Wiltshire Wanderings

I am not a morning person. A late night of reading, writing, or working on a current project, followed by long, luxurious lie in the next day is the height of bliss for me. However, there is one thing that will get me out of bed even before the crack of dawn: bluebells.

Every year, the woods near Marlborough gain a carpet of blue as these spring flowers make their presence known, and it is a sheer delight to meander through the forest trails. You can, of course, go at any time of the time of the day, but the early morning light on the flowers is golden, perfect for photography. Add in a spot of mist and the dawn chorus of dozens of unseen birds, and it becomes almost a spiritual experience.

And this is what MrElaineous and I were up to yesterday. A 4:30 am wake-up call to get out of the house just after 5:00 am. A journey through the sleeping towns of Wiltshire, having the road to ourselves for much of the way. And a reminder of how rich Wiltshire is in archaeological heritage.

As a result, our very first stop was not West Woods, but rather the mound of Silbury Hill. Recent rains have turned the area around it into a moat, and the cold weather (-4.5 C according to the car, or about 24 F) meant that mist was rising from the water, shrouding the hill and adding to the mysterious atmosphere. We couldn’t resist stopping for a few photos.

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Measuring 30 metres high (almost 100 feet) by 160 metres (525 feet) wide, the mound was completed around 2400 BC.  Excavations over the centuries have shown that it is not a tomb, and was constructed in several phases, over a number of generations.  Despite its location in the midst of a landscape full of burials (the West Kennet Long Barrow is just a stone’s throw away), the actual purpose of the structure—the largest man-made mound in Europe—remains unknown.  Maybe it was a way to unite communities through its construction.  Maybe it was to signify the importance of the area. Or maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time!

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We made it to West Woods as the sun was rising and, with the exception of one other photographer who quickly disappeared down one of the trails, had the place to ourselves.  The bluebells were not quite at peak, or perhaps just not quite as vibrant as in past years due to the weird spring weather we’ve been having (see above re: morning temperature), but it was still a lovely way to spend an hour.  We made plans to return in a week or two, then turned our attention to pressing matters, like what to do for breakfast.

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Our favourite place in Chippenham doesn’t open until 9:00am, and considering it was just past 7:00am, we had a bit of time to kill.  We had been talking for years about re-visiting Avebury, but had never gotten around, so the decision was made for us: a trip into one of the largest stone circles in Europe.

Avebury is a Neolithic henge monument. The most famous of these is Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, but the name is misleading: the stones are not the henge. A henge is a bank and ditch earthwork structure that may have a stone or timber circle constructed within it. It should not be confused with a hedge, which is a completely different landscape feature entirely.

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The various parts of Avebury were constructed over centuries, from approximately 2850 BC until 2200 BC. Like everything to do with the archaeology of the distant past, interpretation tends to focus on possible ritual aspects.  I, however, tend to think back to a book I was introduced to as an undergraduate: Motel of the Mysteries.  This parody shows an archaeologist of the future excavating a “graveyard”—a standard motel—and the interpretations he makes as a result.  All of this is to say that the reason that Avebury was built and how it was used by its creators will remain a mystery—and that is one of the enduring attractions of archaeology to me.

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Complicating matters further at Avebury, many of the stones were destroyed or buried during the Middles Ages because they were associated with paganism. In the early 20th century, marmalade magnate Alexandar Keiller bought the entire village and site of Avebury and commenced excavations. He re-erected the stones where he thought they should be, and also put placeholders where it is thought stones had been lost. This reconstruction has led to the site of Avebury we see today, and also raises the question: is Avebury an ancient or a modern monument?

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Regardless, a visit to Avebury on a clear, if slightly cold, spring morning is a wonderful way to pass the time. And in case you’re wondering about all of the sheep: they keep the grass at a reasonable level without damaging the stones. They can also get to places on the steep banks that lawnmowers wouldn’t dare venture.

I think it’s often easy to ignore or overlook the things that are practically on your doorstep. However, it’s worth taking the time to make your own adventure and look at these things in a new light. At the very least, you’ll feel that breakfast is well earned–we certainly did!

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Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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