Think of the iconic attractions of the United Kingdom, and chances are that Stonehenge is one of the first sights that pops in to your head. And with good reason; it’s a place that is virtually synonymous with the British isles.
With scribes as diverse as Thomas Hardy and Spinal Tap waxing lyrical about it, Stonehenge is a site that has captured the imagination for centuries.Stonehenge’s enigmatic history – we know when it was built, but no one has been able to determine definitively what for – ensures this Prehistoric site is shrouded in mystery. They succeed in retaining their power despite the hordes of tourists that visit year-round, not to mention the low fence that enables you to get reasonably close, but prevents you from roaming among the stone circle itself.
All that remains today is a fraction of the site that was originally conceived, which makes you wonder just how almighty it was in its original incarnation. The first phase of construction happened in about 3000BC, when the outer ditch and a ring of smaller stones were created. About 500 years later the first megaliths were installed, arranged in circular formation and aligned with the rising sun. It’s believed that these huge ‘bluestones’ were hauled here all the way from the Preseli Mountains in South Wales, nearly 200 miles away.
The final phase saw the construction of the iconic outer trilithons: i.e. two vertical stones topped by a horizontal one. The inner stones were rearranged too, and it is this circa 1500BC configuration, along with a few scattered remains outside the main circle, that is in place today. The net result is a true ancient wonder, an ethereal site and a suitably sacrosanct monument to Ancient times that stands head and shoulders above all other equivalent stone circles in Britain…
25 miles North of Stonehenge lies Avebury: a UNESCO-listed stone circle that is less well-known, considerably less-visited (although there are still crowds!) and a lot less damaging to your wallet; although you certainly have the option to spend away, it’s definitely possible to visit the extraordinary stone circles for free.
You can also actually walk among the towering stones, which makes for an atmospheric experience. Avebury dates from approximately 2500BC – making it older than Stonehenge – and lost to time as they were until the early 20th Century, our lack of knowledge as to what they were there for makes them even more intriguing.
It also so happens to be the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world, and as you circumnavigate the four sectors that make up the site, you can’t fail to be impressed by the sheer scope of the prehistoric sight. More impressive is the seamless way that the stones blend with the modern village, most of which sits within the circle. The village itself proudly boasts that, in the shape of the Red Lion, it has the world’s only pub that is situated inside a stone circle!
The stones vary in shape and size, with some more photogenic than others, and unsurprisingly most of them are no longer standing (pillars mark the places where missing ones were). But the majority of those still intact are impressive and, given their enigmatic history, somewhat spine-tingling to get up close to and touch.
Avebury is not just about the grand stone circles. Nearby Silbury Hill is the largest man-made mound in Europe, and dates from a similar era. Rising from the farmland like a grassy mound of sugar, you can’t climb it, sadly, but it’s an impressive sight nonetheless. Likewise West Kennet Long Barrow, a burial mound fronted by a row of sarsen stones under which 50 skeletons were found upon excavation, and the manor and museums in the National Triust complex make for interesting diversions too.
Were it possible to walk among Stonehenge’s iconic circle without booking an exorbitantly-priced ‘twilight’ tour in advance perhaps it would have the edge. And sure, it might be more immediately photogenic because of its more concentrated cluster of grand stones, and the fact it boasts trilithons that Avebury is not able to. But Avebury has the more evocative atmosphere, more impressive scope and additional things to see nearby; effectively making it a network of attractions spread over a several mile radius as opposed to just one. For me that, in the final analysis, makes Avebury a more magical, mysterious and rewarding experience.