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All about Avebury


1 November 2016 marked 30 years since seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites were inscribed in the United Kingdom. That number has grown over the last 30 years to now include a total of 30 sites throughout the UK and British Overseas Territories. Avebury is one of the seven original sites, and author Steve Marshall is here to guide you through this Neolithic henge monument, home to the largest stone circle in Europe.

Avebury lies about 90 miles west of London, between Calne and Marlborough in the county of Wiltshire. Less than 20 miles to the south is Stonehenge. Close to the A4 road and not far from the M4 motorway, Avebury is easily reached by car and has ample parking for visitors. Buses to Avebury run hourly from Swindon, which is well served by trains from London and Bristol.

However you arrive, the Avebury Complex is best explored on foot. Moving slowly through the landscape as the Avebury people did 6,000 years ago, we can better appreciate the vast scale of Neolithic construction and gain some sense of how monuments and nature interact in a ritual landscape. To the many visitors who form a personal, often spiritual connection to Avebury, this is also a sacred landscape. Despite today’s traffic and aeroplanes, peace and solitude can still be found throughout much of the Avebury area, often with no-one else in sight and the silence broken only by skylark song.

Avebury is best known as the world’s largest stone circle: a quarter of a mile across, it partly encompasses a village. However, the stone circle is just one element of the Avebury Complex. Scattered across the ritual landscape surrounding Avebury is a wealth of prehistoric monuments, spanning many thousands of years in their construction.

Avebury was awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 1986, in a joint application for ‘Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites’, which uniquely included not just the megalithic monuments, but a large area of countryside around them. The two sites are listed as ‘monuments and their landscape setting’. Destruction, wilful damage and digging of the monuments are illegal, as is the use of metal detectors. As ritual landscapes, the space between the monuments is considered as important as the monuments themselves.

There is an excellent network of public footpaths around Avebury, and wide expanses of open access land, so major roads can largely be avoided. Public rights of way are shown clearly on Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, which are widely available. Please take great care when you do encounter the roads, particularly if you are not used to traffic driving on the left. The A4 road can be dangerous to walk along or cross, as many drivers ignore the 60mph speed limit. English Heritage’s map of the entire World Heritage Site (WHS), with Stonehenge and Avebury on separate sides of the sheet, is highly recommended.

At the very large scale of 1:10,000 (6 inches to the mile) it is by far the best aid to navigating the landscape. The map can be found on sale in Avebury’s shops. The most useful OS map for Avebury is the Explorer Map 157 Marlborough & Savernake Forest, Avebury & Devizes. At a scale of 1:25,000 (2½ inches to the mile) it shows all of the area around Avebury in considerable detail. OS also produces the Landranger Map 173 Swindon & Devizes, Marlborough & Trowbridge, but at the smaller scale of 1:50,000 (1¼ inches to the mile) it is less suited to walkers.

GPS is useful too, but do not rely on just a mobile phone for navigation – coverage is patchy and the signal can be poor across much of the WHS, including Avebury village. The Exploring Avebury website has lots more information on mapping, including a guide to using OS maps, GPS and Google Earth.

Not far from Avebury there are several small market towns that are well worth visiting. Marlborough and Devizes are particularly interesting and attractive. Both still have a traditional weekly market; Devizes also has the superb Wiltshire Museum, home to one of the finest Bronze Age collections in Britain, which includes gold from the burials near Stonehenge.

Extract from Exploring Avebury by Steve Marshall

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