The American travel writer Bill Bryson once wrote:
“Impressive as Stonehenge is, there comes a moment somewhere about 11 minutes after your arrival when you realize you’ve seen pretty well as much as you care to, and you spend another 40 minutes walking around the perimeter rope looking at it out of a combination of politeness, embarrassment … .”
In many ways, Bill is spot on. The first time I visited England’s most iconic ancient site, I too had set aside a couple of hours to “take in,” “absorb,” “immerse” and “feel” the mystical stone circles that adorn the cover of almost every guidebook to Britain, and then, just like Bill, about 11 minutes in I looked at my watch, then back up at the huge stones and began to wonder what I should do next.
That’s the problem with ancient stones. Besides staring at them for a while, there really isn’t much else to do.
Fortunately, Stonehenge is in an area littered with ancient monuments that bring prehistoric Britain to life, and as spectacular as it is, Stonehenge is certainly not the only ancient site in the English county of Wiltshire. In fact, two historic sites are less than an hour away by car, making it the ideal region to spend a day exploring the very best of ancient Britain, and here’s how …
Start in the little village of Avebury, as it is the easiest to access from London via the M4, and the one that will take the longest time to explore. This is because Avebury is home to the largest stone circle in Europe. It doesn’t have the impressive arches Stonehenge can boast, but Avebury’s size makes it clear it was probably more important than its headline-grabbing neighbor. It is certainly far more atmospheric and remains an important site for modern British pagans who frequent it for gatherings at various times of the year, including the summer and winter solstices.
Many of the original stones are missing, though quite a few were put back up by the circle’s late Victorian savior, Alexander Keiller. Keiller was a Scottish businessman-cum-archaeologist, who studied at nearby Eton and fell in love with the area’s ancient history. He had many of the stones dug up from where they had been buried by earlier fundamentalist Christians, and re-installed. Before Keiler, the stones were neglected and dismissed as a “shameful” reminder of England’s pagan past.
In total there are three circles around a henge – a bank and a ditch – the largest of which is 348m in diameter. Despite the village of Avebury cutting across the huge site, there is definitely an “atmosphere” about Avebury’s stone circles, which is no doubt enhanced by the fact that the crowds here are much smaller than those at Stonehenge.
From Avebury, head south on the B4003, turning right where it meets the A4. Do not drive too fast otherwise you’ll miss it, for Silbury Hill is on your right only minutes after the turn. It is true that in the pictures it looks just like any other hill, but when you are standing next to Europe’s largest man-made ancient structure, the perfection of the hill makes it clear this was not crafted by nature.
In truth, visiting Silbury Hill is no more thrilling than staring at a large grassy mound, for that is what it is. The excitement of reading the sign that tells you this is the largest prehistoric man-made structure in Europe is about as good as it will get – at least until English Heritage develop some kind of tourist access to the ancient monument. Until then, you’ll have to admire it from the roadside as you speculate what possessed ancient Britons to build the thing. No one knows the real reason of course, but I personally like the local legend that it is the final resting place of King Sil, represented as a life-size statue of gold and riding a horse.
From Silbury Hill carry on toward the A361 and turn left to head south. From there you can follow signs all the way down to Britain’s most famous ancient site, Stonehenge, now accessed via the new visitor’s center. English Heritage appear to have taken Bill’s comments on board as the new center seems to have been designed specifically to occupy visitors for more than 11 minutes.
They do this first with the center’s exhibition where you can discover the Stonehenge story — essentially a rundown of all the latest theories about the possible purpose of the famous henge. Outside the center, there is a Neolithic village that has been built to show us how the prehistoric Brits who built the henge may have lived, and next to this is a replica of one of the huge sarsens they somehow brought all the way here and positioned in that spectacular style. This comes complete with a rope to pull and a screen that tells you just how many more of you are needed to move the real thing – 95 in my case.
The approach to the stones is either an “atmospheric” 30-minute walk or a short ride on the shuttle bus, with most people combining the two. After your 11 minutes admiring England’s most famous set of rocks, the visitor center’s cafe will make the ideal place to enjoy that other classic English institution, a cup of tea.
Article source: <IMG src=”http://b.scorecardresearch.com/p?c1=8&amp;c2=19888642&amp;c3=2″>Ancient Britain in a day : Tharik Hussain
Join the local experts on a guided tour of ancient Wiltshire exploring Avebury and Stonehenge.
Stonehenge and Salisbury Guided Tours