|Buoyed by the success of yesterday's Peak trip, I am unusually enthusiastic about getting out of bed for part 2. Today's trip (8 June) is southeast, where the train will take me to Swindon to pick up the bus to stone-spotting central at Avebury. This will be only my second trip to the henge, the first being on a bitterly cold December Sunday in 2008, with a group of walking friends. On that trip we followed a circular route from the NT carpark, past Adam and Eve, up Windmill Hill, a brief detour round the NW and NE quadrants of the henge, then over to the Ridgeway, the Sanctuary and West Kennett before finishing off via Silbury. In other words, I haven't really spent any time in the circles themselves, nor have I seen West Kennett Avenue properly. Time to put this right.
The bus stops opposite the Red Lion just after 8.30am, and a light rain is falling. There's something about stone circles that makes me walk around them anti-clockwise (sorry) and I intend to do the same today on a much larger scale. Avebury is an odd site, as it seems familiar even on first visit. So much has been written about it, so many pictures taken that it is easy to take for granted what there is to see. This is to make a grave mistake. The sheer scale of the monuments is awe-inspiring. The henge itself is vast, the stones are huge, the complexity of the whole is breath-taking.
I start at the Cove. Even by Avebury standards these stones are gigantic. I am drawn to these stones more than any others here and I will return twice more during the course of the visit today. It takes until the third time before I actually touch the stones, perhaps it needed building up to! As with the Cove at Stanton Drew, its function is not clear but these two megaliths exert great power.
The rain is getting heavier (possibly becoming a theme for this week's visits?) and the long grass is now very wet. I tramp through it to see the remaining stones of the largely vanished central circle/horseshoe, which seem rather lost and unsure of themselves. Still, the larger stones retain a gnarly grandeur in the misty drizzle. To the NE of the Cove, in the middle of the NE quadrant a single hefty stone is the northernmost survivor of this largely lost setting. From here I head to the eastern entrance of the henge itself. Near the entrance, there is a semi-fallen slab (Stone 73) – presumably this square-ish stone marked the entrance in the same way that the Swindon Stone marks the north. It has some interesting weathering, circular depressions eroded by the rainfall of centuries suggesting that it has been fallen for a good long time.
To the north a solitary stone remains of the eastern arc of the great outer circle here. It occurs to me that, Cove excepted, this quadrant is rather less 'busy' than the other three, with by far the fewest remaining stones. This makes for a great feeling of space and peace that is perhaps not so evident elsewhere inside the henge. I climb the enormous bank itself to take me round to the northern entrance of the henge. The comparative lack of stones draws the eye easily to the earthwork. Despite being more than two thirds filled in, the ditch is still an incredible testament to the man-hours involved in its construction.
A plump pigeon sits on top of the final, northernmost stone of the NE quadrant and a dog walker crosses the open space below me. Between them these are the only living creatures I've seen in the circle since arriving. But the northern entrance heralds a return to the 21st century, as the traffic roars freely into the henge with scant regard for wayward stoneheads out in the rain. I stop again at the Cove, in awe of these wonderful stones, before crossing the road and then I'm up to the enormous diamond of the Swindon Stone. The NW quadrant is an odd mixture of "normal" sarsens, concrete pillars and Picasso-esque sculpture in the form of smashed stones that have been reconstituted. The rain turns much heavier and attempts at photos become futile, so I scurry off to the church porch for shelter (lovely Romanesque door by the way).
Rain reducing, I head to the SW quadrant, and after another weird piece of sarsen sculpture I'm into a much more complete section of the outer circle, including the notorious "Barber Stone". Across the road the SE quadrant boasts a complex arrangement of stones, making it difficult at first to work out what I'm looking at. The huge stones 1 and 98 mark the southern entrance (and another risky road-crossing). Inside the quadrant, some impressive stones remain of the southern circle and then there are Z Stones, the ring stone and a whole lot more concrete pillars. The slightly dryer spell is marked by the emergence of a Spanish family under a vast brolly, braving the weather for some photos amongst the sheep.
And here I leave the henge, crossing the road to the Bison Stone at the northern end of West Kennett Avenue, which then marches over the lower slopes of Waden Hill. This is another fantastic monument, even in its slightly incomplete state. Each stone is full of character and in another place would be worthy of a visit in its own right (oh for a few of these paired up and heading up Leckhampton Hill!). Stone 35a is a particular draw, shark-like and angular. 37b reminds me of a lion and, with its pair, marks the southern end of the restored section.
As I reach the end, the treat of the day – a (roe?) deer runs straight down the Waden Hill path, no more than 100m ahead of me. It reaches the roadside fence, thinks better of it and heads back up the hill at a trot, finally silhouetted on the brow before disappearing. I follow its path and am rewarded soon enough with the wonder that is Silbury, below me and under a heavy sky foreshadowing another downpour later. But it's fine now and the summer vegetation along the Kennet path is scrubbed clean and shiny, with droplets hanging from every leaf.
Another road crossing and I'm heading for the Longstones Cove. My previous December visit found them in a glittering frost-scape, now they sit in yellow summer flowers under an ominous sky (it's getting closer). I don't go up to the stones, which are fenced off and I'm not sure how welcome visitors are, so instead I head off to Longstones long barrow. This is a huge mound, the trees that used to crown it now gone. Another impressive (round) barrow is visible at nearby Penning Barn, but today is about the stones and I can't get particularly excited about either of these barrows. Back to Adam and Eve via the muddy byway that heads up Windmill Hill and back into Avebury, pausing to note the intriguing sarsen wall around the front garden of Swan Cottage. I wonder where those stones came from, eh?Silbury looms mistily as I cross the Kennet. And then the heavens open as I get to the restaurant (good timing for once!). This gives me a good excuse to have a look in the shop and the little museum – I restrain myself in the book section, with some effort.
Downpour over, the sky starts to clear properly for the first time today. I re-visit the SW quadrant as ragged holes appear in the cloud, revealing the blue sky beyond. I head back to the Cove for the last time, finally making contact as rain spits again – a couple, arm in arm under a small umbrella paint a lovely romantic image of Britain in typical summertime. The weather isn't going to hold and my "waterproof" boots have finally been found wanting. Reluctant to leave, I head back to Swindon on the next bus.
This place has left me rather breathless. There is so much to see and I know I have barely scratched the surface of a place that many have spent lifetimes studying and trying to understand. But I am restless and my final trip of the week will take me to a wholly different, but equally compelling, prehistoric landscape – Dartmoor.
Posted by thesweetcheat
12th August 2010ce
Edited 15th August 2010ce
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