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How we found something better than Stonehenge by visiting Avebury

by Silke Elzner

Avebury and Stonehenge are two fascinating pre-historic sites that can be easily visited in a day.

The better known one is Stonehenge – the mystic stone circle in the middle of England. It attracts all sorts of people, including some of the more extraordinary kind. A bucket list item that many people want to visit at least once in their lifetime. And then there is nearby lesser known Avebury with its stone circles.

I thought that one day I would have to visit Stonehenge, too. Until I realised how expensive a visit would be, and that you wouldn’t even be allowed to get very close to the stones. Lucky for me that I found a much better alternative at Avebury, just a couple of minutes drive from the Stonehenge site.

If you want to you can combine a visit to both sites in a day, but let me explain to you why you might want to consider skipping Stonehenge to spend more time in Avebury instead.

Exploring the Old Country

What many don’t realise is that Stonehenge is located in a very old country that is rich in pre-historic burial mounds, Bronze Age hill figures, and many other stone circles similar to Stonehenge.

In short, Stonehenge is by no means a solitary phenomenon. So, you really need to ask yourself – do you want to visit Stonehenge just because it is an internationally recognised tourist attraction? Or are you open to explore other landmarks in the area that may be just as spectacular, free of charge, and maybe even much better than Stonehenge?

We decided to do the latter.

In the end, as things sometimes work out in the most curious ways, I ended up seeing Stonehenge as well. And by comparison, our stone circle in Avebury was a much better experience.
A white horse carved in stone near Avebury and Stonehenge

The Avebury Stone Circle

The Avebury stone circle is indeed a place we loved exploring with the kids. Just like Stonehenge, Avebury village is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and it’s easy to see why.

Approaching the village we drive straight past the earthworks and into the centre of the stone circle. Despite its ancient age, the circle is still as complete as you could hope for, and it’s very easy to make out the man-made form of the landscape.

The remarkably complete stone circle in AveburyThe boulders that men placed here some two or three thousand years ago are still standing tall. We can walk all the way up to them, and touch the cold surfaces with our bare hands. Their size is amazing, the children look like dwarfs next to them. It is hard to fathom how people may have moved these stone blocks without sophisticated technical means from hundreds of miles away.

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The oldest part of the site is the earthworks. We decide to follow the circular earth wall that encloses the stones and get a bird’s eye view of Avebury. The wall is high, and the trench is deep, a fun experience for the kids who love to get down to the bottom of the trench, only to climb up again a couple of metres down the track.
The kids exploring the earthworks

A Magic Wishing Tree

At some point on the earth wall, we discover a wishing tree. Actually, it is a grove of trees that together form an intricate network of roots that add a mystical flavour to the site.

We are clearly not the only ones who are stunned by this fairy place: The boughs of the trees are full with colourful ribbons, pieces of paper, labels and figurines. People from all walks of life have left their wishes between the leaves of the trees. They have tied ribbons around the trunks and left little notes in old knotholes.

I attempt to read some of the messages, but some of them are so personal and sincere, they make me blush. These messages are indeed meant for the spirits, or for God, or for whoever people think will have the power to grant them their wishes for themselves and others.

I refrain from reading more of these notes and we decide to continue on our way around Avebury following the ancient lines of the stone circles.
Colourful ribbons in a wishing tree

Avebury and Stonehenge: English Normality Surrounded by Oddities

We cross a path and enter a paddock on our way around the village. Around us, the sheep are grazing, such a typically English sight. The difference is that these sheep graze between the giant boulders of the stone circle. For them, of course, it doesn’t make a big difference. For us, it’s the perfect photo opportunity for some amazing shots of the English countryside.

After crossing a street we find ourselves on the site of Avebury Manor and its group of outbuildings. Since it is usually not open to the public, or only parts thereof, we make a beeline for the Church of St James. Weathered headstones are silent witnesses on the graveyard that surrounds the church – together with the children we study the ancient inscriptions.

Originally a Saxon building, we particularly love the ancient round windows and the colourful wooden rood screen – a rarity, since Elizabeth I had once ordered the destruction of such screens many centuries ago. The hand-made pew cushions are indeed charming. Handmade pew cushions in St James Church

The Red Lion

Before we head off, we order some pints at the local pub. It’s only fair since we used the customer car park to park the car while we explored the stone circles. The pub claims to be the only one located inside a stone circle – quite a unique claim to fame!

The Red Lion Inn was built around the deep village well. We find it inside, where a sign states that at least one unlucky villager has fallen to his death here.  Today, it is covered with a glass top and can be found right in the middle of the dining room.

Prince Charles dined a couple of times at the Red Lion, and you can see his not so flattering portrait inside the pub as well.
The Red Lion

Gate-Crashing Stonehenge

Before we drive home, past beautiful old churches and manor houses, down verdant green country roads through thick forests, and past cottages with traditional thatched roofs, we decide for a quick stop at Stonehenge.

I won’t go into details on how this happened, but by accident, I eventually did end up seeing Stonehenge up close. Don’t follow in my footsteps as you should only visit the site as a regular visitor. But at least it now allows me to compare the experience with what we saw at Avebury.

Truth be told, Stonehenge, by comparison, appears small and rather unspectacular. It is not much more than a circle of stones that cover only a small area. Granted, there are burial mounts nearby which you clearly see from here as well as other significant large stones, but by comparison, Avebury had the bigger impact on us.

Avebury and Stonehenge in a day

To see Stonehenge you get a full pre-historic visitor package complete with audio-guides, replicas, and a museum entry. But if you are after the mystical atmosphere of pre-historic sites that naturally interplay with the surroundings as it would have done for thousands of years, then Avebury is indeed the better choice.

Enjoy the rest of the photos on the bottom of this post!

Stonehenge as seen from a distance

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