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Visiting Avebury Stone Circle
Less crowded and more accessible than Stonehenge, Avebury is the largest stone circle in Britain.
If you’re a fan of neolithic sights, sacred places and pagan hot spots, Avebury is a fascinating place to visit in Wiltshire.
Amazingly enough, it’s free.
Ancient and steeped in mystery, it’s a place where you should expect the unexpected – at least I should have. Here’s my experience and a top 10 list of the best things to do in Avebury.
My Experience at the Avebury Stones
As I meandered through Avebury’s Red Lion Pub, I saw a sign on a chalkboard: Curious about Paganism? Who not visit the Avebury Pagan Moot? Sunday 3 p.m.
By chance I was right on time. Glancing in at the front room of the 400-year old pub, however, I skirted around it.
I was curious, but the earthy-looking women and burly bearded men inside looked intimidating, like a wizarding version of a biker gang.
Red Lion Pub – A Wiltshire Landmark
Besides, I came to see Avebury Stone Circle not to sit in a pub. What was the point of discussing the mystical world of Avebury when I could be experiencing it for myself?
Then again, the Red Lion Pub is a bit of a tourist attraction in itself. Not only does it sit in the midst of the great stone circle, but it’s an excellent place to stop in for a drink. Plus, it’s haunted.
Built in the 16th century (though other accounts say 1802), the Avebury Red Lion has seen a lot of travellers come and go over the years, and kept a few as ghosts.
Florrie is one of them. It’s said she was killed by her husband when he found her in the arms of her lover. Some accounts say he slit her throat, others that he threw her down the well.
Whatever the truth, Florrie still flits about the pub today.
But I, like most tourists to Avebury, wasn’t here for pub, I was here for the Neolithic stones.
Avebury, a Wiltshire village roughly 120 km west of London, stands out, however, because it’s home to Britain’s largest stone circle.
Looking for a day trip to Avebury?
But don’t discount the Avebury Stones. The circle is 500 years older than Stonehenge, 14 times bigger and, unlike Stonehenge, it’s accessible 24 hours a day.
So accessible, in fact, that half the village is sitting inside it: not just the Red Lion Pub, but a chapel, a couple of shops and two dissecting roads that loosely divide the circle into quadrants.
Mysterious Stones With an Unknown Purpose
Visiting Avebury was my chance to commune with the megalithic world, so after buying a guidebook at the Henge Shop I made my way to the south-west quadrant of the circle.
Towering over a flock of grazing sheep was a curving row of sarsen stones weighing between 10 and 100 tons apiece.
Grey and weathered, the Avebury stones are surrounded by a deep circular ditch (or henge). The Avebury henge was dug out of the soft chalk ground by Neolithic tribes some 5000 years ago.
No one knows the stone circle’s purpose, though it’s believed to relate to the worship of a fertility goddess.
The stones weren’t shaped by hand but were chosen for their natural forms: rectangles to represent the male and diamonds the female. There is definitely a male female energy at play.
Originally, the main Avebury Stone Circle contained two smaller circles. One held a massive phallic-shaped Obelisk, now lost.
The other circle, known as the Cove, was made up of three female stones (two of which still stand) that were aligned with the northerly rise of the moon.
Research suggests that before the circle was created, a massive 100-foot square outlined by giant stones stood on this spot. It’s a previously unheard of design in the megalithic world.
Even older, dating back to 3500 BC, was a rectangular house made of wood.
No wonder it’s a magnet for pagans.
Oh, Those Christians
It’s also a wonder the circle still stands because in the Middle Ages the Christians tried their best to ruin it.
Believing the Avebury Stone Circle was the work of the devil, they started toppling and burying the standing stones.
The practice was only halted when one landed on a traveling surgeon-barber, prematurely entombing him.
Further destruction to Avebury Stone Circle came in the 17th century, when many of the standing stones were cleared for farming. Such a shame!
Finally, in the 1930’s a wealthy anthropologist, Alexander Keiller, spent today’s equivalent of £2 million to partially restore the site.
It’s about a kilometre and a half walk around the circle. After I did that I returned to the Red Lion Pub.
As I walked in, I overheard a dark-haired woman in the pagan-filled front room say: “We all have a sacred myth. You just have to find out what it is. It lives you. You don’t live it.”
I would have liked to know how to find my sacred myth but the conversation turned to the Avebury Stone Circle and how one small triangle contains a particular power.
“Which part is that?” I couldn’t help interrupting, braving the pagan horde.
“All of it is powerful, but in different ways,” the woman said sagely.
“Powerful enough to make me break out in hives?” I held out my wrist which was sporting a pink circular welt with a blister inside –a mini stone circle. “The minute I got here I broke out in a rash.”
“I know what it might be,” she says, almost shyly. “It’s a healing place here. A lot of stuff works its way out of your body.”
That sounded better than massive allergy attack so I smiled at her.
A pony-tailed man in black examined my wrist. “I can sort that out.”
He ran out of the room. A few minutes later he was back holding a fragrant bundle of lavender. “Rub this on,” he said. “Lavender is very healing.”
Hanging with the Pagans at Avebury Stone Circle
Another man with a greying beard and a beret with a feather introduced himself as Terry the Druid.
“We’re a mixed lot of pagans here,” he said, explaining that the man with the lavender was a Wiccan. Then he motioned to a clean-shaven young man strumming a guitar. “And he’s a minstrel.”
It was tempting to stay in this witchy universe all night, but as dusk hit I went back out to explore. There are a lot of points of interest in Wiltshire, not just the stones.
On the other side of town is Silbury Hill. It’s the largest manmade mound in Europe, the size of an Egyptian pyramid. It was built between 2470 BC and 2350 BC.
Experts think it’s a burial sight, though they’ve dug three tunnels into it since the 18th century and it still hasn’t given up its secrets.
West Kennet Long Barrow
There are other things to see around Avebury. Past Silbury Hill is West Kennet Long Barrow.
Part of the Avebury UNESCO World Heritage Site, the barrow is a multi-chambered tomb that’s even older than Silbury Hill, dating back as far as 3500BC. At least 50 people were buried here.
There is also the Avenue, a stone-lined processional route that leads from the stone circle to the Sanctuary, where a prehistoric temple once stood.
More than 100 pairs of standing stones once lined this winding route.
There are a lot of sacred sites in this corner of Britain, and I was trying to cram them all in. When it was too dark to explore anymore, I backtracked to the stone circle.
Maybe it was the influence of the pagans but I couldn’t help thinking that the centuries-old megaliths of the standing stones were humming with a deep earthy resonance.
I sat down beside one, then lay flat on my back (carefully avoiding sheep poo) and looked at the stars. Maybe if I waited long enough, my sacred myth would turn up.
Travel Tips for Visiting Avebury Stone Circle
10 Best Things To Do in Avebury
If you want a quick itinerary for things to see in Avebury, here’s what you can do in a day.
- See Avebury Stone Circle – It’s hard to miss it as half the village is inside it.
- Learn more about the area at the Alexander Keiller Museum.
- Shop at the Henge shop for all things mystical
- Visit the Manor House and Garden, a 16th century Grade I listed heritage home.
- Make your way to Silbury Hill
- Check out West Kennet Long Barrow
- Find the West Kennet Avenue – You can walk part way on it.
- Make your way to the Sanctuary site
- Stop in at the Red Lion Pub
- Walk around the Stones for a final goodbye.
Getting to Avebury
From London’s Paddington Station you can take a train to Swindon. Swindon is about 80 miles west of London and the fastest train is just under an hour.
From Swindon you can take Bus 49 to Avebury. It’s operated by Stagecoach West. You can catch it from the Swindon Bus Station or Prospect Station, Old Town. The bus ride is about 20 minutes.
Avebury is about 10 miles south of Swindon.
Where to stay in Avebury
I stayed in a room at the Red Lion Pub but as far as I know this is no longer possible. (I didn’t see any ghosts. Maybe the pagans kept them at bay.)
Frequently Asked Questions about Visiting Avebury
Both Avebury and Stonehenge are captivating sites. Architecturally, Stonehenge is more advanced. The chosen stones were shaped with hammerstones. The stones at Avebury were not hammered, chipped or flaked, but were selected for their natural shape and size. Avebury is older, larger and less crowded. It’s free and you don’t need to book in advance like at Stonehenge. That said, Stonehenge packs more of a punch at first glance.
The Avebury Stones are open from dawn to dusk, but as there is no gate, there is nothing to keep you out.
Yes. If you’re driving, it takes about 40 minutes from one to the other. You probably want at least 3 hours in each place. Otherwise the easiest way to see both would be to sign up for a tour.