Stonehenge is one of the world’s great megalithic sights – but nearby Avebury is much larger and has a more accessible stone circle
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Avebury lies between Marlborough and Calne in Wiltshire, 85 miles (142 km) west of London, England
ACCESS Circle site open all year round, free entry
Jan: 45°F (7°C); Apr: 57°F (14°C); Jul: 70°F (21°C);
Oct: 54°F (12°C)
Crowning the skyline on treeless Salisbury Plain, the spectacle of Stonehenge reduces the passing traffic to a perpetual crawl. A line of coaches disgorge load after load of snap-happy visitors. In fact, it is so popular that the site has to be fenced off for fear of damage, putting the magnificent stones out of bounds.
To really get hands-on with mysterious ancient stones, and to see the world from a 5,000-year-old perspective, try Avebury, located 20 miles (33 km) to the north. This mystic circle of stones, or henge, was erected around the same time and occupies what appears to be a village green.
Avebury’s stones are not as huge as those at Stonehenge, but the site is four times the size, making it the world’s largest henge. Within a ditch which measures nearly a mile in circumference, the remaining giant gnarled thumbs of sandstone are complemented by concrete blocks showing how the circle and its outer and inner rings once stood.
It is possible that some stones are still underground, and some beneath the village which, over the centuries, has unfortunately quarried the henge for building materials. In fact, the entire modern history of Avebury is mixed up with the stones, and can be explored in the local museum set up by the marmalade millionaire and amateur archaeologist Alexander Keiller.
The great attraction of Avebury, however, is that, like the resident sheep, you can wander freely among the stones, touching them and seeing if some of their mystery will rub off on you. Nobody really knows the purpose of the stones but, like most great constructions of early civilizations, they must have been involved in a culture that combined religion with the heavens and afterlife.
This ritual center was connected to another stone circle, the Sanctuary, just over 1 mile (2 km) away at the end of the West Kennet Avenue, a path flanked with stones. As big as Stonehenge, the Sanctuary has no standing stones.
Less than a mile away are the West Kennet Long Barrow burial chambers, so it is possible that the avenue and the second circle had to do with journeys into the afterlife. Between the henges, less than a mile to the west is Silbury Hill, a 130-ft- (40-m-) high conical mound made at about the same time as the henges, the purpose of which has not been fully ascertained. To the north lies Windmill Hill, which shows signs of a Neolithic settlement and was probably where Avebury’s architects and builders lived.
THE BUILD-UP Stonehenge is famous, its stones astonishingly huge, and its setting dramatic. The summer solstice ceremony held by druids and New Agers confirms it as a cathedral to mystical paganism. Even when seen from the road in a car, it is a magnificent sight.
THE LETDOWN During normal visiting hours you can’t touch it, you can’t wander about its space, and you have to pay an entrance fee to see it. Located in a bleak spot, the henge has no sense of intimacy, and offers little shelter in bad weather. There is no museum that explores the significance of Stonehenge, and visitor facilities are limited.
GOING ANYWAY? Stonehenge is worth seeing, under any circumstances. Take advantage of the audio tour, which is included in the entrance fee. It is possible to gain access to the stone circle on pre-paid private tours, which take place outside visiting hours.
Getting There and Around From London, Avebury is easily accessible by public transportation. It is a 1-hour train ride from Paddington to Swindon. From there, bus no. 49 leaves every hour for Avebury. However, if you rent a car, you can also take in Stonehenge by driving via the M4.
Where to Eat You can stop for a meal at the 400-year-old thatched Red Lion, which is Avebury’s village pub. The food is served from an extensive menu and includes snacks, sandwiches and wraps, and jacket potatoes.
Where to Stay The pub also has four cottagestyle rooms available, but tales of the rooms being inhabited by ghosts may be a deterrent. The Castle and Ball, located in nearby Marlborough, is a good alternative, and also has a great restaurant.
When to Go Visit any time from Easter to the end of October, for a chance of better weather. Budget per Day for Two US$390 including rental car.