Great Stones Way 3 - Henge to Henge Navigation - Part I
Updated: Jan 5, 2022
Sunday, October 3rd. 9am.
For the 22 year old John Aubrey, stumbling across them on a mid-winter rabbit hunt in 1649, they "[did] as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge as a cathedral doeth a parish church". I share his enthusiasm but am not sure that his analogy is entirely apt. The banks, circles and avenues of Avebury are laid out on a more expansive scale than the great trilithons of Salisbury Plain, but lack their stark sublimity and grandeur. As they survive today, many visitors would consider them the more appealing, more humanly relatable monument, even if this less forbidding impression is largely serendipitous, the prehistoric remains having long co-existed with the pastures and cottages of a prosperous Wiltshire village. The stones here are not only less scarily huge than those of Stonehenge, they are also - quite literally - more approachable, being free of access any time between dawn and dusk. I must say, I am rather sold on the view that the two distinct shapes they fall into - tall and thin, or short and wide - correspond to male and female genital organs. Not only was this place built by people, it tangibly represents them.
Today the morning air feels fresh and clean after Saturday's implacable storminess. Long streaks of wrinkly cloud are giving way to patches of clear azure sky and the weathered sides of the monoliths glow pale orange in the gathering sunlight. Prehistoric Avebury may well have be-stirred itself each day at the crack of dawn, but the current community appears to lie late on the Sabbath. Presumably some are out at church, but I heard no bells and didn't encounter anyone on their way there. It is quite extraordinarily still; just a couple of dog-walkers the only sign of human wakefulness. A privileged time to step among the stones, even if my rain-quashed intention had been to look around them yesterday evening.
Of course, what the modern visitor experiences at Avebury is substantially the result of conjecture and reconstruction. The site as first detailed by Aubrey had undergone considerable desecration during the Middle Ages, and would suffer an even more devastating assault from 18th century builders. For all his Druidic mania, much is owed to William Stukeley, who took advantage of his status as clergyman and physician to name and shame those uprooting the stones for their own use. Today's World Heritage Avebury, however, is arguably the creation of Alexander Keiller, the Scots marmalade millionaire who used his immense wealth to purchase the village's fine 16th century Manor House and much surrounding land, thus enabling an ambitious self-funded programme of excavation, research and renovation. His work may not meet modern standards of responsible restoration but who, honestly, can feel anything other than gratitude that he undertook it. The tasteful miniature plinths he planted to mark the positions of missing monoliths are not so much replacements as memorials to what has been lost.
Sadly, I have no time this visit for the museum Keiller founded, as I really should be on my way south if I am to make Amesbury by nightfall. Andrew and his partner Alison have most kindly laundered my soaking clothes and dried out the insoles of my boots, though the outer fabric remains stubbornly sodden. The day is forecast to be mostly fine, so I can dispense with my waterproof top and pullover. Each unworn garment adds to the weight of an already heavy pack, but the load is still manageable. Despite enjoying one too many glasses of wine with last night's fish and chips, I feel both well-rested and alert as I cross the road by the car park to follow by the side of the River Kennet.
I say river, but it is little more than an overgrown stream as yet, with a ragged hedgerow partially obscuring the view across the opposite bank. Then, with a quiet suddenness that takes the breath away, a gap in the foliage discloses a first sight of Silbury Hill, not standing out along the skyline, but awesomely close, on the far side of a smallish field with cows. In childhood I was driven past Europe's largest artificial mound several times on the A4 and the view was impressive, all right, but not a match for this.
It is hard to say what it is about Silbury that casts such a powerful spell - perhaps the very fact that it's purpose is so inscrutable. The theory that its flat top was a widely visible platform upon which religious rituals could be performed and viewed at a distance is appealing enough but has not met with general favour. In fact, the mound's peak was probably rounded until levelled to accommodate a late Saxon fortification in the 11th Century. In the late 1960s, Richard Atkinson led widely publicised (and extensively televised) excavations in the expectation of uncovering the resting place of a powerful local chieftain. His failure to unlock secret treasure chambers or cast any valuable light upon the monument's function disappointed many and kept such "live" archaeology projects off British TV screens until the success of the altogether more controlled and less grandiose Time Team ventures of the 1990s. If anything, the major effect of his efforts was to compound the damage done by 18th and 19th Century tunnelling and endanger the mound's structural integrity. The investigations done in 2007 as part of a (fortunately successful) attempt to prevent a catastrophic internal collapse revealed that Silbury seems to have been constructed over generations rather than centuries, initially constituting nothing more inspiring than a waist-high gravel heap. It's evolution - if not quite accidental - was the result of gradual accretion, rather than the fulfilment of some visionary architectural master-plan. As Francis Pryor has said of Avebury, the very process of construction may well have constituted the work's primary "meaning".
There is a thoughtful, perceptive and beautifully written literary consideration of Silbury by the poet Adam Thorpe - On Silbury Hill - but I'm not sure the most imaginatively sympathetic artistic response it has evoked isn't that of Harrison Birtwistle in his 1977 Silbury Air. This characteristically un-ingratiating 15 minute work for small orchestra - a handy quintessence of it's composer's mid-period style, with its hypnotic pulsations, shifting repeating patterns, sudden sharp accents and bracing juxtapositions of timbre, dynamic and tempo - is no conventional piece of tone painting, but instead reflects the presence of the hill as, in Birtwistle's just description, "an artificial but organic intruder on the landscape". The music, like it's nominal subject, is guesturally bold but formally ineluctable, with no "meaning" beyond it's own existence.
There is no public access to Silbury, even if illicit climbers cannot be entirely stopped. (Indeed, it was one of them that alerted English Heritage to the parlous state of the mound's fabric prior to the 2007 restoration.) For myself, I am more than happy to keep a respectful distance, as I continue with the curve of the Kennet towards the roadway, each step seeming to produce a vibrant new visual perspective.
On the other side of the road, I cross the river and make my way towards a somewhat isolated oak tree, before turning to begin the steady ascent towards the West Kennet long barrow. Andrew has warned me that the field is often churned and mucky after rain, but today the path has all but dried out under the sun. Tramping upwards, I am aware of how warm it has become under my thick shirt and vest. Perhaps at the top of the rise I can do something about it.
The barrow itself is a much admired specimen of its type and exceptionally well preserved. Like Silbury, it would not have been grass-topped, but instead presented an austerely chalky aspect to those who built and used it. Exceptionally long and well-shaped, it has a curving modern stepped path running along its top and, at its Eastern end, an imposing forecourt of upstanding sarsen stones. These last were probably erected as a false facade after the burial chambers were apparently sealed up some time around 2000 BC. For over a thousand years beforehand it had been a place of final internment. The remains of over 35 humans - men, women, adults and children - have been recovered from within, together with those of animals and some cremated ash. Scientific analysis suggests that most of them endured a grim range of bone disorders and at least one appears to have been the victim of violence. Nothing suggests that they were accorded any special status in life or in death. It is possible that their skeletal remains were only deposited inside the barrow after the flesh had rotted or been picked clean by animals in the open air.
I pass behind the entrance stones into the darkness of the long chamber, with its walls of nobbled megaliths packed together in a way that, at least initially, looks as though it should never have worked, let alone endured for 5,000 years. West Kennet has an unusually spacious interior for a barrow of its period and all but the exceptionally tall can stand upright inside with ease. Using the weak torch on my phone, I peer into the compact rounded side-chambers that adjoin the 12 metre long central passage. There are excitable tales of visitors suffering attacks of dread in here, even of being grabbed at by unseen hands. No such supernatural terrors assail me, but I will concede the place is on the claustrophobic and creepy side and do not linger.
Out on the top of the mound, two dog owners have arrived with their playful beasts. The stipulation of English Heritage that only assistive canines are allowed would appear to be widely ignored. From the forecourt end I can make out the vast East Kennet Long Barrow - an even more massive structure than this one, but archaeologically obscure and frequented only by those willing to risk the wrath of the local landowner. Its mysterious wooded crest is a reminder that this was a densely treed landscape throughout the Neolithic period. Silbury, oddly snug-looking down below, would very possibly have been in a forest clearing. Unless, that is, it was surrounded by water - as it sometimes is today when the Kennet overflows. Perhaps its situation marked what was perceived to be the source of the Thames.
But enough speculation. My next objective is the so called Sanctuary at the end of the great stone avenue that extends from Avebury to Overton. The route, as detailed in my handy Cicerone guidebook, is not easy to trace. It is hard not to harbour the suspicion that, in the five years since the thing was published, vested interests unwelcoming to the new footpath have been doing their level best to bury it. The indicated way, sticking close to the river, is no more. I do my best to head in the general direction intended, following access signs into a vaguely triangular field. The only apparent way out takes me across a road and into the hamlet of East Kennet. At the end of a mucky wooded track someone has made a determined attempt to uproot a byway sign that looks as though it should point along the side of a large tilled field. Cultivation has been extended right up to the margin. Over the rise, I am back with the A4, this time curving sharply round the top of a hill to my left, just above the Sanctuary. It is a notoriously dangerous stretch of road and English Heritage have long demolished the cafe that used to stand on the far side in an effort to dissuade pedestrians such as myself from crossing it inattentively. I make my way up the tarmac with some care.
The Sanctuary itself was drawn and described by Aubrey but, by the mid-18th Century, all its stones and timbers had been pillaged or destroyed. The close concentric circles in which they were arranged are indicated by concrete markers on the ground. This is where I should have started walking over two hours ago. I now have seven hours of daylight in which to walk about 22 miles over a route with which I am unfamiliar. Still, I wouldn't have missed this morning's circuit for the world. So long as I reach the river Avon (about 17 miles away) by dusk I shall feel reasonably happy. From there I should be able to get a bus or cab.
Now I am circling back on myself, on a sheltered track that passes well appointed old houses - at least one of which seems to have its own miniature stone circle adorning its garden. Through the village one comes to a gate and stile by the side of the road and begins the slow, winding climb up Lurkeley Hill. I keep pausing to glance, Orpheus-like, back at the receding shape of Silbury. Ahead, the path skirts a small copse before a final ascent onto the Wansdyke.
This lengthy - if discontinuous - earthwork has a Saxon name, but is almost certainly pre-Saxon in construction. Usually it is thought to be a late Roman defensive line against Saxon incursion, though parts of it - especially its more western reaches - may be Iron Age. Whatever, the few yards of it I traverse afford a pleasantly shaded interlude, where I take advantage of the seclusion to pause and remove my vest before emerging onto a flat cattle field at the base of the appropriately named Walker's Hill. At the pointed crest of this is yet another celebrated barrow - Adam's Grave - which has not, perhaps, yielded the richest archaeology, but does enjoy the most spectacular elevated setting. Far beneath me, the beautiful Vale of Pewsey unfolds to my left, radiating in a bluish mid-day haze.
In the coll just beneath the barrow, I pause for some small refreshment and a brief respite from the wind, before making my way round to the fine descending path on the other side. It is quite an exhilarating descent to the road and across it, through a field with horse paddocks,into the twin historic villages of Alton Barnes and Alton Priors. On a hill behind me to the West is emblazoned the outline of a Victorian White Horse, rather grubby looking at the moment. These days, it is illegal to refresh such features by excavation, and imported chalk needs to be rubbed into the exposed surface - a laborious operation clearly overdue here. Alton Priors is small but quite spaciously laid out along a junction of roads, with a large black-thatched open barn at its centre. The small early Norman All Saint's Church, partly shielded by trees, is open and interesting. The two sarsen stones concealed beneath wooden traps on the floor may be of ancient origin. Was this Christian building superimposed upon an earlier prehistoric site?. Diagonally across the same field, the even smaller, sparer and (to me) more attractive Saxon Church of St Mary the Virgin at Alton Barnes has a pew-less interior, both austere and comfortingly intimate.
Back in the sunlight, I follow the side of the road South, bypassing the opportunity to visit a Second World War air-raid shelter apparently located somewhere in the middle of a ploughed field, and quickly arrive at Honeystreet bridge over the Kennet and Avon Canal. This waterway feels like an old friend, since in my time living in Bath I walked the stretch between that city and Devizes several times. This more easterly section is unfamiliar, however, and I shall be joining it only briefly. I have arrived at a moment of decision, either heading West with the official Great Stones Way, or East, via Marden. I opt for the latter and am soon downing a quick pint with nuts some half a mile along the towpath, in the garden of The Barge Inn. It's a cheerful enough place to find oneself this bright, blustery afternoon, and evidently popular with the boat-dwellers. It occurs to me that I have passed a fair few fellow ramblers since leaving Avebury - a pleasing change from the soaking solitude I endured for much of yesterday. It is about 1.15 and I am pleased with the steady pace I have maintained. I hope I can keep it up over the next few miles, which, look altogether more tortuous and remote.
To be continued....