Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Avebury, Rockley and Winterbourne Monkton

The year is almost half over and I am well behind on my normal schedule of walks. My excuse for the last week or so has been it has been too hot. With a change to cloud and rain promised on the following day and a somewhat cooler feel I set off on one of my more lengthier walks (14 miles).

When asked which places a stranger should visit in the area, I often say Avebury as it has such an impressive stone circle and a more intimate feel than Stonehenge; and yet I have to admit that it is over eight years since I last made a visit to Avebury. Here is a Google map of the route I took:

View Rockley, Avebury and Winterbourne Monkton in a larger map

I started off from Rockley, a place I visited nearly two years ago when I walked around Marlborough and the Ogbournes, and set off up the downs to the west. The first sight of note was a distant field of white, looking like snow, I have seen red and blue fields but rarely see a field that is so white. I wonder if it is a crop of broad beans?

white field

I soon became aware that this was going to be a butterfly day as I started to see quite a few of them. The most numerous over the whole walk were Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) - dozens and dozens - which is quite comforting as the numbers are supposed to be in decline.

small tortoiseshell,butterfly,Aglais urticae

One of the important sources of food for butterflies is bird's foot trefoil. In this area quite a few flowers fade to an attractive orange hue.

birds foot trefoil

As I approached the highest point of the walk (about 230m) I started to see sarsen stones. This area is part of Fyfield Down a national nature reserve known for the number of sarsen stones lying in the fields among the sheep. On the O.S. map these are termed 'Grey Wethers', an apt name when you see them scattered on the hillside. This area provided the stones erected at Avebury just a mile away.

grey wethers,sarsen

The track I was following is called Herepath or Green Street making it an Anglo-Saxon military road. These were built by King Alfred the Great as a defence network against the Viking invasion. I then crossed another ancient track the Great Ridgeway - although I doubt that it is the 'Great' Ridgeway rather than just an ordinary Ridgeway, I discuss this in my Ancient Trackways blog entry. I therefore find it rather annoying that books on the Ridgeway include Avebury as if it was on the famous trackway - it is quite a detour. Walking down the slope, the village of Avebury (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) starts to come into view, from this distance it looks nothing special, the ancient monuments are not prominent. This is because Avebury was built around a chalk stream - the source of the River Kennet and so is low lying in stark contrast to Stonehenge which is up on the downs.

Avebury view

There continued to be distractions caused by butterflies and plants. I saw some Small Skippers here and also Rest-harrow (Ononis repens) - an evocative name for an attractive plant. It was growing unusually tall - a couple of feet high.

rest-harrow,Ononis repens

The next unusual sight on approaching Avebury was a gypsy family camped out by the track complete with 'traditional' caravan.

gypsy caravan

The path down from the east gives no distant vista of the stone circle, suddenly you reach the circular high bank and ditch which surrounds the stones. The stone circle is cut into rough quadrants by modern roads and each quadrant has its own feel. The first I visited was in the north east, where the sarsen stones were giving sheep some protection from the hot midday sun.

sarsen stone,sheep,Avebury

Across the road, in the north west quadrant the stones form the shape of the arc of the outer circle - constructed about 4,600 years ago.

sarsen stone,stone circle,Avebury

I then took a detour outside the ring to the heart of the village of Avebury. Here stands Avebury Manor (a National Trust building) and the village church. The church retains some Norman features most notably the south doorway (not at its original location).

Avebury church,norman doorway

I have made quite a study of church fonts on my blog page and I was pleased to see an interesting font here. It is probably a Saxon font that was carved in early Norman times. The carving may show Christ (or a bishop) trampling two dragons.

Avebury church,font

The setting of the village and its church may reflect a respect for the Neolithic monument just as many Iron Age burials honour those of the preceding Bronze Age. Anyway, I went to explore the most popular south-west quadrant; although it has the largest number of visitors was certainly not over crowded for a sunny summer's day; you can see just three people chatting away by one of the stones.

sarsen stone,stone circle,Avebury

The south-eastern quadrant (requiring yet another crossing of the busy road) has fewer stones but includes the centre of the circle marked by an inner ring of smaller stones. From here you can see some of the houses built within the circle. Some of the stones have features that make them look strangely familiar, does this one have two eyes near the top with a nose in between?

sarsen stone,stone circle,Avebury

Having 'done' the stone circle I decided to walk down the ‘Stone or West Kennet Avenue’ that leads to the south. Avebury is special in that has many ancient monuments dotted around not just the stone circle (West Kennet long barrow; Silbury Hill; Windmill Hill; the Sanctuary). It is a shame that few visitors explore the wider area as these all add to the feel of this ancient landscape. This sets it apart from Stonehenge where you can just see the main stone circle devoid of local context. Perhaps this is why Avebury has been voted above the Taj Mahal as a visitor experience.

The West Kennet Avenue stretches over a mile to the south and is made up of paired stones lined up along the route. The paired stones are considered either female (squat and diamond shaped) and male (upright and pillar shaped). This is probably a male stone with Avebury church tower in the distance.

sarsen stone,western kennet avenue,Avebury

Some are strangely shaped and it is easy to start seeing human features in them, is this a hunched female figure?

sarsen stone,western kennet avenue,Avebury

While walking along the avenue I was still on the look out for plants and butterflies and came across, perhaps appropriately for an ancient monument, a solitary pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramdalis) . I had a vague hope of seeing more orchids on the walk but I did not see evidence of the soil conditions they like. The area has been and still is good agricultural land so wild-flowers struggle a bit.

pyramidal orchid,Anacamptis pyramdalis

The end of the avenue has a fine group of standing stones remaining. I was very happy to chat to someone who had a 'mystical' connection with the stones. He was a Hindu and had spent time communing with each stone detecting a sort of energy from them. It is lovely that people have the freedom to do this here, you can't do that at Stonehenge. There was just the two of us in the avenue at the time.

Now, before I leave sarsen stones behind I feel I must get a subject off my chest. One of the less plausible theories about the Stonehenge's Blue stones has been recently made is that they were treated as a source for healing. On fairly flimsy evidence the archaeologist interprets the higher proportion of blue stone fragments to sarsen fragments to pilgrims chipping off pieces of blue stone. At no time was it mentioned that sarsen stones are so tough that you can't easily break off fragments. Sarsens are sandstones that were impregnated with silica rich ground water making an effective solid slab of fine grained quartzite. The only way to break them is exposing them to high heat and quenching the stone rapidly with water. Quite naturally then you will see fragments of blue stones as they were shaped for erection with no sarsen fragments. So the 'fragment' theory is flawed and none of the other evidence for healing really stands up, other explanations are equally likely. It is just as likely that people came to die at a special place than to receive healing.

west kennet avenue,sarsen,Avebury

Returning back to the village I set out west to the Kennet which here is just a small stream. At a bridge you can get a good view to Silbury Hill - considered the tallest man made monument from Stone Age times.

Silbury Hill

Near here was a few bright orange plants that I take to be an orange form of Hawkbit, 'Fox and cubs' I had seen examples of this in the Marlborough area previously.


I then followed paths alongside the Kennet valley northward to Winterbourne Monkton and this is where the waters appear only in winter (hence the name). There was not much to see as the fields were heavily cultivated and there were few patches for wild-flowers. As usual I made a slight detour to visit the village church and was delighted to find a very old and strange font. What is more, a couple were studying it and making drawing and could tell me a lot about it. It is an interesting example of Anglo-Saxon font which was later carved (probably 12th century). As in the case of the Avebury font it was originally brightly painted and you can still some traces of red, blue and black paint. The carving is distinctly odd, parts are not symmetric and the top and bottom halves do not match up (the bottom has 28 divisions the top 18). It is most famous for a rather graphic depiction of a woman giving birth (not pictured here!).

Winterbourne Monkton,font

I then left human habitation behind me and walked west up on to the downs. Along the way I saw many butterflies including this Red Admiral. With the unique attraction of Avebury I have kept the photos of butterflies to a minimum but for the record, the species I saw were: Small tortoiseshell (numerous); Meadow brown (numerous); Brimstone; Small white; Small Skipper; Large Skipper; Small Heath (quite a few); Common Blue; Speckled Wood; Marbled White; Ringlet and Red Admiral - that's 12 species not too bad.

red admiral,butterfly

The trip back to Rockley took me past another open access area with sarsens scattered around. With good views along the edge of the chalk ridge.

chalk downs

The paths at the top were not as marked on my map so I took an unplanned detour but with the benefit of seeing this plant, which is a vetch but which kind I am not sure, fodder vetch?


I then followed the path along Temple Bottom all the way back to Rockley. It is named 'Temple' after the Knights Templar who once owned the land.

I was glad to see rabbits to add a little extra interest to this blog, it is rare to be able to catch them looking relaxed unless you stay very still for a long time.


Further along were some lovely bright cinquefoil flowers


Just as I was despairing of seeing anything more of interest, I saw in the fields that a red deer had been disturbed by a horse and rider and it was bounding through a field of wheat in my direction. I had just time to switch on the camera and point and click the button before it reached me, so I was very lucky to catch it as it crossed the road.


So there is an end of the rather assorted collection of pictures from the walk. I actually took 176 photographs which I think is a record for one day. It turned out to be a total 14 miles in length (accounting for some detours) so I was quite glad to get back home for a rest at the end of it.

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