Silbury Hill: Like some great beacon in the night

Nearly four and a half thousand years ago, a great six-tiered mountain of chalk was being slowly raised among the green downlands of southern Britain. Hundreds of men, women and children laboured day after day to complete their task, and when it was finished their mountain stood gleaming white, a symmetrical island set in a sea of gently rolling hills. It stood taller, larger and prouder than anything else man had ever built before in Europe.
High above, on a nearby track known as the Ridgeway (itself perhaps the oldest road in Europe), this six-tiered mountain of chalk must have presented a truly awesome sight to the warriors, pilgrims and other travellers who ploughed their way back and forth along that ancient highway to what was then, surely, the centre of prehistoric Britain.Contemporary with the Pyramids, larger than St Paul's Cathedral and containing more than twelve million cubic feet of chalk and rubble (all hewn by hand with no more than antler picks and shovels), that mountain still stands today fast and proud, a testimony to the skill and dedication of its builders. Today it is known simply as Silbury Hill, a silent and mysterious monument set on a quiet valley floor a few kilometres south of the great stone circle of Avebury in Wiltshire, England and less than 30 kilometres from its more famous grandchild, Stonehenge (both Avebury and Stonehenge are World Heritage Sites).
For many, their first glimpse of Silbury Hill is from the old Roman road (now the A4) just as it would have been for travellers and Roman legions nearly two thousand years ago as they made their way between Cunetio (Mildenhall) and Aquae Sulis (Bath). It seems probable that Silbury was used by Roman surveyors as a geographical marker for their road to and from Bath and there is geophysical evidence of a substantial Roman settlement between Silbury Hill and the Swallowhead Spring. At Silbury however, perhaps as a mark of respect for the structure and its ancient builders, the Roman road veers slightly round the structure rather than cutting through it. Travelling by road today Silbury looms out at you as you pass by and there is hardly time to take it in. A small carpark just off the A4 is one of the closest points from which one can view Silbury and parts of its manmade valley floor. From this official viewing area one can gain some idea of the sheer mass of the structure. At the edge of the viewing area there are explanations of Silbury's history, construction and condition set there on plaques by its present guardians, English Heritage.
The Silbury carpark however is not the only place from which to see this astonishing structure, in fact the further one travels from it the more one is able to understand its unique place in the surrounding landscape and to appreciate how beautifully it sits within that landscape.
But what is it? What was it used for? Perhaps, most of all, what's inside? These are questions that have niggled away at antiquarians, archaeologists, gravediggers, treasure hunters and, more recently, television crews for several centuries. Beginning with the so-called Dax Shaft of 1776 several tunnels have been dug into Silbury in an attempt to discover its secrets. This, and subsequent excavations have revealed remarkably little - little that is in material remains. Numerous theories have been, and continue to be, advanced as to the meaning of Silbury but in the end we may never know for sure what it stood for. Silbury does not seem to be a burial mound. It appears to contain no tomb and certainly no gold or silver; no treasure at all except for the few archaeological treasures from its earliest stages - that is to say plant and animal remains, 'rope' and small sarsen boulders.
Whatever Silbury was intended for its sparse contents seem unable to provide the answer. Perhaps the Silbury Secret lies not within it but without; in its beautifully proportioned size and shape, and in something far more intangible - something that many sense when they first see it, and which pulls them back again and again - like some great beacon in the night.

For our dedicated blog on Silbury Hill see -

Silbury Hill: Wiltshire, England. Image credit Robert M Williams

Avebury: New housing developments

On the 7 January 2008 the Daily Telegraph quoted Jennifer Baldry (chairman of the parish council) as saying, "This site has been a problem site for some time. It is run down and scruffy and five smart houses would look far better than what's there at present."*
The Telegraph was reporting on plans to demolish the Bonds Garage, situated at the northern edge of the Avebury Henge, and build five new houses there. It is true that the site was scruffy, but for someone who has lived all her life in Avebury I'm surprised Ms Baldry was unable to see the difference between the site, with its intrusive second-hand vans parked outside, and the Bonds Garage building itself.
Bonds Garage (formerly Rawlins' Garage) was actually a 1930s Art Deco building commissioned by Alexander Keiller. The building had a certain charm about it, and on closer inspection one could see the 'Egyptian' Art Deco elements incorporated into its fa├žade. Some may think the building itself was also scruffy, but if it was it was because it had been allowed to become so. The fact of the matter is that the building was, and always had been, an integral part of the Keiller Heritage, with considerable potential for use as something else - something much more valuable to the international community than five 'smart' new houses.
For many, Keiller's Garage would have made an excellent Alexander Keiller Museum (instead of the present pokey, one-room Keiller Museum at the back of the National Trust shop). With a little creative thinking it could also have functioned as an information centre, with an area providing views of both the Avebury Henge and Windmill Hill. A path leading to the north-east quadrant of the circle might also have been laid.
Too late now, the Alexander Keiller Garage has been demolished, and is to be replaced by 'five smart houses'. I hope Ms Baldry is right about these houses being smart (not to mention unobtrusive). Many visitors to Avebury, however, would have liked to have seen the Keiller Garage placed under a protection order as a tangible reminder of Avebury's more modern history and Alexander Keiller's legacy there. The building could have been easily renovated and put to some better use than the five 'smart' new houses - not to mention what seems likely to be the thin end of a larger housing estate wedge inserted on the very doorstep of this World Heritage Site. Sadly, I fear the words of William Stukeley will yet again ring as true today as they did some two and a half centuries ago, and the 'stupendous fabric' of Avebury will once more fall foul to the, "...wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac'd within it."

For a detailed discussion of what went wrong with the planning application at the Bonds Garage site please see -

The north-east quadrant of the Avebury Henge from the Bonds Garage housing development

Image credit Heritage Action

The Avenue of Horse Chestnuts

The avenue of horse chestnuts, shown in the photo of the Cove above, is to be cut down, reports the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald.

"A tree disease which is spreading through the South West of England has infected an avenue of Horse Chestnuts at Avebury, leaving the National Trust with little choice but to remove it.
"The avenue which runs along the A4361, north of the Avebury stones was planted by Alexander Keiller in 1937. He was the archaeologist and businessman who founded the Alexander Keiller Museum at the World Heritage Site. Today the southern end of the avenue is owned by the National Trust, the rest by a local landowner."

Christianised sites in the Avebury area. Part II

There is evidence that some Christian sites in Britain and Ireland have been in continuous use as sacred meeting places from before the Roman occupation. Such sites may have started with people meeting in groves, or close to springs, ponds and other water courses. The remains of a stone circle, either near or actually beneath the church itself, are sometimes found at such sites. Often an Anglo-Saxon, and then a Norman church, were built on these older pre-Christian sites. The churches at Alton Priors, Cliffe Pypard, Pewsey and Winterbourne Monkton, to name but a few within the Avebury area, appear to be examples of this continuity.
This feature on the Winterbourne and Christianised sites within the Avebury area is under construction. Meanwhile please see the November 20, 2008 feature in Thelma Wilcox's Poems, paintings and photos blog here -

Where the Winterbourne and the Swallowhead become the Kennet. William Stukeley. 13 May 1724

The Winterbourne (centre) meets the Swallowhead Spring (far left) where it becomes the Kennet (foreground). The is an Egyptian word 'Kehmet' which refers to the black, fertile lands that resulted from the annual flooding of the Nile. Each year massive quantities of black silt were brought down from Ethiopia and the African interior resulting in Egypt's continuous fertility. Michael Dames, in his book The Silbury Treasure (ISBN 0-500-27140-2) examines the etymology of the word Kennet. He writes on page 110 -

Cunnit is Cunnt with an extra i. As late as 1740, the peasants of the district had not abandoned the nomenclature, and the old name was in use all down the river to Hungerford, in 1723. The Roman riverside settlement called Cunetio - their principal town in the entire Kennet valley.

It is only too easy to draw parallels between the words Kehmet and Kennet, not to mention other words in the family of Indo-European languages with similar sounds and symbolism, but with the great 'pyramid' of Silbury sitting only a stone's throw from both the Swallowhead Spring and the River Kennet, perhaps it is also a mistake to dismiss out-of-hand that there was ever any connection between the two cultures of ancient Britain and ancient Egypt. There was, after all, the small but thriving Roman town at the base of Silbury some two thousand years ago, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that there may have been an exchange of peoples and ideas between Britain and Egypt some two thousand years prior to that date.

Christ Church, East Kennet

One of several sarsens in front of Christ Church, East Kennet

Where there are stones there often seems to be a nearby spring or well and/or a river. In the Avebury/Silbury area there are eight churches close to the course of the Winterbourne and Kennet, several with what appear to be un-worked stones in their foundations. The same also at nearby Alton Priors, Clyffe Pypard, Pewsey and, in Essex, at Alphamstone and The Church of St Mary with St Leonard, Broomfield, Chelmsford. See -
At East Kennet, "There was a church on the same site as the present one in the 12th century... local poverty and negligence on the part of the owner... resulted in reports in the 16th and 17th centuries of the decay of the church fabric, and by the 19th century the church had become dilapidated." (from the church information sheet).
It seems the old church was completely demolished in the 19th century and then a new one built in the Early English style. That might account for there being nothing of megalithic interest in the church foundations. However, the site does have a 'pre-Christian feel' to it. The church is built on a slight mound. There's a yew tree in its churchyard (about as old as the one at Alton Barns) and a pond on the outside of the churchyard wall with one large sarsen (maybe two sarsens as there's something completely covered with ivy) at the pond's edge. There's also another large sarsen in a nearby garden and a heap of broken sarsens by the northern wall of the churchyard. The original church may have been built within a circle not on it.

Church of St Nicholas, Fyfield

Perhaps the last church along the course of the Kennet still exhibiting pre-Christian remains. Under several of the church buttresses large sarsens are to be found, while in the church walls themselves a few Roman tiles.

The Church of St Nicholas: Fyfield Down and Fyfield Church. A guest feature by Thelma Wilcox

Fyfield Down is famous for the 'Celtic field system' still lightly sketched across the landscape. These prehistoric and Roman field boundaries form a lattice across the hillside. There is the possibility that the Roman field boundaries were still in use into the later Saxon era, and that the formation of Fyfield (its boundaries resemble a triangle), with its apex high on the Marlborough Downs at Hackpen Hill. It is believed that Fyfield may have been a villa-estate in the late Roman period. This evidence is deduced on late 19th finds near Fyfield village. The evidence of the Roman road not following the modern A4 but taking its path from North Farm following a curve from 'Piggledene' sarsen stream, down Piper Lane, and probably somewhere near Fyfield Church. According to a report by Gillian Swanton, the road is not the customary agger type but 'a sequence of road structures continues eastwards the line of the A4 from North Farm' and that this road is thought to be a sarsen road.

Avebury: No! To a new housing development at this World Heritage Site

Avebury: A new housing development

Nearly one year ago Heritage Action reported on the proposal to build five new houses on the former Bonds Garage site just outside the north-east quadrant of the Avebury Henge -
Apart from demolishing the garage little has happened since then. Recently, however, Heritage Action has learnt that construction of the houses is soon to commence and a large photograph of what the houses will look like has now appeared on the housing development's hoarding. Heritage Action is vehemently opposed to the building of these new houses so close (less than a hundred metres) to this World Heritage Site and believes that planning permission for their construction should be revoked.
This feature first appeared in The Heritage Action Journal - and is reproduced here with Heritage Action's kind permission.

The New Inn, Winterbourne Monkton

Accommodation: The New Inn, Winterbourne Monkton

The New Inn - at Winterbourne Monkton is the third closest pub (after the Waggon and Horses at Beckhampton) to Avebury and is within walking distance of the stone circle. There is also a bus service to and from Avebury with the bus stop located close to the road leading to the hamlet of Winterbourne Monkton. The New Inn also offers B&B accommodation in one of its five bedrooms, though at around £50 for a single room and £60 for a double or twin room this is a little pricy when compared to some other B&Bs in the area, not to mention the Swindon Marriott (see below) whose rates, which often include a superb buffet breakfast, can be as low £42 per night for a twin or double bedroom.

Teacher's Cottage

Accommodation: Teacher's Cottage

Teacher's Cottage - is situated in Avebury High Street, and directly opposite the Church of St James. The upstairs (south-facing) bedroom has one double bed and the front (north-facing) bedroom has two single beds. The front bedroom has a wonderful view of the church. Downstairs there's a large, well equipped kitchen at the back of the cottage. The downstairs bathroom is a bit cramped but functional. There's a small dining room in the middle of the cottage and a lovely little lounge at the front. The lounge has an open fireplace that can be used in winter. At the back of Teacher's Cottage there's a small yard with tables and chairs.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Teacher's Cottage is being able to get up early and go out into the heart of Avebury - no people and hardly any traffic.

The Devizes Travelodge. Image credit Willow

Accommodation: The Devizes Travelodge

The Devizes Travelodge - opened at the end of 2008. Devizes is only about fifteen minutes drive from Avebury (there is also a good bus service) and the Travelodge chain offers some very cheap deals if you book in advance over the internet.