The Reluctant Travel Writer - Travels in South West England & the Battle of the Stones

Leonard Lea Frazer

Stonehenge, one of the mysteries of the ages: imagine a massive circular ditch carved in the flat Salisbury Plain of South Western England, and within that moat-like ditch, three circles of standing stones, and the inner circle having additional horizontal stones running along the top of that circular row of stones and connecting them in a perfect uniform mantel.

That’s how Stonehenge may have looked thousands of years ago.  Today, it stands in ruin.

Avebury, Wiltshire from the air. Ministry of Public Buildings and Works photo.
Avebury, Wiltshire from the air. Ministry of Public Buildings and Works photo.

Now, imagine the largest known multiple set of standing stones in the world, also flanked with a massive circular ditch and contained within the stone circles an entire English village complete with parish church, a pub and at least two gift shops; that would be Avebury, in Wiltshire, today a World Heritage site.

I first heard of Avebury from my stepfather, Kevan, when he was suggesting places to visit in South West England. When I was there I made a point of visiting Winchester Cathedral (with the longest nave) and Salisbury Cathedral (with the tallest spire) and of course, nearby Stonehenge. South of Salisbury, I travelled to the tiny village of Ebbesbourne Wake and stayed with some shirt-sleeve relatives in a 100 year old thatched cottage. Elderly Bert and Ammie Young were my hosts and they welcomed me with open arms. I had the privilege of sleeping in old Uncle Willie’s bed in an upstairs bedroom. Willie, a retired archaeologist, had passed away the previous year and was yet to receive a gravestone marking his final resting spot beside the Ebbesbourne Wake village church.

The standing stones at Avebury - K.F. Maxwell photo.
The standing stones at Avebury - K.F. Maxwell photo.

Ammie had placed a long-handled copper bed-warmer, filled with hot coals from the fireplace, between the sheets and, thanks to a heavy eiderdown quilt, I enjoyed a comfortable sleep without the aid of central heating. The Young’s home had a rectangular brick on the front outside rock wall displaying the name of the original family, “Gawen.”

The next day Bert and Ammie talked about their simple life in the village where the most excitement they had was when the postman or milkman paid a visit. They also explained about Uncle Willie and his work at Avebury.

When Scottish archaeologist Alexander Keiller first pioneered aerial photography in the Wiltshire area, the huge moat around the Village of Avebury became very apparent. In 1928 he published “Wessex from the Air”- the first book of aerial archaeology to be published in Britain. Keiller and O. G. S. Crawford undertook an aerial survey of sites in South-western England in 1922.

Uncle Willie worked for many years at Avebury (36 Km North of Stonehenge) during the digging up of many massive stones that had been intentionally buried when, in the early 14th century, villagers began to demolish the rock monuments by pulling down the large standing stones and burying them in ready-dug pits.

A view of Stonehenge - K.F. Maxwell photo.
A view of Stonehenge - K.F. Maxwell photo.
Silbury Hill, not far from Avebury, also excavated by archaeologist, Alexander Keiller - K.F. Maxwell photo.
Silbury Hill, not far from Avebury, also excavated by archaeologist, Alexander Keiller - K.F. Maxwell photo.

 

 

 

 

 

At that time, the Late Mediaeval period, England had been entirely converted to Christianity. As the origins of the Avebury Monument were unknown it was assumed that it had been created by the Devil. So, down the stones came, one by one, in a mediaeval “Rite of Destruction.” During this monumental task a stone (weighing 13 tons and 3 meters tall) collapsed on top of one of the men pulling it down. In 1938, when Uncle Willie and others were raising the stones the skeletal remains of the man were found. He had a fractured pelvis and broken neck and had been crushed to death. The individual had been carrying a leather pouch containing three silver coins dated around 1320-25 as well as a pair of iron scissors and a lancet, the tools of a barber-surgeon at that time. That particular stone became know as the ‘Barber Stone.”

During the 1930s, erecting a stone at Avebury, from a display at the Alexander Keiller Museum -  K.F. Maxwell Photo
During the 1930s, erecting a stone at Avebury, from a display at the Alexander Keiller Museum - K.F. Maxwell Photo

Keiller’s first major excavation at Avebury was in 1937 when undergrowth, restoring and conserving of the site began. Buried stones, up to a metre below ground, were uncovered and replaced in their original stone-holes. Concrete pylons were placed in the ground to denote any missing stones.

Both Stonehenge and Avebury sites experienced a similar creation, evolution, destruction and resurrection over time. Avebury was constructed over several hundred years during the Third Millennium BC when the large ditch and three separate stone circles were made.

Stonehenge in the rain in 1971 - L.L. Frazer photo
Stonehenge in the rain in 1971 - L.L. Frazer photo

Stonehenge’s ditch was an Earth Work Monument from 2950 to 2700 BC. It had the addition of a timber (henge) monument in its second phase from 2550 – 2400 BC. The stone phase was built from 2550 – 1600 BC. The small “blue stones” of Stonehenge were transported from 160 miles away in the Preseli Mountains in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales. The large “Sarsen” stones came from the Marlborough Downs 18 ½ miles to the North of Salisbury Plain. The stones erected at Avebury also came from the Marlborough Downs, a short distance away.

Both Avebury and Stonehenge were originally used for unknown reasons although ceremonies and rituals may have been performed on these sites. Also, both underwent a period of destruction where standing stones were toppled for religious and practical reasons. The stones could be broken up and used in house construction. Then there was the restoration period starting in the 1930s for Avebury, and from 1901 to 1964 for Stonehenge, when the majority of the inner stone circle was restored in a series of makeovers which left some stones dug up, others re-erected and all now standing in cement.

Documentary films have been made about Stonehenge and Avebury. Also, the 1970s series, “Children of The Stones,” set in the fictional village of Milbury, featuring the stone circle at Avebury and the local village stone houses became a popular TV show. A made-for-TV science fiction feature, “Stonehenge Apocalypse” was released in 2010.

Avebury and Stonehenge today draw millions of visitors who still marvel at the mysterious Megalithic Stones at both locations. These large standing stones, also found in Scotland, are unique to the British Isles.