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.