The Stones of Avebury


Rooks wheel and cluck overhead, exiting their trees elegantly, their calls echoing across a mystical landscape. The clearing storm has left the sky blue, bruised and tender. A nagging, insistent wind whips off the downs bringing tears to eyes and the smell of open fields and a life long ago.

In the half-light of a late November day, heading towards the winter solstice, the shortest day, the day it can’t get any worse, the day from which it all starts to get better, the day our ancestors worshipped —is surely the best time to visit the stones of Avebury. The summer tourist throng has ebbed away, leaving the stones and their earthworks alone once more. Sentinels, keeping watch, marking time, somehow capturing the spirits of all who have worshipped and toiled.

Spending time amidst the stones of Avebury and its restorative landscape is a nourishing experience. The majesty of the giant megaliths reminds us of something we once knew, things that were important to us, echoes from the past, resonating here and now.


If Stonehenge is a beautiful church, that we can look at but not touch, then Avebury is the spectacular cathedral that we can enter into, engage with, touch the fabric. Stonehenge is the newcomer: all innovation, new technology bristling with flashy new techniques but Avebury is old school, predating its upstart neighbour by hundreds if not a thousand years.

This is a landscape rich in ancient treasure, man-made hills, enormous barrows stretching out to the horizon, burial mounds peppering the rolling hills, stones standing, lying, hedges carved into the chalk. Impressive though this all is, what we see is but a pale echo of the grandeur of the past. Avebury was abandoned in the iron age, actively ignored and to this day, we have no idea why. Perhaps the next new thing came along, all bells and whistles, new ideas and all that — stones are so last millennia darling.

The dark and middle ages were unkind to the stones, fear and myth grew up around them and in an attempt to confront their power, they were used in church buildings and a village settled in their midst. Eventually revered antiquarians Aubrey and Stukeley identified their importance in the 17th century, recording amidst systematic vandalism and wanton destruction.


It’s a miracle of sorts then that we still have something so impressive. Concrete pegs take the place of giant stones hauled away; their aligned brothers remain, still standing, stoic and silent. The modern Avebury visitor can get a real feel for the place, although the busy A road that bustles through the middle of the site can prove a distraction, another ploy by our descendants to destabilise the importance of the site, failing miserably.

To wander amidst the stones is to get back in touch with our past, to try to understand who we were and in some odd way, give us some clues as to what we are now. Touching the ice cold stone, fingers running over rough hewn sarsen, a worn smooth lunar landscape, weathered by time, moss clinging, there is no magical sizzle of energy for me, but a connection to lives lived across the millennia.


Dolmen and Standing Stones



There was much to be had on our recent holiday in Brittany – food, drink, sunshine and echoes of the second world war. But one of the most unexpectedly delightful discoveries had to be the many megalithic monuments dotted around the countryside.

For those of you interested in these bizarre reminders of our ancient past, Brittany is a litany (sorry) of these sites and it’s very easy to holiday there and do a bit of stone chasing at the same time. It’s a widely held belief in stone circle circles that the same people who built these ancient monuments then came over to Britain and got it going over here. Nobody’s really sure and that’s the lovely thing for me. Either way, they are still here, thousands of years later and they are still a joy for the modern antiquarians amongst us.

The French seem to delight in their megaliths as much as we do with well-signposted sites all of which were well respected and looked after. What I did find particularly hilarious however was that the two sites I visited did not deliver the trippy, tranquil experience I sought but exactly the opposite.

The first stone circle was slap bang in the middle of a village (not unlike Avebury) and the week before the annual ‘Festival of the Megaliths’ had taken place. I absolutely love the fact that these stone still inspire folk to gather and have a good time, whilst we still don’t know exactly what these stones were for, this was surely part of the deal. On the day we visited, the stones were occupied by a band of intrepid free running teenagers which at first appalled me but on reflection what better respect to show these old megaliths, still relevant and inspiring congregation albeit 2012 style.

The second site was a Dolmen which is essentially a tomb monument that would have been originally covered in soil. The millennia has seen it stripped of its outer clothing and the stones still stand. It looks like a tunnel created and the ‘creep’ – where the bodies or whatever they put in there – still creates a sense of awe when one crawls inside it.

This time, there were no free running teenagers in the ancient forest where the dolmen was situated. Instead there were fifty local primary school children using the location as a base for a day trip. Again, the site is still a place where people congregate and their noise was joyful and added to the atmosphere.

Brittany is home also to Carnac in the South which is the largest concentration of standing stones in the world. We didn’t go there as it was a 3 hour drive – but that’s a definite for next time.