UK Trip X: Avebury and Neolithic Fun

After the wonderfulness that was visiting the Manor at Hemingford Grey, we packed up the car and hit the road.  Google said it would take a couple of hours to get to our hotel at Chippenham, but I didn't really believe that.  Possibly it would have for somebody more used to the British roads!  We took a little longer, largely because we somehow turned Fiona's voice off right before we needed it most, and we missed the turnoff to the M25.  Instead we fell into the hideous vortex of suburban London, freeway edition.  It took us an hour to get out again.

After that we did pretty well, really.  The roads were very good.  From then on there were usually tall hedges on either side, so we couldn't see much of the countryside.  There are now these really convenient turnoffs that just provide services to travellers; you just get off the road at the right place, and bam, there's a gas station, a motel, and a food court with eight choices and restrooms like what you get at Nevada truck stops, only much nicer.  Fabulous.

We got to our reserved motel and all squished into a family room, which is a regular room with a double, a single, and an extra bed shoved in.  This was our arrangement for the rest of the trip; squishy, but cheap.  Ish.

Stones along the edge of Avebury ring

The next day, we went to Avebury, which is a wonderful place to visit.  It's a Neolithic ring-fort with a lot of standing stones arranged around it, and a village built in the middle.  Avebury is actually a bit older than Stonehenge, and the stones are rougher in shape--plus they've been kind of beaten up over the years.  Many of the stones were buried a few hundred years ago and had to be re-set in their places.  Others were broken apart to be used for building material.  In order to break or bury the stones, people would generally set large fires at the bases and then pour cold water over them so they would crack.  Somewhat fewer than half the stones are still there; they ring the fort and once marked a road out, and there are some really big ones just placed around.  There were once smaller rings inside the large one.  The stones tend to fall into two general shapes and are called male (tall and rectangular) and female (more lozenge-shaped).

The ditch is part of the ring fort

Path around the edge--all chalk

Really quite large stones

We also looked through two museums, one in a large, dark barn (to keep the bats happy) that shows a timeline of when things were built, and another small one that collects the various artifacts found in archaeological digs.  There is also a manor (with dovecote!).

The church is in the middle of the ring-fort and is neat, with Saxon bits, a Norman font and door, and a Tudor rood-loft preserved from destruction by intrepid parishoners.  It's one of the few rood-lofts left.  (A rood-loft looks like a balcony.)  The church was full of ladies busily arranging flowers for the weekend celebration of Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday.  They were planning quite a celebration, and were very nice about letting us pick our way around them.

Avebury church

Church door with sawtooth design

Norman font!

Rood-loft, plus Saxon arches on the sides

After getting some sandwiches and pasties in a shop, we ate lunch sitting on a log-bench in a field.  My older daughter, always eager to try new things, bought some dandelion burdock lemonade that nobody really liked very much, and we wished we'd tried the rose lemonade instead.  We also got very strong ginger-beer--we drank a lot of ginger-beer on this trip!

We drove off to Silbury Hill, which is nearby.  It's a massive conical hill built of layers of chalk and gravel, for no discernible reason that I can see except that it's kind of neat.  (Mom theorizes that it was mostly for showing off--we can make it bigger!  Now let's make it bigger again!)  You cannot climb Silbury Hill; it's too fragile for that, so you just look at it for a bit.

Silbury Hill

The next Neolithic monument to visit is West Kennet Long Barrow, which is fantastic.  You park at a tiny lay-by on the highway and hike across a field--not very far--to the Barrow at the top of a non-steep hill.  The great thing about this is that you can actually go inside.  The inner chambers are made of stone--there's a passage with two rooms on each side, and then a final room at the end.  They've recently re-done the roof, which used to have large skylights; now there is just a hole that brings in very little light, so my flashlight was handy (my husband is a big believer in flashlights and made sure we each had one--thanks honey!).  I think it's probably a big improvement, though I didn't see it before.   People had left a couple of little tealight candles, some flowers and a strawberry as offerings of a sort.  It was really neat.  The barrow outside is much bigger than it is inside; it's been built up to be longer than just the chambers are.  We walked all over it, enjoying the breeze and the view.

West Kennet Long Barrow

Towards the entrance
Looking inside

Along the top
And that wasn't all; we then drove on to a final site.  This one had a tiny parking lot and serves as a starting point for a hiking trail too.  From there, we could see five round barrows (it was once seven), the Sanctuary, and the end of Kennet Avenue, which goes from Avebury to the Sanctuary.  The Avenue was once lined with stones, but none were in sight.  The Sanctuary was across the road, and crossing felt like a pretty dangerous exercise.  The visibility really wasn't all that great.  It's just a field with markers in it; once there was a henge with both wood and stone elements, but now it's all gone and you just look at the arrangement.  There's a great view from the field, though.

View of a barrow from on top of another barrow

The Sanctuary -- red is wood and blue is stone
Just as we were about to leave, a giant tour bus pulled into the tiny parking lot.  It became apparent that a whole lot of teenagers were about to start some kind of long hike.  I thought we'd be stuck there for a while--the bus was right behind our car--but we tried pulling out.  It was very scary indeed, but with the encouragement of two of the bus guys, we got out of the lot....and found that getting on to the road was an even scarier proposition.  Every time I thought we were clear, a giant truck would appear from one side or the other.  The visibility just really was not good enough.  Finally a van stopped in one lane and held up traffic to let us out, and it was still terrifying.

We also stopped on the way back to town to admire a chalk horse.  This was the Cherhill White Horse, and it dates from the 18th century.  Which is easy to tell, really; the pose looks exactly like an 18th-century horse portrait.  Near the horse, on the crest of a hill, stands a tall obelisk monument and we had no idea what that was, but my phone came to the rescue.  It's a memorial to one Sir William Petty, ancestor of the 3rd Marquess of Landsdowne, who put the thing up in 1845.  Okay then.

View of horse and monument
Cherhill Horse

Please enjoy this music video, in which you can see the horse, the monument, and Avebury! I've always liked this song, and just now I blew my kids' minds by showing this goofy video to them.

It was still only early in the afternoon, which was great because we also wanted to visit Lacock.  This was my mom's idea and it was really something!  Lacock is a little village with a manor next to it, and it still looks pretty much the same as it did 200 years ago.  Apparently one of the lords decreed that no modernization was to occur, or something, which must have been very annoying at the time, but now it's a goldmine.  People still live in the houses, but it's mostly owned by the National Trust, and it's frequently used for movies with a historical setting.  When the Bennett sisters walk into town in Pride and Prejudice (1995), they're in Lacock.  Quite a few Hogwarts' locations are also at the manor.

We started with the manor, which is Lacock Abbey.  Much like Northanger Abbey, it's a manor house built upon what was once a prosperous abbey, until the Dissolution came along.  There are lots of wonderful abbey ruins to wander around in, a cloister, and so on.  Catherine Morland would have swooned with joy.  The chapter house survives in very good shape!  Harry Potter fans could enjoy posters showing Professor Quirrell standing in a room and a small Hermione bustling down a cloister passage.

Here is a little video demonstrating Lacock locations for Harry Potter movies. The music is terrible and you should mute it.

Cloister walk

Cloister yard

Chapter house
The manor itself is great too and has two attractions.  It's an interesting manor house in its own right, with an impressive drawing room, half a mantelpiece in a contrived bathroom, and a strange large hall filled with terracotta statues and painted with coats of arms--it was a fashionably Gothic room, but the children used it to play badminton.  AND it was the home of an important figure in the development of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot.  There were displays of his lab and photos, and a lot of wonderful information about him.
Lacock Abbey
A dim, blurry drawing room.  I liked the books.


Bathroom with handy mantelpiece

Hall full of random statues
While we were wandering around the Abbey, it started raining.  Pouring, really; everyone was pretty stuck until the rain slacked off.  We hung around the Gothic hall for a while (and found a statue of, apparently, Gandalf) and then made a run for the next place, which was the museum of photography.  That houses copies of Fox Talbot's early photographs, the story of his work, and a general history of photography.
Gandalf?  No, Diogenes the Cynic

Oldest extant photograph, 1835.  Lacock Abbey windows
After a while the rain really went away and we ventured out to the village.  It's pretty amazing; the whole place looks like time stopped about 200 years ago, except that the streets are lined with parked cars.  Throw a bunch of dirt over the paving, and you can film a Regency romance, or Cranford.  We wandered around and admired the buildings and shops.  Half the houses had little homemade things for sale on the honor system--jars of jam, that kind of thing.

One church looked to be open for visitors, so we went inside.  Here, more church ladies were preparing for the Queen's birthday celebration with flowers, but this time it was a little different.  Somebody had had the idea that each lady could make an arrangement showcasing an aspect of Her Majesty's life.  There was a floral crown and an orb, a floral arrangement with a lot of hats, one for the Coronation with a cape, tiara, and a memento of the Hillary Everest expedition (which success was announced at the same time), one for the Christmas Speech, and so on.  A floral Corgi reposed in a tiny chapel to the side.  The Balmoral display was perhaps the most stunning, involving a tartan rug, blooming artichokes (which are giant thistles), and an animal skull representing hunting.  My 15-year-old could not quite wrap her head around the concept of decorating a church with flowers for the Queen's party.

Lacock church
Coronation robe!



Balmoral.  This one really stunned my kid.  Me too.


  1. Looking at your initial pictures, I assumed the stones were on the smaller side, but when you add people in, they really are quite big, I see. I can see why you'd like West Kennet Long Barrow, being able to go inside. And how interesting about Lacock. I can see why it's so popular today, especially for filmmakers. It must have been quite a place to see in person.

  2. We visited some of the same places you have posted, brings back memories. Haven't been to Avebury since 1999. Our son was very young and he saw some kids wearing Wellies. We were getting our feet wet so bought him some Wellies and it was hell getting them off his feet the rest of the trip.

    Love your photos.

  3. We stopped at Avebury on our first jet-lagged day. I think we should have gone to the museums because we didn't get that much from seeing the stones except for "wow -- those are big!" We went by Silbury Hill that day, too, and found it pretty fascinating. Now, I'm wishing we'd added West Kennet Long Barrow to the list!

    If you haven't seen it, you might like the Nova and National Geographic DVDs on Stonehenge that also cover how it relates to Avebury.

    Lacock is another place I'm putting on the list for next time. We visited the Black Country Living Museum and we get such a kick out of catching a glimpse of it now and then in British movies and TV. We've been watching Dancing on the Edge recently and it shows up pretty frequently.


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