This month’s walk explores the area around Avebury, which for many is the most important prehistoric site in Britain. John Aubrey, who first realised its significance in the seventeenth century, declared that it ‘does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge as a cathedral doeth a parish church’.
Sadly, many of the stones which characterised Avebury in Aubrey’s day have since been broken, buried or removed, and the present appearance of the site is largely due to Alexander Keiller, who excavated and re-erected many of them in the 1930s. November is a good time to visit Avebury, as the tourist hordes have departed, and, although some of the paths alongside the River Kennet may be muddy, this five-mile walk, which takes in the major monuments of this sacred landscape, avoids the worst of them.
There is no parking in Avebury itself, but there is a large car park just west of the village on the A4361 (SU100696). All-day parking costs £3 during the winter months, but is free to National Trust and English Heritage members. Having parked up, most people head for the exit in the north-east corner leading to the village and stone circle. We, however, will head in the opposite direction, leaving the stones as the grand finale to our walk.
● Head back to the car park entrance and take a path to the right. Turn right along the road for a few metres before crossing and going through a gateway with a blue arrow and a White Horse Trail (WHT) waymark. Carry on through a handgate with another WHT waymark to follow a path beside the fledgling River Kennet.
● As you continue along the path, Silbury Hill comes into view ahead. Believed to have been built between 2400 and 2300BC, the reasons for its construction remain as obscure as they were in Aubrey’s day. There are, however, a myriad of theories to account for it, and, as you walk along, glimpsing it from different angles, you may well feel moved to concoct one of your own.
● Carry on through two handgates, ignoring a turning to the right. Follow the path through another handgate, and, at the main road, cross, turn left and then right through a kissing gate (KG) following a sign for West Kennet Long Barrow (SU104684).
● Follow the path as it bears left through a KG. After another 50m, the main track bears right uphill (SU105682). Although there is no waymark to indicate it, the public footpath carries straight on beside a fence. That is the way you want to go, but first make a detour up to the right to visit West Kennet Long Barrow. This extraordinary communal tomb, high on the downs, predates both Silbury Hill and the stone circle at Avebury, and provides a superb vantage point over the World Heritage Site.
● Head back downhill, turn right along the path and, at the end of the field, cross a stile and carry on. When you come to a lane, cross a stile to carry straight on with a fence on your right. After 350m follow the fence as it bears right. Just before the end of the field, cross a stile and carry on along a narrow path. At a T junction, turn left, and after a few metres turn right (SU114678).
● When you come to a broad track bear left along it. Follow it as it swings left towards the spire of East Kennett church. This bucolic village – population 84 – with its thatched cottages and time-worn redbrick buildings, nestling in the willow-fringed valley of the Kennet, is a striking contrast to the prehistoric sites on the bleak downs above.
● Continue along the lane past the church and the Manor Farm, turning right at the end by a phone box. When the wall on the left ends, turn left along a footpath by Manor Cottage. Turn left at the end, and, after a few metres, when the lane forks, carry straight on alongside a wall. After passing the Manor House, where a bridge takes you across the Kennet, the going can get muddy. Follow the bridleway as it curves onward and upward, ignoring turnings to right and left. This rutted track leads up to the A4 (SU119681), where you will see a group of tumuli across the road and the Lansdowne Monument of 1845 on the western horizon. On the left is the site of the Sanctuary – a stone circle once linked to Avebury by a ceremonial avenue. Still intact in Aubrey’s day, it was destroyed in 1723, and the position of the stones is now indicated by concrete slabs.
● Cross and carry on along the Ridgeway for 700m, before turning left along a grassy byway (SU119688). After 200m, follow it as it curves right past a beech-covered tumulus (don’t take the permissive path branching off to the left). After 400m, carry on past a turning to the left with a ‘no public access’ sign, but, after another 400m, when you come to a crosspath (SU113698), turn left down a broad grassy track.
● After 700m, when you come to the road, cross and turn right through a gate to walk up what survives of the avenue that linked the Sanctuary with Avebury. The sinuous course of the avenue, with lost stones indicated by concrete slabs, swings right, where the road now slices through it, before curving back to the left as the village of Avebury and the mighty henge – or rampart – around the stone circle comes into view ahead.
● A handgate leads onto a road, where another handgate leads through the henge to the stone circle. The site is divided into four quadrants by the two roads that slice through it, with the way back to the car park over to the left. Before heading back, however, there is much to see – including a museum housing Keiller’s archaeological discoveries and a sixteenth-century manor house (open from Thursday to Sunday during November and December). There are also tea rooms, shops, a pub and the inevitable gift shops.
- Distance: 5 miles
- Time: 2.5 – 3 hours
- Level of challenge: Generally straightforward but muddy in places with three stiles and two road crossings
- Map: OS Explorer 157