Visit: 14th June 2014
Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites actually consists of 14 separate sites, clustered in two bunches – one around Stonehenge and one around Avebury, about 15 miles to the north. The most prominent site is of course Stonehenge, which is one of Britain’s best-known attractions. Stonehenge is also the only one you have to pay to see (or, pay to see up close, as it is of course visible from – and thus somewhat marred by – the A303 road that passes right by it). As with most of the British WHSs, it is not cheap to get into. If you book in advance it is £13.90, and I believe more if you turn up on the day. The site has been going through a thorough refurbishment, in which English Heritage has knocked down the old, ugly entrance portakabins and underpass located right next to the stones. They have also closed the quieter of the two adjacent roads to traffic, and built a new visitor centre about a mile down the road. Visitors are transported from the car park and visitor centre to the stones in road trains (Landrovers pulling glass carriages), which were a little overwhelmed by the numbers when we visited but seemed to be just about coping.
Natalie and I drove there early on a Saturday morning from Bristol, which is about 1.5 hours away. The demographic seemed to be mostly American and Asian tourists, which isn’t really a surprise I suppose. You get the use of audio guides for no additional charge, and you can walk around the stones hearing some of the archaeologists’ theories as to how and why the henge was constructed. The short answer to the question of why is “nobody knows!”
As for how, they have some interesting explanations. The stones each weigh many tonnes and are known to have come originally from the hills of south Wales. The effort of transporting them to their final position would have been immense, involving many millions of man-hours of work. If you zoom in on this picture of me you can see on the top of the tallest stone a raised bump. This is a rudimentary mortice and tenon joint, like those used in woodwork, and helped keep the stones in place for much longer than if they had simply been placed on top of one another.
The area around the henge is festooned with burial mounds and earthworks of various kinds. Some of them are easy to make out, whilst others are almost impossible and can only really be seen from the sky.
Stonehenge has a recent history that is interesting in its own right, as I learnt watching a recent (and rather snooty) Culture Show about the site. It became a popular tourist attraction several hundred years ago, but suffered from the sheer number of visitors who were then free to climb all over it, and who carved their names on it and left it strewn with picnic litter, encouraging rats whose burrows caused subsidence. Nowadays you can’t walk amongst the stones unless you claim to be a druid and attend one of the quarterly soltice festivals, which do look quite fun. In the 70s and 80s it became a destination for the “free festival movement” which led to some pretty shocking police brutality once English Heritage had had enough of them.
We left Stonehenge around midday and drove a few fields away to the site known as Woodhenge. This is another ancient monument, but since it was made from wood rather than stone it has all rotted away. Since its rediscovery in the 1920s somebody has put in stumpy concrete posts (in the charming 1960s Brutalist style) where the wooden ones once stood up to 25 metres high. I really think they could have put in some wooden posts to make the sight a little more atmospheric. But at least it is quiet and free.
Moving on from Woodhenge we drove into northwards to Avebury, stopping for a pub lunch in Upavon on the way. As we were driving through the countryside we noticed the Cherhill White Horse. It’s an impressive sight, and the first chalk hill figure I’ve seen. Unfortunately it doesn’t date back to Neolithic times, so isn’t part of the Stonehenge WHS. In fact, it was created in the late 18th century.
The horse isn’t far from Avebury, and when we got to some conspicuous standing stones we pulled up into a layby and walked the final kilometre or so. This was Kennet Avenue, which is a 2.5km corridor flanked with stones that links Avebury and The Sanctuary. It was very peaceful walking through the fields up this mysterious avenue.
At the end of the route is Avebury, which is a pretty village with its own Neolithic stone circles that have been dated back to something like 2600 BC. You do get a feeling of being somewhere unique, but I think to really get a feel for it, it helps to view it from above (ie. Google Earth if you can’t afford to charter a plane).
You can see the earthworks, which are raised up in a defensive manner. Here is a view from the top of the earthworks, looking down into the stone circles. Avebury would have been a very nice place to stop for a cup of tea or a beer, though we didn’t take up the opportunity on this occasion.
Incidentally, UNESCO has announced its 2014 additions to the list, pushing the number of WHSs in the world to a daunting 1,007. The new inscription Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point bears some similarity to Stonehenge and co, though doesn’t look quite as interesting – definitely one you have to see from above. I make Stonehenge the 28th WHS on this blog, so only another 979 to go!