It’s 1972 and I’m eleven years old, hanging out in the Carmi Public Library, which is about the only place I’m allowed to hang out. I find a book on the shelf, plain black with a bit of red trim. Mysterious Britain is the title, and Janet and Colin Bord were the authors. I open it, skim through the pages and am captured by images of standing stones, barrows, cairns, reproductions of old engravings of the mysterious landscape of Britain.
So I take it to a table and start to read. Eventually I come across a word, Avebury. The most mysterious site of them all, huge and baffling. The photos capture my imagination … rows of stone marching out of the mist, the contour of Silbury Hill, the dark beauty of West Kennet Long Barrow. “When I grow up,” I made a mental note to myself, “I’m going there.”
And I did. Fifteen years or so ago. The place was as amazing as I dreamt it would be. I had a day there, a windy, rainy day which left me dying for more. I swore I’d be back.
Now it’s early January – I left the midwest with an ice storm nipping at my heels, and I’m getting off a plane at Heathrow. In the bag slung over my shoulder is the aged copy of Mysterious Britain.
They build a stupendous Building on the Plain of Salisbury; with chains
Of rocks round London Stone: of Reasonings: of unhewn Demonstrations
In labyrinthine arches. (Mighty Urizen the Architect,) thro which
The Heavens might revolve & Eternity be bound in their chain.
Labour unparallelld! a wondrous rocky World of cruel destiny
Rocks piled on rocks reaching the stars; stretching from pole to pole.
The Building is Natural Religion & its Altars Natural Morality
A building of eternal death: whose proportions are eternal despair
Here Vala stood turning the iron Spindle of destruction
From heaven to earth: howling! invisible! but not invisible
Her Two Covering Cherubs afterwards named Voltaire & Rousseau:
Two frowning Rocks; on each side of the Cove & Stone of Torture:
Frozen Sons of the feminine Tabernacle of Bacon. Newton & Locke.
For Luvah is France: the Victim of the Spectres of Albion.
William Blake, Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion 1804-1820
Blake wrote that about Stonehenge, Avebury’s more well known and renowned twin. Stonehenge does attract more than its fair share of visitors. It’s a more startling image, easier to present to people who have at best, a passing interest in old stones, and carries a certain hipness quotient. Or if you want to get really freaky, go during the summer or winter solstice. Which is also the only time you get to get up close and personal with the stones.
Usually when people speak of traveling to Britain the first word you hear, and often the last is London. But London is expensive. Sure the theaters are great, but they are everywhere, and likely the same shows. There’s great music in London, but it’s not the swinging sixties, the punk rock seventies or even the synth laden crap that came out of there in the eighties.
So because most people are afraid of the cost, they never make it to Britain, which is a shame. Particularly those of us from small towns. It’s possible to visit the countryside relatively inexpensively, and immerse yourself in places much like those where we come from. Except with more scenic vistas, ancient history and good architecture.
And the stones. There are thousands of standing stones, henges, stone circles, ancient earthworks and other oddities in the British Isles, and most of them are free to visit. And nobody has a clue what they were for. Which means you can use your imagination.
Can is the wrong word there. It’s essential you use your imagination. Stand in the circle at Avebury and your mind has to try to make sense of it. And since you have no facts to base it on, your imagination takes off. When your imagination starts to work, wild things can happen. Nobody knows what Avebury was all about, so your guess in a sense, or your vision is as accurate as any.
Okay, they have clues, but the real purpose has been and will always remain a mystery. The worst historians and archaeologists will put forth theories: We believe that Avebury had a ceremonial purpose. No shit.
The best will simply say “I don’t have a fucking clue.” Because you’re not going to explain these things, and you’re certainly not going to understand Avebury. It’s too massive, covers too many acres and there can be no simple explanation. The only way to understand the original purpose of the complex was to have been there at the time, which stretched over a thousand years of construction and use. Even then you’d likely not grasp it. Was it inspired by the gods, or a massive public works project ordered by the priestly class to instill fear and mystery into all who came across it?
Stonehenge is more photogenic, but its been tamed. Roped off and administered, governed by rules, regulations and admittance fees, it’s been domesticated. Avebury is feral. It’s alive. It’s easy to walk inside and find yourself swallowed up.
The customs officer, barely looking up asked the purpose of my visit. I smiled and tried to look sane, “I’ve got a date. I have his attention as I lean in and add in a conspiratorial whisper, “we might even have sex.”
I grew up near Kentucky, so I have more than a bit of twang to my voice. I’m six foot tall and have hair well below my shoulders. Clothes don’t fit me like they should. On a good day I’m a fucking mess.
I can’t fathom what it must be like to be British. By this point in my journey I’d been up for about 48 hours, been drunk twice in that time and jostled along through a 12 hour flight. If I found myself standing in front of an Irish customs inspector, or anyone from Ireland for that matter, as soon as I opened my mouth I’d be interrupted with “so where are you from? No, let me guess” and the conversation would start. The British are so fucking polite, that even though there is this American thing standing in front of him, all my friendly British customs inspector could do was look up, cock an eyebrow, stamp the passport and say “have a nice stay.”
+ + +
My driver is hurtling down the M4, and I’m white knuckled scared. She changes lanes. A lot. I see the speedometer reads ninety, which I assume are kilometers, like in Ireland. Nope, it’s M.P.H.
I smoke a lot. Then the highway gives way to smaller roads and thatched roof cottages, bricks in myriad shades of red, browns and golds. It’s rained in the past few minutes here and the kids look so, so British in their school uniforms.
The countryside turns wilder, the cottages appear more wind swept and signs of agriculture abound. Modern agriculture techniques, though far more effective are less bucolic then their historical antecedents. But they’re still more scenic than what we have back in the states by a long shot.
Then there are the stones of West Kennet Avenue leading us into Avebury, and a sense of mystery starts casting its shadow across the landscape.
“Avebury does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge as a Cathedral doeth a parish church”
John Aubrey, Monumenta Britannica 1665
It’s only seconds until you drive into the largest stone circle in Europe and into Avebury proper. The great circle contains two smaller circles, as well as a few other grouping of stones. It’s believed that the fact that the road, which takes the same basic route as the prehistoric avenues which approached Avebury, points to the idea that during construction, the structure went through substantial modifications from its earliest design. This would account for why the road has to make a serious jog right at the door of the Red Lion Inn. The road takes a hard left and follows the route of Beckhampton Avenue, now long gone.
Make a left at the Red Lion and you’re on High Street, leaving the circle proper. High Street is lined with picturesque cottages, and the church and manor house at the terminus, as well as the ancient barn which became the Alexander Keiller Museum. Aside from a scattering of cottages at the other end of High Street, plus a workingman’s club and sports field, this is the village of Avebury, the only village in England set inside a stone circle.
Something weird happened here, thousands of years ago. Weird on a massive, Neolithic scale. Though there is some evidence that things were happening here in the Mesolithic period, it wasn’t till much later that things got Megalithic. Several hundred sarsen stones, some weighing more than 40 tons were hauled from the nearby Marlborough Downs, and erected according to some grand design, long forgotten. Silbury Hill, standing near the end of West Kennet Avenue is one of the largest prehistoric, man-made mounds in the world. It’s build from white chalk, dirt and gravel, which originally would have gleamed white in the sunlight, and been reflected in a lake which surrounded it.
Across the fields from Silbury Hill is West Kennet Long Barrow, one of the largest in Britain. West Kennet isn’t the only barrow in the vicinity. There are others scatted throughout the area, especially on Overton Hill where they were planted with Beech trees in the 17th century, so they stand out from a distance. Nearby Windmill hill contains a few, along with Neolithic earthworks.
And then there’s what is no more. The Sanctuary was said to have been one of the most beautiful features at Avebury. A circle which terminated West Kennet Avenue and large enough that Stonehenge would have fit inside, it was broken up and hauled away during the 17th century.
Avebury seems to have suffered from two foul strains in its past … the desire to hide if not obliterate Britain’s pagan past, and the need to make way for more farmland. West Kennet Long Barrow was ravaged by agriculture. The whole of Beckhampton Avenue, the sister to West Kennet Avenue, consisting of more than 200 stones was wiped out. Today there are only about a hundred stones out of the more than 600 stones which made up the Avebury complex.
The car pulls into the community parking lot. Parking is scarce in Avebury, as there simply is no space. There are visitor parking lots on the edge of the village, but to park in the community lot you must have a pass. Which I have as I’ve booked Churchyard Cottage for a week.
The Daughter of Albion clothed in garments of needle work
Strip them off from their shoulders and bosoms, they lay aside
Their garments; they sit naked upon the Stone of trial,
The Knife of flint passes over the howling Victim
William Blake, Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion 1804-1820
There are people who can put their hand softly on one of the stones and swear they can feel them vibrate. I believe they miss the point. Go to the stones with a purpose, make your promises, your commitment, your sacrifice – whatever it is for you. It’s not a tourist attraction. Going to Avebury is a fucking quest.
Sure, it makes for a great afternoon in the country. But it offers so much more. It offers you a chance to become part of something timeless and ancient. Go to Avebury as you’d go to Lourdes, Bethlehem, The Cave of Pan or Nick Drake’s grave. Go not just expecting something to happen, but willing to make it happen.
Go expecting magic, and believe.
Nobody knows why Avebury was constructed. There are those who say “astronomical observatory,” but the complex is overkill for that. It seems almost certain that Avebury played a part in the local, ancient belief system, that which we call religion today. But who is to say how much their beliefs line up with what we call religious beliefs? The approach to the great circle via two avenues imply a processional route, but is that based on scientific evidence or because we have that idea programmed into our head because of religious practices which may have developed later?
Was Avebury a ceremonial site? What of all the nearby barrows. Do the dead guard Avebury, or was Avebury constructed to appease or honor the dead? Was it a defensive site, designed to scare the shit out of anyone looking to take over the territory? Was it a solar or lunar calendar? Were they trying to communicate with UFOs?
In the eighteenth century they discovered in the heart of Silbury Hill a 40 foot shaft, six inches in diameter with fragments of wood at the bottom. It could have been a sacred tree. It could have been a totem. It could have been a giant toothpick for all we know, and the past three hundred years haven’t shed any new light on that mystery.
For all the good that archaeology has done, when it comes to understanding Avebury, it might as well be on another planet in another galaxy.
It’s just too far back in time. The only way we’ll ever know how it worked, or what it was for is if someone figures the fucker out and makes it work. I still believe that night I did. But that’s another story altogether.
+ + +
By the great stones we chose our ground
For shade; and there, in converse sweet,
Took luncheon …
And I despised the Druid rocks
That scowl’d their chill gloom from above,
Like churls whose stolid wisdom mocks
The lightness of immortal love.
And, as we talk’d, my spirit quaff’d
The sparkling winds; the candid skies
At our untruthful strangeness laugh’d;
I kiss’d with mine her smiling eyes;
And sweet familiarness and awe
Prevail’d that hour on either part,
And in the eternal light I saw
That she was mine; though yet my heart
Could not conceive, nor would confess
Such contentation; and there grew
More form and more fair stateliness
Than heretofore between us two.
Angel In The House, Coventry Patmore, 1854
If you’re coming from the midwest or the mid Atlantic/New England states, British winters are surprisingly mild. What Brits considered cold I thought of as almost shorts weather. I was told there was almost no chance of snow. What there was, was wet. You wake up and it’s raining. By the time you get downstairs and go out for a smoke the sun is shining. By the time you’re dressed and ready to go out and explore, the rain is back. Avebury was constructed of earth and stone. It’s going to be muddy and slick.
It was, and as is my habit, I slid halfway down the embankment on my ass.
The Red Lion Inn is the heart of Avebury. People come here to drink, to eat, to bullshit. All the things people do in pubs. I was having a late lunch the next day … at the next table were three Americans, clean cut looking, college age and horror of horrors from Long Island. The north shore, I heard names bandied about and realized I used to be one of them. Well, sort of. I never was actually assimilated into Long Island culture.
I mean here they were, an ocean away from home, in one of the most fascinating spots on Earth, and all they could talk about were people back on the island. If I’d actually have felt myself becoming a Long Islander, I would likely have attached weights and chains to my ankles and have waded out into the Atlantic.
But it was easy to lose myself in the Red Lion. The night before there was absinthe, I was too jet lagged to be hungover, and it’s possible I hadn’t slept much. I knew something had happened last night, out there within the circle, something beyond words. It was the howl of the wind with syllables swirling about within, it was songs long forgotten being sung once more. There were no stars, just ominous clouds racing overhead and the whole landscape seemed to be alive. No streetlights, no lights from distance cities … just the stones, the ominous height of the henge hemming us in and time stood motherfucking still.
The next morning I awoke to snow. It was just myself and two photographers in the circles, plus a mother, daughter and her two little children sledding into the ditch that surrounds the site.
A note on photography and standing stones. It’s hard to take a photo of big fucking rocks and make it interesting. They blend into the background unless you’re lucky enough to have mist. Or snow. Snow is especially amazing because it gives one an idea of how it must have looked when the henge was bare chalk.
A lot of people are confused about the word henge. They think of Stonehenge and assume it’s something to do with stones. That’s not true. A henge is actually an earthen ring or embankment, with an inner ditch. Since the ditch is on the inside rather than the outside, it’s presumed that a henge had no defensive purpose. The ditch at Avebury is in places thirty foot deep or so. Ideal for sledding.
I walked the embankment and then set off for West Kennet Long Barrow.
By then the feeble British sun had melted away the snow, and so the walk down the Avenue was green. It’s broken up, fragmented, but the processional way is still an amazing feeling. I remembered the walk from my previous visit. When you reach the end of what’s left of West Kennet Avenue there’s a path heading to the right, up and over a slight ridge, As you get to the top you begin to see Silbury Hill below you.
Still, by the time I reached the foot of the hill where West Kennet Long Barrow looks down on you, it was nearly dark. So I opted to play at Silbury Hill instead.
Silbury Hill is part of the Avebury complex, but once again, nobody knows how or why. Standing almost 140 foot tall, the artificial chalk mound is the tallest prehistoric human made mound in Europe, and nearly the largest in the world, being about the same size as some of the smaller pyramids in Egypt. Construction began about 5,000 years ago, with the mound being enlarged some time later. The flat top was a medieval addition to make it possible to pop some type of building on top to protect against Vikings and those blasted Vandals. The base is almost 600 feet in diameter, and it’s estimated that it would have taken 18 million hours to construct.
Think about it for a minute … it would have taken 500 people working continuously for fifteen years to build the thing. So there had to be a damned good reason for doing so. The truth is now, we don’t have a clue what that reason is. And it’s likely to stay that way, because like the rest of the Avebury complex, or Stonehenge or any of the other ancient monuments scattered throughout Britain, it doesn’t give up its secrets. We’re too far removed from the mindset of our ancestors to be able to figure it all out.
Archaeologist Richard Atkinson, speaking to BBC News says “What was the most remarkable thing about us going into the (Silbury Hill) was that it wasn’t a single construction. It was actually made up of lots of tiny phases. It seems as if the hill developed organically and the strangest thing is that this hasn’t always been a hill. The first phases of it were a bank and ditch enclosure, much like a henge monument.”
He continues, “The actual process appears to be more important than the construction. The people who started work at Silbury Hill could never have known that it would have ended up the size it is today and that really is a change from what we’ve previously believed.”
In spite of all this however the great old mound with its grey time stained stones among which bushes of the blackthorn maintain a stunted growth commanding as it does a view of a great part of the sacred site of Avebury has still a charm in its wild solitude disturbed only by the tinkling of the sheep bell or perhaps the cry of the hounds. Shade too is not wanting for on the north side of the barrow occupying the places once filled by the encircling upright stones are what are rarely seen on these downs several ash and elm trees of from fifty to seventy years growth. At the foot of the hill half a mile away to the east lies one of those long combs or valleys where the thickly scattered masses of hard silicious grit or sarsen stone still simulate a flock of grey wethers which as Aubrey says one might fancy to have been the scene where the giants fought with huge stones against the gods. From this valley there can be little doubt were derived the natural slab like blocks of which our giant’s chamber and its appendages were formed .
The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 10, 1853
Across the highway and at the top of the next ridge is West Kennet Long Barrow, at nearly 5,000 years old, which is all about the ancestors of the Avebury complex. Nineteenth century excavations found nearly 50 burials, all having taken place within about 25 years of each other. The skeletons had been taken apart, and there is evidence that from time to time, some of the bones were taken out for display or ritual use.
There are barrows dotting the countryside around Avebury, but none on the scale of West Kennet Long Barrow. At over 300 feet long, and with intricate stone chambers inside, it must have taken almost 16,000 hours of labor to construct. Aside from the burials, it was in use as a ritual center for about a 1,000 years before the massive sarsen stone facade was put back in place for what they must have believed would have been forever.
On the way back, when we reached West Kennet Avenue the rain started. Part way down the hail blew in and we took shelter in the leeward side of one of the huge stones. When it looked like it wasn’t going to stop any time soon, we set off again and by the time we reached the Red Lion, soaked and muddy, we decided supper and strong drink was in order.
I pride myself in having sampled bacon cheddar cheeseburgers in every town, every state, every country I’ve visited. It’s always on the menu. If there’s a double, I’ll have the double. You don’t need the double at the Red Lion. I’m fairly certain that had I not just went on a forced march over hill and dale, my arteries would have clogged on the spot and I’d have been hauled, lifeless out the front door on a stretcher, getting my chest zapped by EMTs.
Avebury serves as a great base to explore Neolithic Britain. Stonehenge, Old Sarum, Glastonbury and countless other sites are within an hour or so drive. The ancient Roman city of Bath is nearby, full of shopping, dining and Edwardian beauty. And though it’s less than a two hour drive from London, it’s thousand of years away.
There’s one general purpose shop in Avebury, where you can get anything from groceries to candles. I needed both. Most of all we needed tobacco.
It’s a great little shop. You can get eggs laid early that morning, bread baked the night before. Sausages, bacon, steaks, fresh fruits, vegetables, beer, wine, cider, cheeses and cheesy souvenirs. You can get about anything you needed, just not a lot of variety. I could live on what they sell, quite happily.
I stocked up, got to the checkout counter and soon encountered the card issue. Most U.S. banks tell you now not to carry much foreign currency, and instead use your bank card. What they don’t tell you is that in Britain at least, most cards have some sort of embedded chip. Nobody seems to be able to explain just what it is, and soon it takes on an air of a Doctor Who episode, as I’m not sure this chip actually exists. We ran through every card I had and his card reader rejected each one. I had taken the bank’s advice to heart and had no foreign currency at all. Eventually one of the cards on the third or fourth swipe went through. I never could understand why some places can accept a card, and others simply cannot. Most bank machines however do, particularly if it has a Visa logo.
There were no credit card problems in the Henge Shoppe. Part tourist shop, part new age bookstore, they also stock crystals, clothes, music … everything for the tourist or new age explorer, taking along the pagans and downright witchy as well. I picked up a walking stick, not wanting to repeat the falling on my ass of the previous day.
Dining is pretty much just the Red Lion, though there is the Circles Café at the museum and a tea room at Avebury Manor. And there’s also the museum shop, run by the National Trust, featuring gifts, books, honey and other items.
The Alexander Keiller Museum is a great overview of Avebury, set inside a seventeenth century threshing barn, containing many of the artifacts, including the hapless barber who found himself in the wrong direction next to a falling stone in the fourteenth century. Oddly enough, he didn’t seem to be crushed by it, but likely found himself buried alive. I’d been there before, but we skipped it on this trip. The National Trust provides the sanctioned Avebury experience, for those wanting the official story, as well as it can be known, dished out to them. And they do an excellent job of it. But as with many ancient, mysterious sites, the focus becomes at times more on the archaeology and archaeologists than the place itself. This trip wasn’t about history or archaeology. It was about finding the true meaning of Avebury.
A week in the Churchyard Cottage in Avebury changed my life forever. Though I sit now in the same old lair which I have for years, I know my days here are numbered. I made a promise there, I vowed that life would be different, and it will. What Avebury does is let you see your destiny, your fate, your future, whatever you want to call it. It’s a giant scrying stone, it’s a portal that let me see the life I was supposed to be living. The life I have to live.
Or as George Harrison sings …
Beware of sadness
It can hit you
It can hurt you
Make you sore and what is more
That is not what you are here for
Seeing your destiny can be a dangerous thing, for those who don’t have the will to make it happen. It’s too easy to settle back into the routine, the familiar. It’s too easy to take the easy road.
I came to Avebury with high hopes, looking to find magic. And I did. As I wandered the stones that week it dawned on me that the real story of Avebury, is whatever story you bring with you, and the one you take away. And every person’s story is going to be different.
But that’s crap. Our stories are so fleeting, so temporary, they can fade in the time it takes to put all this down on paper. But what people built there thousands of years ago lives on, inspiring others to come there, wonder and chase impossible dreams.
More about Avebury from A Gothic Curiosity Cabinet …
Ghost stories and supernatural occurrences from Avebury circle and henge
Lucifer’s neolithic home, Devil’s Den stands vigil near the Avebury circle complex
Confronting the ghosts of my soul and of the dead in Avebury henge, and Churchyard Cottage
Confrontation at the Red Lion in Avebury, and touching the sacred at Silbury and Waden Hills
Clearing the mind along the Ridgeway in Avebury, finding solace in the barrows and a realization at the Sanctuary
Experiencing another sunrise at Avebury stone circles and henge