England – Avebury, An Older Stonehenge

THE law of fame is no less capricious applied to places than to individuals. Stonehenge is one of the common wonders of England, but how many know anything of Avebury ? Yet in many respects it is more interesting than Stonehenge, and, though it lacks in concentrated picturesqueness, it has considerable picturesqueness too, and is, I think, more suggestive to the imagination. Those who know, or rather make it their business to guess, regard Stonehenge as a mushroom growth by the side of Avebury — quite late Perpendicular. While Stonehenge was still untamed boulder in that strange valley of stones two miles east of Avebury, from which both Stonehenge and Avebury were brought, Avebury had long been a flourishing cathedral ; and, from hints that still remain of its largeness of design, it is evident that Stonehenge as compared with it, in the matter of size, was a mere lady-chapel. Still, it is surmised that fortune favoured Stonehenge from the beginning, and that it early became fashionable, while Avebury steadily declined in patronage: a rivalry of Aeschylus and Sophocles in stone. It has been advanced by one of those delightful old writers who write so airily of ” the Belgæ,” that those mysterious leaders of fashion in this island built Stonehenge deliberately as a rival to Avebury, “leaving the latter to the Celts ; ” and, at all events, the learned and delicious Dr. Stukeley had little hesitation in fixing the date of Ave-bury as 1859 B. C. —” the year of the death of Sarah, Abraham’s wife ” which is almost as delightful as ” leaving the latter to the Celts.”

To realise the splendid audacity of such theorising one has to visit these stones, and wonder that any one has even dared to suggest their original design, not to speak of a date. Of course, any one can see that they have not been aimlessly placed where they are — but great indeed was the courage that dared be so sure of that aim as to draw out a ground plan, with its avenues and inner and. outer circles, and nicely to decide on the original number of stones.

One’s first impression as one turns off the Bath and Marlborough road, — for Ave-bury is situated in North Wilts, about six miles west of Marlborough, — strikes the note of surprise and contrast which is the secret of that imaginative suggestiveness of which I have spoken. Probably one had expected a lonely circle of stones in the midst of a waste, after the manner of Stonehenge. At all events, I had. How-ver, one gradually realises as one rides the two or three miles of excellent turn-pike which joins Avebury to the Queen’s highway that the effect is to be something different. On either side of the stone walls which line the road the fields are under cultivation. You wait in vain for the appearance of the lonely waste. Field follows field, and then suddenly on the right, the wall built round it, rises up a great broad-shouldered, boulder-shaped stone, perhaps six feet high, suggesting some accident of nature rather than the design of man. But a moment after, appears another similarly shaped and placed on the left of the road. Then, a few yards further on, in a field to the left, one comes, with a pre-historic thrill — if you know what that is — upon six very large fallen stones lying flat, parallel with the road, in two rows of three stones each ; the further row supplemented by a seventh still standing upright. Evidently this is the beginning of Avebury, and evidently cultivation has laid its hand upon it, and you must not expect to see it in picturesque uninterruptedness, but pick it out here and there amid fields and farms. That you will soon realise is its unique charm. Suddenly, as you still follow the turnpike, two grassy ramparts partly masked with trees rise on each side of the road, and you note that they seem like the beginning of a circular wall of green mounds, through which the hedge-rowed turnpike has been cut. Immediately inside to the right you catch a glimpse through the edge of some very large stones standing in a field with a certain suggestion of design. Then orchards and houses, and then the road, its day’s work done, canters briskly out into an open space of houses clustering about a pleasant village inn. Avebury village, with its inn and its church, its cottages and its farms, has made a warm nest for itself right inside the old temple ; and the grass-grown vallum, with its deep inner moat, which we had noted on entering, enfolds the little place with a snug circle of green. So one comes upon some old farmhouses that once were nunneries, and trace shreds of sacred architecture among the stables and the byres. This is the charm of contrast of which I spoke, a contrast which, as will be easily understood, does much to deepen the almost frightening sense of antiquity with which those shrouded mounds and those terrible grey old stones, standing ghost-like at odd corners of field and farmyard, impress one.

Sunset was rapidly turning to twilight as I entered the village, and the dreamy light made the place more haunted still.

Ordering my dinner at the inn, for I had decided to stay the night there, I hastened to make the round of the village before the twilight turned to darkness. An oldish dilapidated fellow, whose face and speech too plainly proclaimed him one of the unwise disciples of the wise Omar, brushed aside for a moment the dream of drink and hastened after me to show the stones. I think it is well for him that Avebury is so little known, and I fear I may be doing him no true service in writing this article. Though, indeed, it matters little now. The thing is gone so far with him, that he may well be left to enjoy the palsied remnant of his life in his own way. He lives in my recollecton chiefly by a word he used in giving me directions how to make the circuit of the old vallum. The village, I should say, is cut through north, south, east and west, by intersecting highways, and is thus shaped roughly like a cross bounded by a circle. The inn stands about the centre of the cross. The road to Swindon, a few yards beyond it on the left, makes the northern arm of the cross, and within that and the eastern arm lies a farm with some meadows bounded by a segment of the vallum. One does need some one like that old Omarian to show one the beginning of the way. Else I would not have thought of boldly opening a private door set in the high wall of the farmyard on the other side of the Swindon road. Nerved to this trespass, however, by my companion’s assurance, I opened this door and found myself amid the litter of a farm-yard. ” There is one of the stones,” said my guide, as we entered, and looking to the right I saw the usual farmyard cesspool, the bethesda of ducks and pigs, dammed at one end by one of the huge stones fallen on its side. A little further, on the left, was a row of cottages, where I supposed the farm hands lived, and standing upright, some twenty feet high, I should say, within about a yard of the gable-end of the last cottage, was another mighty stone. Then came the open meadow, where there were several other stones, all very large, standing about. One had only to cross this meadow, and one had reached the vallum. Here the unwise Omar paused and explained how I could walk the whole. At each point where the high-road cuts through, the vallum ended, he explained, in a little ” trim-tram ” wicket. One passed through this, crossed the high-road, opened the ” trim-tram ” wicket on the other side, and so walked the next quarter of the circle. It seemed fairly easy, so I undertook the adventure — saying to’ myself: “a little ` trim-tram ‘ wicket.” And that is the odd phrase by which I recall a battered old country face, darkened with the melancholy of the drunkard. I suppose ” trim-tram ” will be found readily enough in Halliwell’s dictionary of archaisms and provincialisms. But to me, at all events, it was new and took my fancy. I count my walk round that old vallum, with its beautiful quietness, its deep ditches filling with shadows, its profound suggestiveness to the imagination, and its little trim-tram wicket, one of my most fascinating experiences. Of course, mood and atmospheric effect together account for most fascinating experiences. It was a very religious sun-set, solemn banners and a wide-spreading peace of lovely light. The air was all balm. It was the hour of the making of saints, — the hour when sinners dream of becoming saints, and saints dream of the lives of sinners. The eye revelled in an exquisite simplification of sight. The whole visible world seemed to fall into clear and gracious design. The eye and the soul alike knew with an absolute knowledge, which, like all absolute knowledge — not ignorance — is bliss ; for —

. . . sometimes on a sudden all seems clear — Hush! hush! my soul, the Secret draweth near;

Make silence ready for the speech divine —

If Heaven should speak, and there be none to hear !

” Yea! sometimes on the instant all seems plain,

The simple sun could tell us, or the rain ;

The world caught dreaming, with a look of Heaven,

Seems on a sudden tip-toe to explain.”

(In this matter of quotations, it may be held that charity begins at home ! )

Then, as a minor pleasure, there is always a satisfaction in being able clearly to grasp the lie of the land and the situation of a place. On the ridge of Avebury vallum at sunset you are unusually fortunate in the opportunity for such satisfaction : the sweeping wall of down to the north, sloping away into a smooth weald of wide levels and various crops in coloured squares, then little Avebury, like a lark’s nest dropped on the plain — a fortified lark’s nest, one is at first inclined to theorise : for, surely, you say, this must once have been a sacred village, and this vallum, with its moat, in some places seventy feet deep from the crest, was evidently a fighting wall, and has “resounded” long ago in the old silence with the ” din ” of flint weapons of war. The antiquary, however, pertinently points out that, had Avebury vallum been defensive in object, the moat would surely have been placed outside instead of inside. It is as rash theorising in archaeology as in philology.

Personally I care nothing at all whether Avebury vallum is sacred or martial in significance. It sufficed me that no place I have come upon in England is so filled with an almost shuddering sense of the dim grey-grown ages.” The gigantic struggles of man to make the world beneath his feet, and scale, with dreams and prayers, the world above his head, has left no more suggestive writing on the soil of England than this Avebury alpha-bet of terrible stone. Our imaginations are no doubt happy in the lack of detail. Detail would only vulgarise the spiritual reality that lies behind this dumb but eloquent relic. Bloodshed, and the wringing of hearts, and frightful deities : that is the early history of all religions — and too often the later. The imaginative Dr. Stukeley has attributed the erection of Avebury to the Phoenicians, who—one may think prophetically — came to England in search of tin. Perhaps the surmise is not too ridiculous, for the Phoenicians, with a religious intuition early awake to the dangers of anthropomorphism, are known to have preferred the use of standing stones to that of more realistically human symbols of the deities they worshipped — the good gods and goddesses of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth, the Rivers, the Meadows, and the Waters. It was a good worship, and if it necessitated an occasional human sacrifice, is not human sacrifice the essence of all religions ? The sun, the moon, the earth, the rivers, the meadows, and the waters : Avebury is indeed a fitting temple wherein to worship them, and as, passing through the last little trim-tram wicket, I decided to take a pew in that church, Astarte, Queen of Heaven, with cow’s horns of pearl, appeared to me, like a moth of pale silver, high up above the ancient stones.