Stonehenge isn’t the only pagan spot in England. Larger and more accessible is Avebury Stone Circle, a must for anyone interested in spiritual destinations.
As I’m coming down the stairs of Avebury’s Red Lion Pub, where I’ve rented a room for the night, I see a sign on a chalkboard: Curious about Paganism? Who not visit the Avebury Pagan Moot? 1st Sunday of every month. 3 p.m.
By chance I’m right on time, but glancing in at the front room of the 400-year old pub, I decide against going in. I am curious, but the earthy-looking women and burly bearded men inside look a bit intimidating, like a wizarding version of a biker gang.
Mystical Avebury Stone Circle
Besides, I’ve come to visit Avebury Stone Circle, not to sit in a pub. After all, what’s the point of discussing the mystical world of the Avebury when I could be out experiencing it for myself? Avebury, a Wiltshire village roughly 120 km west of London, is home to Britain’s largest stone circle. It’s Britain’s unsung mystical destination, certainly not as famous as its younger sister Stonehenge, 32 km to the south.
But don’t discount the Avebury Stone Circle. It’s 500 years older than Stonhenge, 14 times larger and unlike Stonehenge, it’s accessible 24 hours a day. So accessible, in fact, that half the village is sitting inside it: the pub, a chapel, a couple of shops and two dissecting roads that loosely divide the circle into quadrants.
A mysterious stone circle with an unknown purpose
Visiting the Avebury Stone Circle is my big chance to commune with the megalithic world, so after buying a guidebook at the Henge Shop I head into the south-west quadrant. Towering over a flock of grazing sheep is a curving row of sarsen stones weighing between 10 and 100 tons apiece.
Grayish and weathered, the Avebury stones are surrounded by a deep circular ditch (or henge) dug out of the soft chalk ground by Neolithic tribes some 5000 years ago.
No one knows the Avebury Stone Circle’s purpose, though it’s believed to relate to the worship of a fertility goddess. The stones weren’t shaped but were chosen for their natural forms: mainly rectangles to represent the male and diamonds the female.
Originally, the large Avebury Stone Circle contained two smaller circles: one held a massive phallic-shaped Obelisk, now lost. The other, 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.
Oh, those pesky Christians
Then in the Middle Ages the Christians came and ruined it all. Deeming Avebury Stone Circle the work of the devil, they started toppling and burying the stones, a practice that 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 stones were cleared for farming. Finally, in the 1930’s, a wealthy anthropologist, Alexander Keiller, spent today’s equivalent of £2 million to partially restore the site.
After completing the 1.5 km circle I head back to the pub. As I walk in, I overhear a dark-haired woman say: “We all have a sacred myth. You just have to find out what it is. It lives you. You don’t live it.”
What’s your sacred myth?
I’d like to learn more but the conversation moves to the Avebury Stone Circle and how one small triangle has a particular power.
“Which part is the most powerful?” I can’t help interrupting.
“It’s all powerful, but in different ways,” she says, giving me a knowing look.
“Powerful enough to make me break out in hives?” I hold out my wrist which is 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 sounds better than massive allergy attack and I smile at her. A pony-tailed man in black examines my wrist. “I can sort that out.” He runs out of the room. A few minutes later he’s back holding a fragrant bundle of lavender. “Rub this on,” he says. “Lavender is very healing.”
Hanging with the pagans at the Avebury Stone Circle
Another man with a graying beard and a beret with a feather introduces himself as Terry the Druid. “We’re a mixed lot of pagans here,” he says, explaining that the man with the lavender is a Wiccan, then motions to a clean-shaven young man strumming a guitar. “And he’s a minstrel.”
It’s tempting to stay in this witching universe all night, but as dusk hits I head out to explore. On the other side of town, past a muddy field is the mountainous Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe. 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.
Wiltshire – A place of mysteries
Wiltshire is a place of historical secrets, and the Avebury Stone Circle isn’t the only thing to see. Past Silbury Hill is West Kennet Long Barrow, a multi-chambered tomb as old as 3500BC. 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.
It’s too dark to see anymore so I backtrack to the stone circle. Maybe it’s the influence of the pagans but I can’t help thinking that the centuries-old megaliths of the Avebury Stone Circle really are vibrating with a deep earthy resonance. I sit down beside one, then lie flat on my back and look at the stars. If I wait here long enough, maybe my sacred myth will turn up.
Travel tips for visiting Avebury Stone Circle
Getting to Avebury: From London’s Paddington Station take a train to Swindon then the Transwilts Express Bus 49 to Avebury. Accommodation in town is limited. The Red Lion Pub has basic rooms from with breakfast. Tel (from Canada): 011 44 1672 539 266
For more info on Britain go to www.visitbritain.com
Read more: about top places to visit in England
Read more: about my picks for top European destinations