Avebury and The Secret Places of the Heart

Wonderful indeed it is, a vast circumvallation that was already two thousand years old before the dawn of British history; a great wall of earth with its ditch most strangely on its inner and not on its outer side; and within this enclosure gigantic survivors of the great circles of unhewn stone that, even as late as Tudor days, were almost complete. A whole village, a church, a pretty manor house have been built, for the most part, out of the ancient megaliths; the great wall is sufficient to embrace them all with their gardens and paddocks; four cross-roads meet at the village centre. There are drawings of Avebury before these things arose there, when it was a lonely wonder on the plain, but for the most part the destruction was already done before the Mayflower sailed. To the southward stands the cone of Silbury Hill; its shadow creeps up and down the intervening meadows as the seasons change. Around this lonely place rise the Downs, now bare sheep pastures, in broad undulations, with a wart-like barrow here and there, and from it radiate, creeping up to gain and hold the crests of the hills, the abandoned trackways of that forgotten world. These trackways, these green roads of England, these roads already disused when the Romans made their highway past Silbury Hill to Bath, can still be traced for scores of miles through the land, running to Salisbury and the English Channel, eastward to the crossing at the Straits and westward to Wales, to ferries over the Severn, and southwestward into Devon and Cornwall.

H G Wells (1866-1946)

Within this enclosure gigantic survivors

Avebury and Alexander Keiller

Alexander Keiller (1889-1955) was, more than anyone else, instrumental in restoring parts of the now world-famous Neolithic complex at Avebury. Keiller undertook his work at Avebury during the 1920s and 1930s and, although his restoration of parts the Henge has since been criticised by some less dedicated to his vision of a restored Avebury, it is Keiller we should thank for restoring much of the Henge as we see it today.
During his time at Avebury Keiller dedicated a considerable amount of his time, energy and fortune removing the many disfiguring buildings and detritus that had accumulated in and around the village (see photo below of the Cove before his restoration and the snow-bound wonder above as it appears today). The detritus, and the now almost unbelievable disregard for this treasure from our distant past, were suffocating and threatening to totally destroy what has now rightly become (due mainly to Keiller's vision) a World Heritage Site visited by thousands each year.
Apart from removing much of this detritus and re-erecting some of its fallen stones (many other stones still, sadly, remain fallen and visible above ground while others lay hidden below it) Keiller also undertook excavations in and around Avebury. The small but fascinating museum by the church in Avebury displays many of Keiller's finds from the area and the museum still bears the name of the Alexander Keiller Museum.

The Avebury Cove before Alexander Keiller's restorations of the 1920s and 1930s

Restoration: A guest feature by Ric Kemp

The 17th century Nonconformist chapel in Green Street is part of Avebury's material and spiritual history, but I believe age has seniority. For me that puts Neolithic Avebury first in any consideration for historical restoration - a compromise might have been a 'glass floor' or something similar, inserted into the chapel/tourist information centre, highlighting socket holes and anything else which came to light during the restoration: as it is, the original structure here, namely the South Inner Circle, has been basically ignored, apart from a perfunctory 'watching brief' and some archaeological note taking. With regard to the Obelisk - I do not believe that Avebury can function properly without it - it points out the seasons with their attendant ritual: depriving Avebury of its central monolith was a cruel thing to do, and some of the villagers appear to have stubbornly maintained its tradition with maypoles in its erstwhile shadow, which have left traces. I cannot see why a new Obelisk of local sarsen can't be quarried to replace the old one: we have Stukeley's excellent sketches and descriptions to go by; we have the socket hole marked out by Keiller; we have the burning pits dug out beneath the recumbent stone, to destroy it - so we have a lot of data for the reasonably accurate replication of this central standing stone.

William Stukeley's 1723 sketch of the Obelisk

Many other socket holes from the South Inner Circle were not actually underneath any buildings and seem to be in people's back gardens, possibly Stones 110, 111, 115, 118-120, and these should at least be marked out I feel. I do think it is outrageous that something like £150,000 was granted by English Heritage to restore the chapel between 1986 and 1998, without a penny of it being spent on Neolithic Avebury: For that amount of money all the buried stones in the NE quadrant could be surveyed and carefully restored. The story of the Nonconformist chapel at Avebury means that the bleatings of 'no money' every time someone proposes raising buried stones has always been a nonsense. The argument that 'buried is safe' received a mortal blow with rumours and web pages devoted to a sarsen stone apparently removed from West Kennet about 10 years ago, and now proudly displayed as a garden conversation piece 150 miles away. Even if the allegedly purloined sarsen was not a buried standing stone, the rumour has set a precedent for the parlous situation of every Neolithic stone - buried or supine - from the Sanctuary to Beckhampton: only the stones 'in place' are properly recorded and documented, giving some security, at least, against being spirited away unnoticed. So, yes, I'd like to see the programme of restoration continue at Avebury - standing stones up and where we can see them - and I would like to see a carefully researched and reconstructed Obelisk once more at the centre of the South Circle: 'impossible' is not a word I would associate with such a project ~ and hence my Yahoo Group - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Avebury_uk_/ - which is also dedicated to the eventual restoration of Avebury - only half restored by Alexander Keiller 70 years ago, that is true... but half restored is better than not at all.

Like a frozen drop of transience

There's a silence here
a silence that lifts and suppresses
all at once.

Lures life into a comfort
then leaves it limp
like a frozen drop of transience
on a quiet winter branch
that might

or might not
spring back to life again.

The Cove, Avebury

Accommodation: The Swindon Marriott

The Swindon Marriott -
https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/swidt-swindon-marriott-hotel/?corporateCode=M11 is well worth checking out if you're planning on visiting the Avebury area. This hotel does some truly excellent weekend deals which often include a first-class breakfast. In fact the Marriott deals can actually work out cheaper than a regular B&B. The rooms at the Swindon Marriott are superb, with comfortable beds, in-room tea and coffee making facilities (don't touch the minibar though unless you're super rich as it registers even the tiniest movement of the things inside), TV and internet access in all rooms and the usual ample supply of towels, toiletries etc that you'd expect to find at any top ranking hotel.

The Pipers Way road is only a stone's throw from the Swindon Marriott and takes you straight to Wroughton, and from there on to Avebury without having to go through Swindon. From Wroughton the drive to Avebury takes around 15-20 minutes, going past the Wroughton Science Museum, then over some beautiful Downland and, just before Avebury itself, past the hamlets of Winterbourne Bassett and Winterbourne Monkton with their well-worth visiting churches. See -

The Swindon Marriott. Image credit Willow