ROCKING NEOLITHIC HENGES & PICTURESQUE WILTSHIRE VILLAGES
Today we went to see a bunch of rocks in a field. You may have heard of the place: locals refer to it as Stonehenge.
Actually today was seriously awesome; under blue skies and bathed in sunshine we got to drive around the English countryside to see Stonehenge, Avebury Henge and a couple of gorgeous Cotswold villages.
We took a day trip around the area with a small company based in Bath called Mad Max Tours (not a name that would usually get our attention, but they came highly recommended), and had a brilliant day. They’re a small outfit which was great as it meant we got to see stuff that we couldn’t have seen if we’d been on a big coach tour. And our driver/guide for the day was a laconic, laid back local who filled our day with information, wry observations, and jokes. Best of all, because we left Bath early, we got to our first stop (Stone Henge) before the crowds and had the place virtually to ourselves!
Iconic symbol of Britain, Stonehenge* is a World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most famous prehistoric sites.
*A henge, by the way, is the name given to a raised circular bank of earth that surrounds a ditch. This kind of earthwork is characteristic of the Neolithic period and was often used to enclose important and sacred sites in prehistoric times. In the case of Stonehenge and Avebury Henge, the henge surrounds the inner circles of stones.
This 4,500 year old site has fascinated people for centuries, least of all because, despite years of archaeological research, we still don’t exactly know what it was built for, how it was built, or why it was built! Lots of theories abound, but generally it’s accepted that Stone Henge was a temple of some kind, built to align with the sun and help mark the turning of the seasons. The site aligns to the sunset of the winter solstice and the opposing sunrise of the summer solstice, and evidence found around the site indicates large groups of people gathered there to feast and celebrate regularly.
Stonehenge evolved in several construction phases spanning 15 centuries, with the earliest construction elements dating back to 3,000BC (during the Neolithic period) and the most recent archaeological findings being from 1,600BC (during the Iron Age). Though the shape and exact placement of some of the stones varied over the years, it seems the general purpose of the sacred site did not change.
There was a great visitor’s centre at the site where we got to learn more about the archaeological work done there over the years; how they think the stones were transported from their origin in Wales; how the henge was altered and modified over the years; and how local peoples in the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages would have lived.
Stonehenge is one of England’s most visited tourist sites and it was great getting there early enough to enjoy the place in peace and quiet. When we visited the site today we learnt that the stone circle and surrounding henge is just a small part of a much larger sacred site that includes more than 350 burial mounds and major prehistoric monuments, including the Avebury Henge.
Stonehenge is iconic and interesting because it’s small enough that you can see all the stones at the same time. Avebury Henge, however, was actually more impressive. The characteristics of a henge are still visible, but at Avebury the earthen wall is 4m high and the ditch 11m deep; and the circle of stones within the henge has a diameter of 420m. In other words: Avebury Henge is HUGE!
The site at Avebury is so big that there is actually a village built within the stone circle. The outer stone circle marks out an area that is 28 acres in size and encloses 2 other, smaller stone circles.
Built around the same time as Stonehenge (i.e. about 2,600BC), Avebury is far less visited and therefore doesn’t have to be so carefully managed. It was great – we actually got to walk amongst the stones and touch them!
Like Stonehenge, the exact purpose for which Avebury Henge was built is not known, though it is also believed to be a religious/sacred site used for celebrations associated with the changing of the seasons, birth and death, and for fertility rites*.
*Avebury’s reputation as a place to celebrate fecundity apparently attracts people to the site around the autumnal equinox to dance naked under the full moon. It’s a bit chilly in this part of the world around that time of year so it must take some serious commitment to partake in that celebration!
Avebury Henge was virtually destroyed during the Middle Ages as Christians, afraid the stones represented the work of The Devil, toppled and buried the monoliths. Over the centuries many of the stones were also broken apart and used to build some of the village homes, fences and (in a truly ironic twist), even the village chapel. The site’s present appearance owes much to Alexander Keiller, the heir to a fortune made from marmalade who excavated and re-erected the surviving stones during the 1930s.
Both Avebury and Stonehenge were fascinating, and gave us an appreciation for how far back British history really stretches. We thought Bath, with its 18th century townhouses and 2,000 year old Roman baths, was old; but the Neolithic sites of the Salisbury Plain make all that seem modern by comparison! We had a great morning exploring these ancient sacred sites, but were also pretty excited to be spending the afternoon driving through the picturesque villages of Wiltshire.
Wiltshire is one of the shires near Bath famed for its fertile soil and rich farmland. Dotted with quaint villages, this is one of England’s prettiest regions. We spent most of the afternoon with our faces pressed to the glass, watching the rolling green hills pass and marvelling at the beautiful scenery.
We stopped at a couple of villages during the afternoon, the first of which was Lacock. Best known for its role as a set for the British TV show “Downtown Abbey” and for parts of the Harry Potter movies, Lacock is one seriously cute village!
The reason Lacock is so well preserved is that the entire village, once owned by the Talbot family, was gifted to the British National Trust. This means the National Trust owns and maintains all the houses, leasing them to residents (all 196 of them). We spent a very pleasant couple of hours in Lacock, visiting the abbey and the church, walking around all 4 village streets, and enjoying the best lunch EVER at the local pub!
From Lacock we made our way to a tiny hamlet that has been officially voted “The Prettiest Village in England”: Castle Combe (population: 45). With a history that goes back 1,000 years, Castle Combe was like a slice of history come to life. It consists of exactly 1 street, a small market square, a church, a pub, a village pond, and about 20 houses.
The village prospered during the 15th century when it belonged to Sir Stephen Le Scrope and produced some of the finest wool in England. The collapse of the wool market in the years after the Industrial revolution reversed castle Combe’s fortunes however, and the village has remained frozen in time since then*. It was obvious, as we strolled through the village, that the locals take great pride in their tiny town and work hard to maintain their homes in their condition.Coming from a country as young as Australia, seeing these sorts of tiny villages with so much history, is just captivating!
*Except for the tour buses that is – since it was proclaimed “The Prettiest Village in England” Castle Combe has been well and truly been put on the tourist map. Whilst we were there 3 bus-loads of Chinese tourists descended on the tiny town, outnumbering the locals by at least 3 to 1! Ahhh – such is the double-edged sword of tourism!
Escaping the descending hordes of tourists we piled back onto our minibus (all 12 of us!), and headed back through the gorgeous Wiltshire landscape to Bath. This rural corner of England really is stunning and is so easy to fall in love – especially on a beautiful summer’s day like today!