You’ve probably heard of Stonehenge. Situated in the heart of the Wiltshire countryside of southern England, the iconic ring of ancient standing stones dates back to nearly 3000 years BC, during the Neolithic period. The sight of Stonehenge is a popular tour and daytrip location; amazing visitors with questions of why and how; many of the answers are still incredibly not known to this day.
Stonehenge rightly is up there with the most famous of all historic monuments in the world, let alone of those in Britain. Partly due to the great accessibility of the henge being close by nearby busy roads, and short distances from towns and cities in the south of the UK. This can be both a blessing and a problem. On popular days, at weekends in summer especially, the attraction can get particularly busy.
However, in the surrounding area, there are many further sites of equally important historical significance. With the likes of Avebury nearby, there’s also West Kennet Avenue & its Long Barrow;the impressive and mystical Silbury Hill and the remains an old wooden henge, the Sanctuary. They are all locations that form the ‘other’ parts of the Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site; locations that show an incredible glimpse into our Neolithic past that sometimes go unnoticed alongside their more famous big brother.
Here are some the best alternatives to consider visiting on a trip to Wiltshire, or if you’ve seen Stonehenge and leave wanting to see more. And even better, these locations can form part of a hike, starting in Avebury, that links one to another on a walking journey through this incredible landscape on foot – which is surely the best way to see it.
Avebury Stone Circle & Henge
Encircling the pretty village of Avebury, this huge henge contains a large circular bank and ditch, measuring some 400 metres across. It’s hard to imagine, but this now relatively shallow ditch was once well over 10 metres deep, and also over 20 metres wide, with a further mounded bank of earth on it’s outer side and bare white chalk gleaming out from the grass.
The ditch is an often overlooked section, I think it’s arguably the most impressive part of Avebury, if not for the sheer size and scale alone, but for the undertaking of such a project nearly 5000 years ago with the primitive tools and technologies of the time.
Within this earthwork ditch – the ‘outer’ henge – lies a further ring of large standing stones, the tallest of which are nearly twice my height. Largely stretching around the inner side of the ditch, these stones are what I immediately picture when thinking about Avebury. This stone circle, again, is huge in size at just over 330 metres across, and was built roughly five centuries after the outer circle.
Avebury was not designed as single monument, nor constructed during at same time, but the henge was added to over centuries. The purpose of the henge isn’t known, but must have been the source of debate and purpose since it’s construction, covering many religious and spiritual sources. The simple answer is we don’t know.
As some of the stone are ‘missing’ , modern concrete markers replace any missing original stones within the circle.
Within the larger outer stone circle are the remains of two smaller ‘inner circles’ of stones, separate to one another, both around 100 metres wide. Sadly, much of these circles have been destroyed during the building of the village in the 18th Century, so it is left to your imagination to picture the five metre high giant monolith stone that marked the centre of the henge.
Leaving Avebury by the south, and crossing over a small road, through a pair of gates and into a what should be a gently sloping unspectacular field.
However, unlike most fields, this one contains a long, curving avenue of standing stones, stretching away from the Avebury circle. Unlike Stonehenge, you can walk through the stones, and stroll down through this amazing avenue, retracing the footsteps of ancestors through a walkway of obvious but unknown significance.
The one and half mile long Avenue, marked out originally by 100 stones, connects Avebury and The Sanctuary – a further historical site nearby we would visit later – and was the last portion of the Avebury site to be constructed, roughly in 2400BC.
Walking through these stones, you can’t help but wonder the reasons for their being, what purpose they were placed for – deliberately and accurately marking the way between two monuments.
Reaching a fence and signpost at the end of the avenue, turn right up a short steep hill to travel the small distance for a panoramic view of Silbury Hill, visible from the crest of the highest point of the path.
Until the time of the middle ages, this was the tallest man made structure in Europe, the construction dating back to 5000 years ago.
At 30 metres, the hill compares in height to some of the pyramids of Egypt built in the same period, but what isn’t known about the hill, unlike the pyramids, is its purpose. Excavations of the hill have shown no burial site and it’s history and purpose remains elusive and speculative, but there is no denying it must have been an important location.
It’s estimated that it took 18 million man-hours to construct – 500 men working for 15 years!
West Kennet Long Barrow
Across the A4 roadway from Silbury Hill, a footpath crosses a river, and through a undistinguished arable field, slowly gaining height up to a large, horizontal grassy mound ahead of you.
This elongated mound is a chambered long barrow – a burial chamber dating from 3600BC, the final resting place for at least 50 burials from the Neolithic period.
You can enter the multi-roomed chamber section at the front of the barrow – there are two chambers on each side of a pathway leading to a larger chamber at the back of the inner section of the mound.
The barrow is an eerie and thoughtful place. We were lucky enough to have it to ourselves during the visit, the silence of the internal workings of the mound magnifying the serenity of a place full of sacred history, appreciated even as a person of no faith.
Walking through a small river valley eastwards from the Long Barrow, a further historical site known as The Sanctuary can be found. Visually less impressive than other sites in the area, The Sanctuary is no less important. Orginally an intertwining arrangement of timber posts – not unlike a wooden version of Stonehenge – again, the function and purpose unknown to us. Contemporary concrete slabs mark out the position of the original features, situated on a hill overlooking the Long Barrow a mile or so away to the west.
Across the A4 from The Sancturay marks the start point of one of England’s long distance trails – The Ridgeway, an 87 mile long path dervied an anicent trading route following the chalk high points, starting from Wiltshire to finish in the Chilterns hills. The whole route would have to be saved from another time, as we followed the first section across the remains of an old Roman Road, and back towards Averbury
Avebury – http://www.avebury-web.co.uk/
Kennet Avenue – http://www.avebury-web.co.uk/wk_avenue.html
West Kennet Long Barrow – http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/england/wiltshire/featured-sites/the-west-kennet-long-barrow.html
The Sanctuary – http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/the-sanctuary/