A full day’s hike of the northern part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Avebury and Stonehenge
Having been given a free rein by Adrian and Alan I decided, seeing as they were both young and fit and Alan was training for the London Marathon in 3 months time, that we’d go for a really good Avebury hike. Apart from anything else it was the first time I was able to do some proper exercise since the holiday excesses and they were both up for it.
Avebury and Stonehenge guided tours – a 15 mile hike around the northern half of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. An Avebury hike.
Having been given a free rein by Adrian and Alan I decided, seeing as they were both young and fit and Alan was training for the London Marathon in 3 months time, that we’d go for a really good Avebury hike. Apart from anything else it was the first time I was able to do some proper exercise since the holiday excesses and they were both up for it. From a few days before the weather forecast was not great so I toyed with the idea of changing the plan but when the night before the BBC assured us it would be ‘blustery but mild and dry’ that was good enough for me.
It certainly was ‘blustery’ overnight, our local news warning of several trees down blocking roads in our area however I still considered our Avebury hike route safe as most of it is well away from any tree hazards being on the rolling chalk downs of North Wiltshire.
I met the brothers at Chippenham railway station at 9.30am and we set off on our tour. Chippenham is a convenient distance from our area of interest the journey giving me time to have a brief chat and outline the itinerary for the day before our first stop. Even with only 8 and a half hours of daylight we still had ample time to take in all the major sites of the northern part of the World Heritage Site so I headed straight for the main National Trust car park at Avebury, parking for free as a National Trust member.
Our first port of call was Windmill Hill so at a quarter past ten we headed away from the famous Avebury monument and through the village of Avebury itself. We hadn’t gone far when I spotted my old school music teacher outside his thatched cottage. We stopped for a few introductions and a quick chat about Shostakovich’s early film scores, as you do, before heading on along the lane out of the village. It came as no surprise to me that we didn’t see another soul for the next hour and had Windmill Hill to ourselves.
Considering the windy conditions it was surprisingly still up there. I love this hill. Secluded yet with wonderful views of the surrounding area it is abundantly clear why some of the earliest settlers in the British Neolithic (the period of the first farmer/settlers) decided to build a camp here. For me it not only still has those original attractions but also the beginnings of a story in the marks the people left behind. Not ever that massive the earthworks of the causewayed enclosure that crown the hill have nevertheless weathered the test of time and are still very clear in parts.
But more than this as one of the cradles not only of human settlement but also of the history of British archaeology Windmill Hill is a very special place. We spent longer here than I had meant but even if it is the least visually impressive of the sites on this Avebury hike it is such an important site. For anyone on my walks it is good for them to have a clear mental picture of it, I’m always amazed how often I refer back to it.
On our way up the hill we had startled a large flock of yellowhammers flitting between bush and field. Now coming down a herd of some 20-odd roe deer sprinted away from us in the field below to the north. Only bootprints in the mud disclosed any recent human presence.
Neither of my guests had ever been to Avebury which is always exciting for a guide so I pointed out the earthworks as we approached from afar in order that they could appreciate the scale of the monument we were on our way to visit.
Once there Adrian and Alan were suitably impressed and we visited, discussed and photographed all the various aspects of the site and did a full circuit before enjoying a warming coffee, (hot) crossed bun and banana each on the semi-recumbent megalith by the east entrance of the henge.
It was from here that the wilder part of the walk was to begin. Green Street, the old herepath leading east out of Avebury affords some lovely views back to Avebury and Windmill Hill beyond. It also gives the opportunity to discuss the chalk geology so obvious here and in the fields around. The wind was certainly strengthening as we climbed the gentle incline so that once on the Ridgeway Path we were getting fairly battered.
We walked north along the ancient path for a while before turning off to discover again the Polissoir, a Neolithic polishing stone. Literally off the beaten path this Neolithic remnant is a real gem. I had given the stone quite a build up as I find it extraordinary and love the aura that surrounds it. Because of the durability of Sarsen, the stone looks more or less exactly as it did 5,500 years ago when people were creating the most beautiful polished stone axes on this very spot. So I was thrilled when Adrian and Adam shared my enthusiasm. Having duly admired we made our way off between scrub and stone down in to the dry valley, or combe, and followed the river of giant Sarsen stones into Clatford Bottom.
Another hidden treasure lies here, the Devil’s Den. Fancifully named it is actually the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber that was probably once incorporated in a long barrow. Known as a Portal Dolmen, comprising giant stones, one balanced as a roof on top of others, the Devil’s Den would look more at home on the coast of Pembrokeshire 180 miles to the west. Here they are relatively common but in Wiltshire this example comes as quite a surprise to the unsuspecting traveller.
Unlike the polishing stone it is marked on the Ordnance Survey maps but it still feels remarkably remote especially when approached from the north as we had done. After this and 3 hours of barely a glimpse of anyone else (the only crowd having been an extraordinary flock of jackdaws in their hundreds sheltering from the wind in Clatford Bottom) civilisation, food and drink in the guise of a pub became the focus. Fortunately not only did I know the ideal place but I had also made a reservation it being a Saturday.
With my friends at school I would occasionally venture as far as the ‘Who’d A Thought It’ for an illicit pint so I’m pleased to be going back there regularly now. We had a table booked by the open fire and were welcomed with a genuine smile despite being rather late. All of us were impressed with the local beer -Wadworths ‘6X’- and the home-cooked food (mine was so homely – the ‘Who’d A Ham Hash’ – that it is exactly what I would cook for myself if home alone) and as a result we perhaps tarried longer than we should have.*
When we hauled ourselves away I realised we were somewhat up against it to fit everything else in before dark so we had a rather energetic walk along the lanes by the river Kennet to our next stop. Despite the time we made a small diversion to visit the site of ‘the Sanctuary’ because I’d spoken a lot about it and Adrian and Alan were keen to take it in. Although nothing remains of the original 2 stone and 6 timber circles, concrete markers were placed in the ground after the site had been excavated in the 1930s to mark the positions of all the posts and stones that once stood here. If nothing else this makes it easier for a guide to describe the monument that was once an important element of the suite of monuments that occupied the Avebury landscape. How different approaches are now!
Nearby the extraordinary West Kennet Palisaded Enclosures were excavated by Joshua Pollard in 1986 but on completion nothing was placed to mark their position. An equally important part of the ancient landscape no sign of them remains. In line with contemporary practice no artificial representation would be appropriate and for the guide the descriptive word has to suffice. This is the correct modern approach of course but as for the Sanctuary I for one am glad something by way of representation was put there!
We past the site of the Enclosures and made our way to West Kennet Long Barrow. Here an extraordinary amount of the 5,500 year old monument is preserved and accessible. My guests were clearly excited by this monument as it is such a tangible relic of an ancient culture and the evening light created a memorable atmosphere for a first visit. I had brought 3 torches along so we were able to fully explore all the burial chambers. It was now however starting to get dark and time for our last monument.
The path back to the car park winds past Silbury Hill and gives plenty of time for admiration, explanation and speculation. A final addition to the Neolithic landscape around Avebury it is perhaps the most enigmatic. Not having such an identifiable use as the enclosures, burial mounds and polishing stone Silbury Hill’s purpose for now remains a mystery.
*since writing this article The Who’d a Thought it has changed hands and gone considerably up market. It still has a relaxed feel though and the food is similarly excellent if less home-style.
Don’t just take our word for it:
Thanks very much for a great day out, we both very much enjoyed it and learnt loads about the area and the archaeology of the different sites. Adrian from the UK (2nd February 2015)
Avebury full day hike with an Avebury guide
Please enquire about a half day or full day tour to include Avebury via the ‘Enquire’ button below or for more information click on ‘Home’ for our home page, ‘About’ for our story or ‘Tours’ for suggested itineraries. Read more about the Avebury area here.
Since 1986 Avebury and Stonehenge have been listed as one designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
They certainly contain many contemporary monuments from both the stone age and the bronze age but they are separated by the Pewsey Vale. Maybe the area in between which includes Marden Henge and many other internationally significant sites should have been included as well.
Click on their logo to find out more about the World Heritage program.
Oldbury Tours are proud to be partners of Visit Wiltshire.
Most of the sites we visit fall within this wonderful county including Avebury and Stonehenge.
Click on their logo to find out a lot more about what is going on in the county what to see, where to eat and where to stay/
Most of the area we visit in the northern, Avebury, part of the World Heritage Site lies within The North Wessex Downs Area of Natural Beauty
If you are staying in the area for some time you might like to visit their website by clicking on their logo.
The Pewsey Vale is the area between the two halves of the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site. We visit several places within the vale on our tours.
Find out more about this beautiful and under-explored region by clicking on their logo.