone and timber circles, a little older than the Avebury circles. Aubrey recorded ‘the Sanctuary’ as what the locals called the place in his day, but the stone circle he saw and Stukeley recorded a century later is now completely gone. In between two visits by Stukeley the farmer took down the stones and broke them up. We must be thankful that Stukeley was there in time to draw them!
Near the Sanctuary stands West Kennet long barrow. Older than the other monuments around it, this is a Cotswold Severn chambered tomb from about 3700 bc, one of many in the region from Avebury up into Gloucestershire and beyond. It’s still regarded as a sacred site, popular at the winter solstice, and has one of the more eerie hauntings of the area: on Midsummer’s morning a ghostly priest enters the barrow with his dog – the hound marking them as members of the fair folk, since it is white with red ears, the colouring of animals of the Celtic otherworld.
You can return to Avebury via the mysterious Silbury Hill. This is the largest manmade prehistoric mound in Europe. People long assumed that there must be something inside. They said King Sil was buried upright, in the centre of the hill, in golden armour and upon his golden horse. His ghost rides round the hill on moonlit nights. He’s supposed to have been buried in April, and there was a fair there on Palm Sunday in the 18th and 19th centuries, at which people would eat figgy cakes and drink sugar dissolved in the from Swallowhead Spring, the source of the Kennet. But Silbury Hill contains no burial. Though many treasure-seekers have dug into it, few artefacts have been found. Is it really just a hill, albeit a manmade one? Or was that pesky Devil involved again?
The story goes that when Avebury was being built the Devil began to worry that there was getting to be too much religion in Wiltshire. When they started to build Stonehenge as well, that really put him out! So he took his huge shoulder-blade shovel and dug up a huge shovelful of earth from Salisbury Plain. Then he turned back towards Avebury, meaning to bury the whole place. But the priests and priestesses got wind of his coming and raced into the henge and began chanting. When the Devil arrived he couldn’t get in! Round and round it he went, then up the Avenue, past the Sanctuary, and West Kennet, out as far as the barrow at Beckhampton, but the chanting was so strong they still kept him out. The shovelful of earth was feeling heavier and heavier and the Devil was getting more and more fed up. Enough! Let Avebury be! he thought, and he dumped the shovelful of earth where he stood. And that was Silbury Hill.
Back in Avebury, there are hints of another fair. But maybe it’s not quite a human one. There are reports of ghostly music and little spectral figures hurrying back and forth as if preparing for a festival. Perhaps you’ll see them when we can all go and visit again. And, if you’re heading back towards Swindon on the A4361 after a late night at the Red Lion, maybe you’ll see the Swindon Stone crossing the road as the church clock strikes midnight!
Hengeworld, by Mike Pitts; Wiltshire Folk Tales, by Kirsty Hartsiotis.
Need to know
Map: OS Explorer 157: Marlborough and Savernake Forest.
Parking: National Trust car park (closed during lockdown)
Toilets and refreshments: Public toilets in the National Trust complex and on the main village street. The Red Lion is the village’s pub, and this also a National Trust tea room (also closed)
Transport links: Stagecoach 49 Swindon-Devizes
Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis are Stroud-based storytellers and writers. Their books include Gloucestershire Folk Tales, Wiltshire Folk Tales, and Gloucestershire Ghost Tales. Kirsty is also the curator of decorative and fine art at The Wilson, Cheltenham. Anthony runs the small press Awen Publications.