Gavin's Adventures on the Mystical Island of Britain -- Part 17

A list of the adventures.

Stonehenge

Following the wide avenue of standing stones out of Avebury, I found a burial chamber known as West Kennet Long Barrow. It is on the top of a high hill and is very easy to find, as it attracts many visitors. Crowds were climbing up and down the hill.

The Barrow itself is certainly a long barrow, extending over a hundred feet as a small manmade hill on top of the more natural one. Only a small piece of it has been excavated so far. I was able to enter the excavated section, walking into the cold dankness inside the hill, and see some of the individual burial chambers where many skeletons have been found, though I was amazed to hear that each chamber, rather than containing one or a few skeletons, contained the bones from one part of the body. One chamber held arms, another legs, though they found very few of the heads there. Nobody was able to tell me why the bones had been separated. It felt like a peaceful place, any wild magic having long since departed.

Looking around from the hilltop, I saw another curious hill nearby. One of the locals, or perhaps another visitor, told me it is called Silbury Hill. It is a full-sized hill, as tall as the one I was standing on, but man-made, perfectly rounded, and rising above the flats of the Wiltshire Downs. They say it is the largest man-made mound in Europe. It was constructed just before the Avebury Stone Circle, and no one knows why. I was not allowed to climb Silbury Hill. No one is allowed there anymore, for fear of erosion. As I was saying, this is a much more populous part of England. In Cornwall they would have no such fears!

I retraced my steps down the hill and rejoined the wide avenue of stones. It led me to a place called Woodhenge. It is not a "henge", a place of hanging stones, at all, but is so named because it was discovered after Stonehenge (being nothing like so obvious) and then named after it. Nothing is left of the original wooden posts, but their positions are marked by concrete pillars, painted brown and red. The sign said that it was probably set up during the Bronze Age around 2000 BC for some ceremonial use, for the long axis is aligned on the midsummer sunrise.

I left Woodhenge and continued south, toward Stonehenge. Of course, I had heard of Stonehenge long before I ever came to Britain, and I was pleased to finally be close enough to visit it.

Unfortunately, a great many other people seemed to feel the same way. I generally like crowds, but Stonehenge has become so popular that the field which contains it is surrounded by large fences, and there is a guarded gate where you have to pay to go in. Even from a distance, however, the massive stones are an impressive sight. I knew, at least roughly, what to expect, but I wondered what people a thousand years ago must have thought when they first saw those huge stones.

Reluctantly, I parted with some of my money, and was given a strange device called an "audio tour." To reach the stones, I had to walk through a tunnel which passes under the main road. The walls of the tunnel are painted to resemble the ancient landscape, when there were woods surrounding the area. Even if the last few hundred years had removed all the ancient magic from the site, at least they have created an impressive show and provided a lot of information for modern visitors.

To control the masses of people, the modern curators have paved a path around the great circle, and have placed markers to indicate certain views. The audio tour gives explanations of each of these views and also offers some possible explanations as to how the stones were originally placed here. Some say that Ambrosius Aurelianus wanted to honour those had died defending against the invading hordes of Hengist in 470. They say that he called upon Merlin to move the stones of the Giant's Dance from Kildare in Ireland, and place them here. Others say that the druids, an ancient people with magic all their own, brought the stones over a great period of time and built the circle for their rituals.

The archaeologists say that Stonehenge is not a single structure, but rather a progression of structures, which may have been monuments, temples, and burial grounds, built over several thousand years. Indeed, they say there is evidence to suggest that the ditch is older than the stone circles, and that the inner bluestone circle is the most modern. Excavations have found that many of the so-called Aubrey Holes contained cremated human remains. It is possible that these holes were once the sites of other upright stones which have since been removed.

Whatever the true story, I found Stonehenge intriguing and was reluctant to leave it. Although all the magic has long since died, the ancient people clearly put a lot of their lives into building and expanding this great monument. There must have been some very strong reason.

As at Avebury, there is a stone-lined Avenue leading away from Stonehenge. Though much of it travels over private land and is poorly marked, I resolved to follow it as far as I could and try to unravel this great mystery.

Mail comments and contributions to Gavin.


- The previous adventure: Stone circles of Avebury.
- The next adventure: The ancient Roman baths.
- Return to Grannus' circle.
- Go back to the front gate.

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