We weave into a damp Avebury, my stomach still churning slightly from beer and whisky from the night before. It is Sanhaim – Hallowe’en if you prefer – and the village is packed. Hippies, Druids, Crusties, Bikers, Hikers, Pagans, posh kids dressed as skeletons, and two fairly hungover gentleman adorn the picnic benches outside the Red Lion pub on the road that mercilessly slices through the stone circle.
I really like Avebury. It humbles me hugely. Hundreds of stones would have stood here once, in amongst towering ditches, constructed over centuries, an insanely ambitious project spanning dozens of generations of people who would have had enough on their plate with keeping warm, finding food and fending off disease, let alone working out the logistics of moving a sixty ton stone. The whole surrounding area appears to have been something of a hub of culture 4000 years ago – people have been scratching round these parts for a staggering length of time. I dare say, two chaps feeling a bit iffy after too much fermented liquid could have sat on this very spot surveying the odd assortment of people milling about thousands of times over.
Sometimes it just panics me though; the stone circle, the man made hill to the south which is as tall and steep as some of the pyramids in Egypt, the sheer organisation needed for such a project when the local population to draw upon would have been in the mere hundreds. All that effort, and it all so easily could have been lost – much of it was, and really quite quickly too. Legacies are fragile things; if people forget why the assembly of a few hundred huge sarsen stones in a field was so vitally important, what hope for your day to day existence? – and were it not for some smart science, we wouldn’t have had a clue what they’d been up to here. People are still coming here, but the link to those that were here before feels very much severed.
Many of the stones were destroyed in medieval times. Between the church wanting to undermine lingering pagan beliefs (the number of Satanic names given to features at the location is clue enough) and the pragmatic needs of locals for whom the lure of all that masonry proved too great, the days of the stones were numbered. Fires would be lit in pits dug under the stones, which would then be doused with water and, severely weakened, easily broken down. It’s maddening to think about, but, well, I’m sure future generations will despair about the rain forests.
During attempts in the 1930s to re-erect a long fallen stone, the remains of a man were unearthed, crushed beneath. Coins in his pocket revealed he must have met his fate sometime around 1320 – quite possibly in the act of trying to destroy the stone that had stubbornly sat on him for so long – and no-one at the time had been able to retrieve his squashed remains, and over time it had been forgotten that he lay there. The chap’s skeleton was duly removed and taken to London, where for a long time it was believed, with a wonderfully vengeful sense of irony, to have been promptly reduced to dust by a German bomb. Ten years ago though, he was found intact in a cupboard at the Natural History Museum. I must say I prefer the legend over the truth in this case, but either way, at least the stones put up a bit of a fight.
Back in the present day, a pagan wedding is being conducted in the stone circle, and the best man passes me a golden goblet to toast the newly weds with whilst a jolly Druid handfasts them. It is Bucks Fizz that I am drinking, and it courses through me, making me feel momentarily not-awful. My companion snacks on some mushrooms he has found growing in the circle, which I have to concede is hardly an opportunity – given our location – a fellow can turn down.
"Magical, poisonous: it’s all a spiritual adventure, isn’t it?" he summarises.
5 weeks ago