My house was built in 1977. It is considered an ancient relic in my California town. Every time I leave my house unattended, I am afraid the government will declare it a protected historical site and set up a museum by the time I return. This is why I travel. I crave interaction with stuff that is actually old. I want to see creaky hotels from the 1700s or pubs with fireplaces older than the United States.
On our most recent trip to England, we stepped even further back in history by exploring sites from the Neolithic Period. This is the stage of human development ranging from approximately 10,000 – 2,000 BC, give or take a millennium.
England is crawling with Neolithic landmarks. You can’t run to the local village market without stumbling across a prehistoric hill fort, burial chamber or stone circle. We devoted an entire day to the Neolithic Age sites at Stonehenge and Avebury. The English Heritage Trust manages these locations, which are all part of a UNESCO World Heritage complex.
I knew nothing of Avebury before planning this trip. In the United States, the overwhelming fame of Stonehenge cruelly overshadows Avebury’s existence. If I hadn’t stumbled across it in my research, I would have missed Avebury’s Neolithic treasures entirely.
Avebury is located 25 miles north of Stonehenge and 90 miles due west of London. According to the English Heritage website, a stone circle was built in Avebury between 2850 and 2200 BC. The circle originally consisted of approximately 100 tall standing stones, and it is the largest stone circle in Great Britain. Althought educated theories exist, no one knows for certain why the world’s stone circles were built. Perhaps this is what I love best about the Neolithic Age—it is impossible to google the answers.
The scope of the Avebury Stone Circle is immense—it is 1,088 feet in diameter. Despite my trip research, I was still shocked as I walked into the village from the parking lot. I had not fully comprehended that the stones would be running through the middle of town. According to English Heritage, “This is the only place in the world where you’ll find a pub and a chapel inside a stone circle.”
We had a bite to eat in the pub while admiring the standing stones outside the window. If you live in Avebury, I wonder if: a) You live in a perpetual state of Neolithic awe; b) You don’t notice the stones because they fade into the backdrop, like a fire hydrant or a stop sign; and/or c) You secretly adopt the stones as large pet rocks.
After lunch, we headed to Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe. It was created around 2400 BC and is comparable in size to the Egyptian pyramids. Although there is a walking path from the Avebury Stone Circle to Silbury Hill, it was extremely muddy the day we visited. We hopped in the car for the mile-long ride over. There isn’t much to do at Silbury Hill except guess why it exists. Standing in the proximity of early human greatness is enough reason to go.
The next stop was the West Kennet Long Barrow. We left the car at Silbury Hill and took the short hike over to this burial chamber, which was built around 3650 BC. The English Heritage website notes that it is “One of the largest, most impressive and most accessible Neolithic chambered tombs in Britain.” Up to 50 people were buried at one time in the West Kennet Long Barrow, but, again, no one truly knows the significance of the site to its creators.
Access to foot traffic at Silbury Hill and parts of the Avebury Stone Circle were restricted due to important conservation efforts. Not so at the West Kennet Long Barrow. We (respectfully) walked on, over, and into the West Kennet Long Barrow with no adult supervision. In the United States, we bubble wrap all our significant sites and just show photos of them to tourists. Unfettered access to a landmark as important as the West Kennet Long Barrow is astounding to me. Wonderful, but astounding.
We departed Avebury late in the afternoon and arrived at Stonehenge just as it was closing to the public. Don’t be alarmed. We planned it that way.
The English Heritage Trust allows 30 people to visit Stonehenge at sunrise and sunset on certain days by purchasing “Stone Circle Access” tickets in advance. These lucky visitors are practically alone at the most famous prehistoric monument in the world. Normally, visitors must stand at a distance behind ropes, but Stone Circle Access ticket holders are allowed to roam freely among the stones for an hour. Unbelievably, the tickets cost only twice the normal entrance fee, or £38.50 vs £17.50 pounds at the time of this writing.
Every once in a while, I am underwhelmed when visiting a famous location. I simply shrug and say, “Yes, it looks exactly like the photos.” I secretly was afraid that I would have this reaction at Stonehenge. I needn’t have worried.
Although Stonehenge is impressive from a distance, it is impossible to appreciate the true magnificence of the stones until you are standing next to them. The largest stones are up to 30 feet tall and weigh up to 30 tons. The builders of Stonehenge are believed to have transported these mammoth objects from more than 20 miles away.
My visit to Stonehenge was an experience of a lifetime—an immersive journey into the past and a visceral reminder of the transitory nature of human existence. The sun set as we walked among the giant stones, gazing up in wonder at this achievement of a long ago people.
As always, I received no compensation for this post. Many thanks to English Heritage and the National Trust for preserving these sites for future generations and for the amazing volunteers who assist them.