Avebury village, Wiltshire
Avebury village, Wiltshire

Avebury is a delightful little village in Wiltshire between Calne and Marlborough and about 10 miles south of Swindon. The River Kennet rises in Avebury parish, and the village lies on a broad chalk plain just east of the two streams that converge to form the river.

Avebury World Heritage Site

The village is known for the extraordinary wealth of prehistoric monuments that lie in and around it. Its importance was recognised by UNESCO in 1986 when Avebury was named as part of a World Heritage site that included Stonehenge.

At the heart of the World Heritage Site is Avebury Henge, which contains the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world, while a mile to the south is Silbury Hill, the largest manmade mound in Europe.

What makes Avebury even more enjoyable to explore is that the henge and stone circle enclose half the village. Or, to put it another way, the village grew up outside the henge but extended eastward through a gap in the earthworks until it occupied much of the henge interior.

The Old Bakery thatched cottage on High Street
The Old Bakery thatched cottage on High Street

History

The first written record of the name Avebury appears in the Domesday Book of 1086, but the village began to develop several centuries earlier during the Saxon period. The first settlement was further west, between the henge and the neighbouring village of Avebury Trusloe. As the settlement grew its buildings spread east until they breached the walls of the henge.

Over the medieval period the village grew up inside the henge until it filled the entire interior of the ancient monument. Cottages jostled for space with huge standing stones, and the stones suffered. Many were removed or simply toppled to make way for human habitation.

Avebury Estate

In 1114 Henry I gave the Avebury estate to William de Tancarville, his chamberlain, and William almost immediately gave it to the abbey of St. Georges de Boscherville in Normandy. A priory was established in Avebury shortly after this time. As an alien priory (owned from abroad) Avebury Priory was subject to the political whims of English monarchs. In 1411 the priory was given to Fotheringhay College in Northamptonshire.

In 1545 the College essentially traded the priory's possessions, including the manor, to the Crown in exchange for estates elsewhere. Two years later the Crown granted Avebury Manor to Sir William Sharington of Lacock Abbey.

Churchyard Cottages, in St James' churchyard
Churchyard Cottages, in St James' churchyard

A later owner was Sir John Stawell, MP and governor of Taunton, who saw his estates confiscated in the Civil War for his Royalist beliefs. He spent much of the Commonwealth period in prison but had his estates restored by Charles II at the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

The coach road to Marlborough and the main road from Swindon (now the A4361) met in the centre of the henge, but the centre of the village was St James Church to the west.

In the 20th century Alexander Keillor of Avebury Manor, of whom more later, tried to reverse this trend. He wanted to remove all trace of habitation within the henge, so he tore down houses and moved the residents to new houses in Avebury Trusloe.

Keillor's vision might have succeeded were it not for the outbreak of WWII. As it is, a handful of private properties remain inside the henge including the community shop, several houses, and the popular Red Lion pub.

Today much of Avebury is owned by the National Trust and English Heritage. The Trust owns Avebury Manor, the Alexander Keillor Museum and the Great Barn, and manages the henge on behalf of English Heritage.

There is a community shop and post office as well as several souvenir shops and the Red Lion Inn.

Estate cottages on High Street, c. 1890
Estate cottages on High Street, c. 1890

Historic Buildings

On High Street, on the southern edge of the churchyard, stands The Old Bakery, a beautiful thatched cottage built in the early 18th century. Inside the churchyard itself are the aptly named Churchyard Cottages, a pair of thatched 17th-century cottages now merged under one roof.

Perhaps the most distinctive building in Avebury is the Red Lion, begun in the late 16th century and partly timber-framed. Further along High Street is Manor Farmhouse, a red-brick 18th-century house under a tiled roof. Near the Great Barn is the National Trust shop, housed in the 18th-century former granary for Manor Farm.

These are just a few of the historic listed buildings you will find in a brief stroll around the village.

The circular 16th-century dovecote
The circular 16th-century dovecote

Attractions

Avebury Henge and Stone Circles

The great Neolithic henge at Avebury was built - and rebuilt - between 2850 BC and 2200 BC. The henge is a huge earthwork bank and ditch, created with antler pick tools, that encircles part of the village. Within the henge is the largest stone circle in Britain, originally composed of about 100 standing stones. Within this stone circle are two smaller circles.

What sets the Avebury henge and stone circles apart from Stonehenge - the 'other' famous stone circle in Wiltshire - is that unlike Stonehenge you can wander amongst the stones (a pleasure you share with herds of grazing sheep, so mind where you step). Stroll across the top of the henge earthwork bank and look out over one of Britain's most extraordinary historic landscapes.

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Avebury Henge and Stone Circles
Avebury Henge and Stone Circles

West Kennet Avenue

From the southern entrance to the henge a double avenue of standing stones stretches across the fields in the direction of West Kennett village (note the difference in spelling). The Avenue originally extended from the henge to The Sanctuary on Overton Hill, 1.5 miles away, and was composed of 100 pairs of stones.

Of these, 27 remain standing, with the locations of lost stones marked by concrete pillars. The stones are arranged in pairs, with larger upright stones and shorter diamond-shaped stones thought to represent males and females respectively.

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West Kennet Avenue
West Kennet Avenue

Avebury Sanctuary

The West Kennet Avenue terminated at the top of Overton Hill at what is called The Sanctuary. This Neolithic site was built around 2500 BC and was composed of two concentric circles of stones and four of timber posts. The location of these posts are marked on the ground with concrete markers.

Like so many of the Neolithic sites surrounding Avebury we do not know why The Sanctuary was built, but the fact that it was linked to the henge at Avebury by the double stone rows of West Kennet Avenue suggests that it formed part of a vast ceremonial landscape.

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Avebury Sanctuary
Avebury Sanctuary

Windmill Hill

Rising above Avebury village is Windmill Hill. At the top of the hill is one of the largest causewayed camp enclosures in Britain. Like many of the ancient sites around Avebury we don't know why the enclosure at Windmill Hill was built, but it may have served as a religious or ceremonial centre, a trading place or simply a communal gathering place.

Windmill Hill was among the first prehistoric sites in Britain to be thoroughly investigated using modern archaeological techniques. Those archaeologists discovered a distinctive type of pottery remains on the site and called that style 'Windmill Hill' ware. You can see examples of Windmill Hill pottery in the Alexander Keillor Museum in Avebury.

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Windmill Hill
Windmill Hill

Avebury Manor

This picturesque Tudor manor house stands on the site of an earlier medieval priory. The house was built around 1555. Queen Anne stayed here and you can see the bedroom where she [might have] slept. The manor was the subject of the BBC TV series 'The Manor Reborn', which followed the efforts of restoration experts to return it to its original state.

The National Trust has done something quite special at Avebury; they present different rooms as the would have appeared at different times in the house's history, so you can move from a Tudor hall to a Georgian bedroom, from Victorian kitchens to a 20th-century sitting room.

Visitors are invited to sit on chairs, even slip under the sheets of the four-poster bed and try a game of snooker in the billiard room.

One 20th-century owner was Alexander Keillor, who did so much to investigate the prehistoric sites around Avebury.

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Avebury Manor
Avebury Manor

Alexander Keillor Museum

Alexander Keillor was an early 20th-century archaeologist and owner of Avebury Manor. He was also the heir to the Keillor marmalade fortune and could afford to indulge in his passion for archaeology. He investigated many of the prehistoric sites around Avebury including the henge and standing stones, and Windmill Hill.

The museum, housed in a historic stable outside the gates of Avebury Manor, tells the story of Keillor's career and displays many of his most interesting finds. Among these is the skeleton of a child unearthed at Windmill Hill, and artefacts found buried with the remains of a medieval 'barber surgeon' at the base of one of the Avebury standing stones.

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Alexander Keillor Museum
Alexander Keillor Museum

Great Barn Museum

A stone's throw (no pun intended) from the Alexander Keillor Museum is the Great Barn, a thatched 17th-century glebe barn that served to Avebury Farm. The restored barn is now home to an exhibit of rural life, with agricultural equipment and objects from daily life.

Opposite the Great Barn is a 16th-century circular dovecote used by the owners of Avebury Manor to keep pigeons. The dovecote was built around 1533.

The Great Barn
The Great Barn

St James Church

Literally over the garden wall from Avebury Manor is the beautiful medieval church of St James. Though much of the building we see today dates to the medieval period (12th to 15th centuries) the church incorporates parts of a much earlier Saxon building begun in the 10th century. A pair of round Saxon windows are built into the north wall.

The glory of St James' Church is its beautifully restored 15th-century rood screen and loft. The screen was carefully taken apart and hidden behind a false wall during the Reformation to avoid it being destroyed. There it stayed hidden until repairs in 1810 revealed it once more. Other historical features include an outstanding late Saxon tub font carved with a pair of dragons

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St James Church, Avebury
St James Church, Avebury

Silbury Hill

The mysterious conical mound of Silbury Hill rises above the flat landscape south of Avebury. This is the largest manmade mound in Europe and holds more material than the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

Unlike the Great Pyramid, however, we don't know why it was built. No tomb has ever been found within the mound, which was erected between 2900 BC and 2500 BC.

Theories about Silbury Hill range from the puzzling to the outlandish. Was it a gigantic sundial? An astronomical observatory? A tomb with an as yet undiscovered burial hidden deep within it? We simply don't know, and that's part of Silbury Hill's appeal.

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Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill

West Kennet Long Barrow

If you climb the sloping farm field opposite Silbury Hill to the top you will come to a Neolithic long barrow, one of the largest and most impressive ancient tombs in Britain. The barrow was erected around 3650 BC, making it one of the oldest sites in the Avebury World Heritage Site.

It was a communal grave site, with the bones of up to 50 people interred here over the course of 1000 years. You can walk into the centre of the barrow and examine the remarkable corbeled construction.

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West Kennet Long Barrow
West Kennet Long Barrow

Nearby Attractions

Cherhill White Horse

A few miles west of Avebury is Cherhill Down, a chalk hill with a north-facing slope. Carved into the face of the hill is the Cherhill White Horse, created in 1780 by Dr Christopher Allsop of Calne. Above the white horse is the Iron Age hillfort of Oldbury Castle, while on the summit of Cherhill Down is the Lansdowne Monument, a striking obelisk erected in 1845 by the 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne in honour of his ancestor, Sir William Petty.

The Ridgeway National Trail

During the Neolithic period one of the major trade routes in Britain was the Ridgeway, a trail stretching from Dorset to Norfolk, linking the North Sea to the English Channel. Following the route of this ancient track is the Ridgeway National Trail, which starts (or ends) at Overton Hill, opposite The Sanctuary.

From Overton Hill the Ridgeway follows the crest of the chalk downs north-east, crossing the Thames south of Oxford and then climbing the Chilterns to terminate at Ivinghoe Beacon. Along its route the Ridgeway passes several prehistoric sites, such as Barbury Castle hillfort north of Avebury.

The Red Lion pub
The Red Lion pub

Getting There

Avebury is located on the A4361, a mile north of Beckhampton and just off the A4 (the old Bath to London coach road). Be aware that there is no visitor parking in the village centre - it's a small village and the sheer number of visitors can quickly overwhelm the single street. There is a small resident's parking area opposite the village shop, but that is only for residents or visitors with a parking permit.

All other visitors (essentially everyone) must park at the National Trust parking area on the edge of the village, on the A4361 to Beckhampton. National Trust and English Heritage members park free. There is also a small layby on the B4003 at the southern end of West Kennet Avenue with room for 2-3 cars.

From the visitor car park just follow the pedestrian signs into the village. The signs point you to all the major attractions; the henge, Avebury Manor, the museum, and National Trust shop.

Our family had the pleasure of staying in a holiday cottage inside the churchyard for a wonderful week in late autumn. It was an amazing experience to be just a few steps from the famous henge and standing stones. We loved being able to stroll down the lane for a pint in the Red Lion and explore enjoy the remarkable history of the village and its surroundings.

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About Avebury
Address: A4361, Avebury, Wiltshire, England
Attraction Type: Village
Location: On the A4361 north of Beckhampton. Parking in the National Trust parking area on the A461.
Website: Avebury
Location map
OS: SU102699
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express

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NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS

Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

Avebury Stone Circle - 0.2 miles (Prehistoric Site) Heritage Rating

Avebury Manor and Garden - 0.2 miles (Historic House) Heritage Rating

Alexander Keillor Museum - 0.2 miles (Museum) Heritage Rating

Avebury, St James Church - 0.2 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

West Kennet Avenue - 0.3 miles (Prehistoric Site) Heritage Rating

Silbury Hill - 0.9 miles (Prehistoric Site) Heritage Rating

Windmill Hill - 1.2 miles (Prehistoric Site) Heritage Rating

Winterbourne Monkton, St Mary Magdalene Church - 1.3 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating



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