Although best known for its standing stones—which are considered the largest Neolithic stone circle in Europe—Avebury also has a 16th-century manor house and garden that, despite a number of previous visits, we had never managed to see. That was our first stop.
The Manor is perhaps best known as the home of marmalade magnate Alexander Keiller during his excavations at Avebury in the early 20th century, but it has a long history, with occupation since Tudor times. In 2011, the BBC worked in partnership with the National Trust to recreate different eras of the Manor’s past for a television programme called The Manor Reborn. After filming, they left the furniture, bric-a-brac, and décor for visitors to enjoy. As a volunteer said when she greeted us at the door, the whole place was theatre—we could sit where we wanted and pick up anything we wanted to investigate further. It was very much a hands-on experience!
As a National Trust veteran, this gave the place a very different feel from properties where chairs and beds are roped off or decorated with teasels that make the point that rears aren’t welcome. Indeed, at Avebury Manor you are welcome to recline if you so choose—but no more than three in a bed! This helped breathe life into what otherwise could have been a static display, and the nine different time periods showed how dynamic history can be.
Upon leaving the Manor, we found a shady bench to eat our snacks and take in views of the stunning garden. Or rather a sliver of the garden; it is TARDIS-like and much larger on the inside than it appears. With our blood sugar thus restored and curiosity piqued, we set out to explore the number of different “rooms” the garden was divided into, from the incredible walled garden buzzing with pollinators, to the wildflower meadow and orchard, to the more formal garden that was a riot of colour.
Before leaving, we decided to take a walk around the stones, which is always a fascinating experience. I tend to look at them with the eye of an archaeologist, and someone who was set the following essay question as an undergraduate: “Is Avebury an ancient or modern monument?”
It can be argued either way. The henge is certainly ancient. Henge monuments are defined by a bank and ditch structure and, like the ramparts at hillforts, the one at Avebury would have been laboriously dug by hand. It is also more or less contemporary with the nearby Silbury Hill, the largest artificial prehistoric mound in Europe. While its purpose is unknown, it underscores that the ancient inhabitants around Avebury were very good at digging. On a more serious note, it’s thought that large-scale projects like this were used to unite the community and provide a focus for their energy: less warfare, more DIY.
The stones, however, are where things get confusing. Multiple circles of standing stones were likely present in the area. But the Middles Ages saw many buried and broken up due to their association with paganism, and others removed to allow room for agriculture. Early antiquarians such as John Aubrey and William Stukeley left records and drawings of their observations, but also added wild speculation about “druids” that would serve to muddy the waters for centuries.
It was Alexander Keiller, heir to a family fortune made in the marmalade business, who purchased 950 acres of the village and its Neolithic landscape in 1934. As he excavated the site—pulling down part of the village in the process—Keiller re-erected the stones in concrete where he thought they should be and added concrete pillars to represent where he thought megaliths were likely missing. So it can be said that it is not a monument left untouched by millennia, but rather a 20th century re-imagining of the past.
This does not stop people from doing energy work on the stones or otherwise communing with nature when visiting, and to me that is one of the most interesting aspects of the site: everyone sees in it what they want. For me, it’s a palimpsest of different time periods existing cheek by jowl. For others, it’s a landmark to see and take a selfie in front before moving on to the next. For some, a place of healing spiritual energy. How many places can claim to be so much to so many?
Afterwards, we returned home hot, tired, and slightly sunburnt. Although nothing went exactly to plan over the course of the day, would I do the same things again? You can bank on it.[ Catch up on Part 1: Barbury Castle and consider signing up to the MissElaineous mailing list to get all posts delivered directly to your inbox (plus a free ebook!) ]