This parish history by John Chandler is taken from his books ‘Marlborough and Eastern Wiltshire’ (Hobnob Press, 2001, £20.00, ISBN 0 946418 07 1) and ‘Devizes and Central Wiltshire’ (Hobnob Press, 2003, £20.00, ISBN 0 946418 16 0). The books are the first two of a projected series of seven, under the series title 'Wiltshire: a History of its Landscape and People', which together will offer short histories of every parish in Wiltshire, including the areas now within Swindon Borough. The text included here is the author's copyright and should not be further reproduced for publication without his consent. There may be minor textual variants between the text posted here and the published version.
Dr Chandler will be happy to supply hardback copies of either Marlborough and Eastern Wiltshire, which includes histories of 34 parishes in eastern Wiltshire (from Tidworth in the south to Aldbourne in the north and Avebury in the west), with illustrations and maps, or Devizes and Central Wiltshire, which includes histories of 42 parishes in central Wiltshire, with illustrations and maps, for £20 each post free. He can be contacted: by email: John Chandler ; by phone: 01747-830015; or by post: c/o Hobnob Press, PO Box 1838, East Knoyle, Salisbury SP3 6FA.
Like Nell Gwyn, Avebury entered the pages of history as a result of catching the king’s eye. ‘They told his Majestie,’ wrote John Aubrey with evident pride, ‘what they had heard me say concerning Aubury: that it did as much excell Stoneheng as a Cathedral does a Parish Church.’ So it was that in 1663 Aubrey had the honour of conducting Charles II around ‘that stupendous antiquity’, and of climbing with his majesty to the top of Silbury Hill. Aubrey was no fool; his well-chosen simile conveys not only the scale and grandeur of Avebury, but also a sense of religious awe. And it is this response by one generation after another to the religions and traditions of the past that has been central to Avebury’s history – whether manifesting itself as Bronze Age barrows built inside the Neolithic enclosure at Windmill Hill, or a Viking funeral at Silbury Hill, or a 14th-century attempt to conceal the standing stones by burying them in pits, or the all-pervasive Druids of Stukeley’s antiquarian imagination, or the crowds of present-day visitors who brave the main road to touch the stones – you and me.
Avebury’s story is best told chronologically, but first the scene must be set. The parish occupies a large, very roughly square, territory of chalkland on the Marlborough Downs, through which runs the infant River Kennet. Near Avebury village the Kennet is sired by the union of two streams, the Winterbourne and the Sambourne. Avebury village, with its satellite, Avebury Truslow, controlled one of the three tithings into which the medieval parish was divided; the others belonged to the hamlets of Beckhampton and West Kennet. The parish was formerly part of a larger territory, which shared with its river the name Kennet, and which was split up in the 10th century and later; East Kennett had become a separate parish by the 13th century. The valleys of the Kennet and Winterbourne, and the crests of downland overlooking them, have dictated the pattern of communications since prehistory, so that the parish is criss-crossed by Saxon herepaths (army roads), the Great Ridgeway, a Roman road, and 18th-century turnpikes leading to Marlborough, Calne, Devizes and Swindon, including sections of the Bath coach road (later A4). An archaeologist in the distant future, if deprived of dating evidence, might be forgiven for assuming that both the Avebury henge monument and Silbury Hill had been built, like the modern Beckhampton roundabout, to control traffic here at the great cross-roads of Wiltshire. Indeed, archaeologists in the present suggest that the Windmill Hill enclosure may have been sited at the meeting of prehistoric paths through the wildwood.
Human interference in the then densely wooded landscape around Avebury probably began more than 6,000 years ago when mesolithic hunters made sporadic expeditions into the area. Limited woodland clearance for intermittent pastoral and arable use was set in train by the earliest neolithic farmers, and they seem to have created a patchwork of open and wooded areas, which fluctuated over time, as new tracts were felled and earlier clearings succumbed to bracken, scrub, and woodland regeneration. The evidence for these activities comes from the analysis of soil and archaeological remains sealed beneath the later monuments, and some of these, such as the earthen long barrows at Horslip, South Street and Beckhampton Road, which contain no burials, may reflect a transitional society, emerging from the mesolithic into the neolithic.
The Avebury environment in the earlier Neolithic period remained quite heavily wooded, and the people who moved about in it and began to regard it as a focus for creating religious monuments were by no means all living nearby. There were relatively few of them, and they were probably accustomed to range over a wide area. Their earliest major monument, the causewayed enclosure on Windmill Hill, was first investigated by the rector of Winterbourne Bassett in 1922, and scrupulously excavated between 1925 and 1929 by Alexander Keiller, the heir to a marmalade fortune. Once its significance was appreciated he purchased most of the hill in 1924, and the remainder in 1937. Further excavations were carried out there during 1957/8 and in 1988, enabling archaeologists to penetrate further the minds and world of its builders, the civilization known since the 1950s as the Windmill Hill culture. They lived after the earliest Neolithic phase, around 3,500 BC; and on the wooded hilltop, at a place which may already have been charged with religious significance, they built three roughly concentric circuits of ditches punctuated by causeways. Here within their rings within the forest they gathered for ritual observances, which included feasting, depositing animal and sometimes human remains, and perhaps commemorating their history and their ancestors.
Sporadically after its period of ritual use the monument on Windmill Hill was revisited, perhaps occupied, and held in awe. But now, during the later Neolithic, other Avebury monuments take centre stage. First, overlapping with the era of the causewayed camp, there were the long barrows, of which the grandest, the West Kennet barrow (which is also the largest in England and Wales), basks on the horizon across the valley from Windmill Hill; its chambered east end was systematically excavated in 1955. It balances Windmill Hill, the one evoking a way of life, the other a way of death. West Kennet seems to have been the mausoleum of a ruling elite, entombing some fifty individuals, whose skeletons were repeatedly disturbed and disarranged, presumably for ritual purposes. In the later Neolithic, once the family ties were broken and the barrow had become an awe-inspiring monument of the past, it was progressively filled and its entrance eventually blocked.
Meanwhile the implication, which is confirmed by archaeological remains discovered beneath later monuments, is that the Avebury area was undergoing further forest clearance and was being exploited in a reasonably efficient manner; a regime of mixed arable and pastoral farming seems to have been in use, with an emphasis on pig-rearing, both to control bracken and to provide a quickly renewable source of protein. And it is now, during the four or five centuries following 3,000 BC, within the later Neolithic period, that the most prodigious period of construction around Avebury seems to have taken place. Its legacy is two prehistoric monuments known and recognized worldwide – the stone-studded henge of Avebury itself, and Silbury Hill – as well as enigmatic alignments of posts and stones, extant or discovered by excavation, which have been explored and discussed by archaeologists since the seventeenth century. The building sequence is not certain and views have changed over the years, but the most recent phasing, by Alasdair Whittle, based on his team’s new investigations during the 1980s and 1990s, places the start of the West Kennet avenue before the development of the Avebury henge monument, the Sanctuary, and then Silbury Hill. But we shall begin with the view from West Kennet barrow.
Less than 1km to the north-west lies Silbury Hill, which, as Whittle’s excavation report exclaims, ‘both demands and thwarts explanation’. In our modern world, accustomed to motorway embankments and earthmoving machinery, that gargantuan green blancmange beside the A4 may have lost some of its stature, but none of its fascination. The highest and largest prehistoric mound in Europe, it was built around 2,500 BC; its smooth profile hides a geometrical pattern of radiating chalk block walls encasing an earlier, much smaller mound, and arranged in a series of steps, which gives the monument enormous strength and stability. Some of the terracing still visible near the top, however, may be the result of fortifying it in the middle ages.
Silbury’s purpose is unknown, and the assumption that it is a burial mound of a prehistoric celebrity has not been confirmed by the various shafts and tunnels dug into it in 1776/7, 1849 and 1968-70. None found evidence of a burial. Although it is the largest, it is not the only giant barrow (if they may be so described) in central Wiltshire; the now-destroyed Hatfield Barrow in Beechingstoke seem to fall into the same class of monument, and comparisons have been drawn also with a group of Yorkshire barrows. Recent attempts to understand it have looked for parallels much further afield, to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Americas. Whatever the reason for Silbury, its existence is testimony not only to the engineering skills of the late neolithic community centred on the Avebury region, but also to a social organisation enjoying sufficient confidence and economic surplus (or coercive power) to embark on a project which (according to one of many quite different but equally impressive estimates) took eighteen million man-hours to complete.
The building of Silbury Hill has been bracketed with two other, nearby, construction projects which are no longer to be seen. These were massive palisade enclosures constructed at about the same period lower down the Kennet valley, close to the modern village of West Kennet and the line of its stone avenue. One enclosure straddled the river, the other lay on the south bank, and both were investigated between 1987 and 1992. The palisades of large oak timbers were set in circular and elliptical ditches which were backfilled and packed with sarsens. Their function, like that of so much else within the enigmatic ritual cavalcade underlying the Avebury monuments, remains unknown.
The megalomania which drove the community centred on Avebury to build Silbury Hill and the palisade enclosures is seen also in another project, the great bank and ditch and the circles of stones which comprise the henge monument of Avebury itself. The design was clearly influenced by other, earlier, henge monuments, including the bank and ditch at Stonehenge. In area the Avebury enclosure is smaller than nearby Marden henge (in Beechingstoke), but its massive ditch – more than 15m below the top of the bank before it began to silt up – was on a far greater scale. The likely sequence of construction begins with two circular settings of sarsen megaliths, now for the most part destroyed, known as the north and south circles. Within each was a focal point, presumably of ceremonial significance. The south circle contained an enormous stone, nearly 7m high, known as the obelisk, the north circle a ‘cove’ of three stones, perhaps set in imitation of the forecourt stones which had been erected at the entrance to the now obsolete long barrows. Two stones of this cove survive. A third circle was perhaps intended further north, but instead the massive enclosing bank and ditch were constructed, as four rather irregular quadrants separated by four entrances. Next the outer stone circle was made, the undressed sarsen stones being dragged on sledges from the downs and precariously heaved into their pits. If, as is commonly supposed, Avebury’s ceremonial function was connected with fertility rites, it may be plausible to identify male (tall and slender) and female (diamond-shaped) stones.
Processing from two of the entrances, south and west (and perhaps from all four) were avenues of stones, apparently alternate male and female. The Beckhampton avenue was meticulously described by William Stukeley, who during the 1720s and later witnessed its destruction, apart from two stones – dubbed Adam and Eve – above Beckhampton, which formed part if it and its related cove. It set off in a westerly direction along the line of the village street, and part of its course has been rediscovered by an ongoing programme of excavations (from 1999), which has also revealed a Neolithic enclosure in Longstones Field along the way.
he Kennett avenue is more visible, and has been in part restored, with concrete markers set in place of vanished stones. It ran for more than 2km from Avebury almost to the River Kennet near the present West Kennett village, and then up to the Sanctuary, which is now the least impressive of the major monuments around Avebury. The existence of a double stone circle here was recorded in the seventeenth century, but the stones had gone by Stukeley’s time (1724) and the site was not located again until 1930. Excavation revealed six rings of wooden post-holes, in addition to the stone settings, and until recently they were interpreted as denoting a roofed temple-like building which was repeatedly renewed. Recent assessments, and another excavation (in 1999), suggest that the structure was probably not roofed, and that it may only have been in use for a comparatively short time (around 2,500 BC), during which period it was repeatedly being modified. The settings are marked now by concrete posts.
It is an exciting time for prehistoric Avebury. The ongoing research projects initiated in the late 1980s have refined and focussed the debate, and the watchwords now are symbolism and choreography. ‘The dance continues’, as Michael Pitts remarked, and the hapless historian who tries to make sense of this Neolithic conundrum is doomed to criticism and failure. We have at least tried to summarize the principal prehistoric monuments of the Avebury region in roughly chronological order, and this has brought us to the latter half of the third millennium BC, when new cultural influences were being felt in Britain, as the beaker people ushered in the bronze age.
The introduction of metalworking was accompanied by altered burial practices, which led to the sealing of West Kennett long barrow and the construction instead of round barrows as sepulchres for individuals rather than dynasties. Avebury’s importance continued into the early bronze age, but then the centre of prehistoric gravity moved further south, to the Stonehenge region. It has been suggested that bluestones from Wales were used in the early phases of Stonehenge because the sarsens of the Avebury area were not then available to its builders; whereas later the tribe centred on Avebury had been subjugated by the rulers of Stonehenge, who could then rebuild their monument in sarsen. At this period Avebury’s archaeological record begins to fall silent, suggesting that for much of the next two millennia it was abandoned or at least disregarded as a place of special significance.
The Romans rediscovered Avebury. Silbury Hill was used as a sighting-point for the Roman road between London and Bath, and a short stretch of its embankment may be seen preserved in the arable where the Devizes road leaves Avebury parish south-west of Beckhampton. As it approaches Silbury the course of the Roman road is deflected to pass south of the mound, close to the later A4, and in this area a late-Roman settlement is attested by wells (including one more than 8m deep excavated in 1896) and refuse pits. Excavations in advance of a pipeline in 1993 discovered five buildings and numerous pits and ditches immediately east of Silbury Hill on the opposite bank of the Winterbourne, and from finds evidence life in this settlement seems to have spanned the whole Roman period. A tesselated pavement, which would have belonged to a Roman villa, was discovered during ploughing in 1922 in a field between Avebury Truslow and Windmill Hill, and scatters of Roman pottery have been found in many parts of the parish, deposited, no doubt, with household refuse to manure the fields.
Roman activity continued in the Avebury area, according to coin evidence, through the fourth century and into the fifth. A coin no earlier than 408 was found in the well mentioned above, and the excavators’ comments suggest that it had been deposited with or beneath (therefore earlier than) other Romano-British debris. The discovery also of evidence of early Saxon occupation in the vicinity leads one to wonder whether Avebury might not be an example of the continuity of an estate from Roman times through the Saxon and medieval periods. Sunken-floored huts of the pagan Saxon period were discovered in 1976, 1985 and 1988 south of the present village when the visitors’ car park was being built and extended; and sherds of pottery of the same period have been identified among finds from the Avebury circle itself. Other Saxon material has come from the school grounds, and the meadows west of the high street. The possibility of continuous occupation in the area is reinforced by two place-names, Waledich and Wadon Hill. Waledich was the name by which the Avebury circle was referred to in the thirteenth century, and which was still in use, as Wallditch, as late as 1696. It means ‘ditch of the wealas’, a word generally used by Saxon colonists to refer to an enclave of native Britons. Wadon Hill means ‘heathen hill’, and may refer to the continuation into the Christian period of pagan Saxon practices; although it was perhaps merely a reference to the religious aura of the Avebury monuments which it overlooks.
However genuine its Roman pedigree, late-Saxon Avebury was a place of some significance. The estate, as we have seen, was then known as Kennet (‘Avebury’ is not recorded before Domesday, and then only in referring to the church), and included the subsequently independent parish of East Kennett (usually spelled ‘tt’, unlike the river and its neighbours), and perhaps also Winterbourne Monkton (whose church owed allegiance to Avebury), as well as the later tithings of West Kennet and Beckhampton which, with Avebury itself, made up the medieval parish.
East and West Kennet(t), of course, evince in their name this earlier, larger ‘Kennet’, and such territories, deriving their names from the rivers on which they are situated, have been shown from elsehwere often to be early and important. This early importance is suggested also by the emergence of a rural deanery based on Avebury, and by the presence of a church referred to in Domesday as possessing land. Such churches often began as minsters, central places for the spread of Saxon Christianity to outlying communities. More tangible evidence is provided by the church itself, which retains Saxon windows at the west end of the nave and high up as a clerestory, as well as a sumptuous Norman doorway and lively Norman carvings on the Saxon font, which brims with Christian magic.
Avebury church sits within a basically rectangular churchyard which seems to be an integral feature of the rectilinear village plan. The plan itself may, therefore, be contemporary with the church, which on architectural grounds is reckoned to be of the 9th or 10th century. The plan appears to have consisted of a straight street, roughly on the line of the Beckhampton avenue of standing stones, which bisects a rectangular village enclosure. A section of boundary bank has been preserved in the car park extension on the south side of the village, and its course may be seen also running along the edge of the playing field nearby. Property boundaries run at right angles between the street and the rear bank, and modern footpaths follow two of them. The bank of the henge monument formed the eastern boundary, and the western end seems to be marked now by a culvert, which is deflected at the south-west angle of the village enclosure. North of the street a parallel back lane is preserved as far east as the churchyard, and its continuation westwards has provided the only exit from the village in this direction since the high street was truncated in the 18th century or earlier.
The early 12th century was an important period for the subsequent history of both the village and the monuments. Grants made in 1114 placed much of the Avebury estate in the hands of a French abbey, St Georges de Boscherville in Normandy, and as a result a small monastic cell, known as Avebury Priory, was established. In 1133 Avebury church, and the Domesday estate attached to it, were granted to another monastery, Cirencester Abbey. It should not, however, be imagined that medieval Avebury, in consequence, was overrun by monks; the alien priory usually had only two resident brethren, and in 1324 it was reported that their few possessions included a chess set - presumably to keep them out of the kind of mischief which had landed one of their predecessors, in 1249, in Marlborough gaol on a murder charge. For eighty years Cirencester Abbey sent one of its members to act as parish priest, but at other times a vicar was appointed, and the abbey’s interests were presumably managed by a steward.
Medieval Avebury was nevertheless dominated by its monastic owners, and it has been suggested that their influence lay behind a spate of megalith-burying during the early 14th century. This, the argument runs, was an attempt to extinguish latent reverence for the monument among the local inhabitants; if so the plan proved counter-productive, because the destruction was hastily abandoned after a stone took its revenge by falling prematurely, thereby leaving a man (surmised to have been an itinerant barber-surgeon, because a pair of scissors were found with him) dead and buried underneath it in a single, dramatic, instant. Other theories are that stones were buried merely to make cultivation easier, as it is recorded that new land was being won for the plough in Avebury at this period; it is also been suggested that the casualty may have been a murder victim subsequently buried under the stone.
The effect of monastic ownership on the topography of the Saxon and medieval village was that by the end of the middle ages it had to accommodate three manor houses and their premises – the alien priory or grange (which had been dissolved in 1411, and passed to Fotheringhay College); a house belonging to the abbot of Cirencester; and another house, controlling a second Cirencester estate which later became the manor of Avebury Trusloe. All were close to the church and the circle, but only the site of the alien priory is known for certain. This was the present Avebury Manor, which retains medieval fabric within a predominantly late-Elizabethan house. With its grounds it occupies the north-west quadrant of the village plan, behind the back lane described earlier. The house, much squabbled over at the time of its building and since, is now, following a brief spell (1988-90) as the centrepiece of an Elizabethan theme park, a National Trust property and open to the public. Nearby is the former yard of the manor farm (the 18th-century farmhouse fronts on to the high street), which retains a 16th-century dovecote, a granary and a magnificent 17th-century thatched barn with later wings, all now put to tourist uses, as information centre, gift shop, restaurant and museum. The construction of the barn entailed destroying the bank of the monument at this point, and is believed to have taken place between 1683 and 1696.
Before delving further into the more recent history of Avebury village and circle, it is important to remind ourselves that the larger Saxon estate and medieval parish, of which it was the centre, contained other settlements. Features of a deserted medieval village between Avebury and Avebury Truslow may be clearly seen alongside the road to Beckhampton (A4361), south-west of the visitors’ car park; Frog Lane, with its 17th-century cottages, and other lanes and footpaths in this area, are perhaps integral to the plan of this village. Excavations in 1993 also found evidence of medieval settlement in Butler’s Field, south-west of the present High Street.
Beckhampton itself, now normally glimpsed only in passing from the A4, bears the hallmarks of a planned medieval village. Its street lies south of, and parallel with, the present main road, and is now lined by a mixture of older and modern houses, interspersed with former stables. The enclosure map of 1794 shows rectangular plots defined by boundaries running at right angles from the street north to the main road, and earthworks of former buildings may still be seen in those which are now vacant; rectilinear boundary banks and other village earthworks have also been observed south of the village street. Beckhampton is first recorded as a small Domesday manor, and by the 12th century had a chapel-of-ease dedicated to St Vincent, which was dependent on Avebury. It was ruined by the 17th century, but its site was known to Stukeley in 1724. He said it lay within the village, but close to the end of the Beckhampton Avenue. It was perhaps at the west end of the village (close to or under the present roundabout) since there was glebe land here in the eighteenth century. A now deserted settlement at Stanmore, some 6km north of Beckhampton near Winterbourne Bassett, formed a detached portion of the medieval chapelry.
Beckhampton’s later history has been shaped by two factors, roads and horses. The village street lay on one of the several strands of the Bath road crossing Wiltshire from east to west in this area, and is depicted as a built-up linear village along it on a map of 1675. Another strand passed further north, through Avebury circle, and yet another ran south of Beckhampton, perhaps on or close to the Roman road - hence the name ‘Via Badonica’ which it is given on Stukeley’s early eighteenth-century sketch. In 1742 the new Bath road turnpike chose a route along the northern boundary of the village beside the inn of 1669 which is now the Waggon and Horses (a former drovers’ inn with grazing land for itinerant cattle); another large inn was built in 1745 at the crossing of the turnpikes (now the Beckhampton roundabout), and was known as the Catherine Wheel. From the 1830s this became the headquarters of a racehorse training stables, maintained by a string of notable owners (including, between 1882 and 1953, Sam and Fred Darling), and this, as Beckhampton House, it remains. Their presence is seen not only in the gallops built across the downs, and in the extensive stabling, but also (as elsewhere in racehorse country) in the names of nearby houses which celebrate local champions – Galteemore, Wildflower (originally Wildfowler) and Willonyx. The stables currently provide a livelihood for 40 people and 85 horses.
West Kennet, Avebury’s other tithing, has much in common with Beckhampton. It too has a linear settlement along the Bath road, perhaps mentioned in Domesday (although, as we have seen, Kennet then referred to the larger area), and with a single thirteenth-century reference to a chapel-of-ease. Like Beckhampton it lies on the course of a processional avenue, whose stones it has used in its buildings, and beside other Avebury-related monuments; it too retains earthwork remains of the rectilinear village plan, and medieval boundary ditches and fencelines have also been observed during archaeological investigations. Village houses along the south side of the street were demolished during road widening in about 1960, and only their overgrown back gardens remain. Surviving cottages and houses (including the large West Kennet House of about 1800) are ranged along the north side of the main road and a lay-by (the former road alignment), as well as down a minor lane to a bridge over the river. Opposite the lay-by are the remains of the former Kennet brewery, which was taken over in 1921, and a good range of farm buildings, including an early dovecote and a cartshed.
Most visitors to Avebury come to see the henge monument and standing stones, and perhaps to visit the museum and souvenir shops. It is something of a bonus, therefore, that they find also a picturesque village street embodying most of the elements which one might expect to find in an idealised English village. The graceful Perpendicular church, as we have seen, hides earlier treasures. Opposite the churchyard is the former National School of 1844, in ornate style, now the village social centre. Nearby brick or sarsen and thatch or tile cottages line the street, accompanied by a tall brick former vicarage, altered and enlarged by a prolific Victorian incumbent, a shop and post office, and a terrace of mock-Elizabethan late nineteenth-century estate cottages. Moving closer to the centre of the circle, a car park marks the site of the Baptist chapel, and on the corner the village inn (Red Lion) replaces an earlier inn further east, which is marked on eighteenth-century maps. Nearby is the coachhouse to the inn (now public toilets), another shop, and a United Reformed chapel, with manse (a former farmhouse - Silbury House) opposite. Nonconformity arrived at Avebury before toleration, doubtless stimulated by the absence of a resident clergyman (the poor living was usually held by pluralists who lived elsewhere), and by the position of the village equidistant from nearby towns, and beyond the reach of the Five-Mile Act (which prevented dissenting clergymen from preaching close to their former parishes). The chapel, for Presbyterians, was described as new-built in 1707, and retains some of the original fabric. Along Green Street, beyond the chapel, where few visitors venture, a dated cottage of 1853 remains as an example of Victorian and earlier linear development into the monument along what had been an important strand of the Bath road; several similar cottages were demolished during the present century, and are seen now only as house platforms. Carpenter’s Cottage beyond has timber-framing, and may be the oldest surviving house in the village; it is probably seventeenth century in origin, and so perhaps pre-dates the extensive destruction of the Avebury megaliths for building stone.
If, as we suggested at the beginning, Avebury’s history may be seen as a series of responses to the beliefs and traditions of earlier peoples, then the latest phase begins with the ‘discovery’ of Avebury, and the attempts to understand and protect it. Aubrey, in the later-seventeenth century, (although not the first to mention it) was the first to bring its importance to public attention, and he was followed by William Stukeley, who between 1719 and 1724 paid frequent visits to the area, drawing and describing – and later theorising about – what he saw. During the years between Aubrey and Stukeley wholesale destruction of the monument for building stone had taken place, and it was to continue intermittently, despite protests, until 1828. Like other downland villages population pressure in the early 19th century produced a rash of new building, both outside the stone circle – at Avebury Truslow, for example – and within. The only expedient seemed to be to buy land in Avebury to prevent its development, and this was undertaken firstly by Sir John Lubbock (who took the title Lord Avebury) during the 1870s, and later, on a larger scale, by the wealthy and energetic Alexander Keiller, in 1934. Keiller, who was something of a maverick figure in Wiltshire’s archaeological circles, carried out large-scale excavation and restoration at Avebury itself, along the West Kennet avenue, and on Windmill Hill. At Avebury and the avenue this included discovering and re-erecting buried sarsens, and marking by concrete posts the positions of lost stones. Ownership of the monuments passed to the National Trust in 1942, but Keiller lived on in Avebury Manor until his death in 1955. As motor travel to this otherwise remote area has become increasingly quick and easy, so Avebury has developed as a tourist ‘honey-pot’ site, with the trappings of a generally restrained commercialism.
One aspect of Avebury’s evolution remains to be considered, and this is the colonization by the village of the area west of the meadows. We have observed the probable medieval earthworks in the area of Frog Lane, and we have mentioned the existence of a manor house of Avebury Trusloe in the 16th century within the village. Not without acrimony the Trusloe manor fragmented, and three portions of it were in due course farmed from surviving houses built west of the stream; they are now known as Trusloe (or Truslow) Manor, Manor Farmhouse, and Bannings. Other settlement took place during the 17th century and later along South Street and Bray Street (presumably this name is connected with the family of Thomas Bray, who occurs in a survey of 1702). By the 19th century these developments were being known collectively as Avebury Truslow.
Then, after Keiller’s purchases during the 1930s a deliberate policy of demolishing properties within the monument was pursued, and an estate of smart houses with all modern conveniences for the displaced villagers was developed at Avebury Truslow by way of compensation. This policy of demolition was continued, formally at least until 1976, by the National Trust, and seems (surprisingly, in view of the Trust’s obligation to look after its acquisitions) to have included the destruction of medieval cottages. Here is a well-documented example of modern settlement-shift, which occurred so commonly in the middle ages for a variety of reasons. But the motive here (which deserves pause for reflection) was to emphasize one period of our past – the Neolithic – at the expense of another – the medieval and later.
The trappings of modern tourism at Avebury, better managed here than at some other ‘honeypot’ sites, have included Keiller’s archaeological museum (recently enlarged), a museum of Wiltshire folk-life (from 1978 until closure in 1997), a short-lived ‘Elizabethan experience’ (bankrupted in 1990), and a noted wholefood restaurant (1984-99). Annual visitor figures have recently been estimated at 350,000. Of Wiltshire’s tourist attractions none is so rewarding as Avebury. John Aubrey’s judgement, quoted at the outset, still holds good. But perhaps we should think not only in terms of prehistoric Avebury – historic Avebury, too, has much to offer.
NOTES (location: SU1070; area: 1,898ha; population (1991): 562)
General: VCH 12, 86-105; Burl, A, Prehistoric Avebury, 1979; Pitts, M, Footprints through Avebury, 2nd ed, 1986; Malone, C, English Heritage book of Avebury, 1989; Pitts, M, Hengeworld, 2000.
Prehistoric sequence: Proc. Prehistoric Soc. 58, 1992, 203-12; Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 12, 1993, 29-53; Keiller: Murray, L, A zest for life: the story of Alexander Keiller, 1999; Windmill Hill: Smith, I F, Windmill Hill and Avebury: excavations by Alexander Keiller, 1925-39, 1965; Whittle, A, et al. The harmony of symbols: the Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure, Wiltshire, 1999; West Kennet long barrow: Piggott, S, The West Kennet long barrow: excavations 1955-56, 1962; Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 5, 1986, 129-56; Beckhampton Avenue: WANHM 93, 1-8; Sanctuary: Proc. Prehistoric Soc. 58, 1992, 213-26; WANHM 94, 1-23; Silbury Hill and West Kennet enclosures: Whittle, A, Sacred mound, holy rings: Silbury Hill and the West Kennet palisade enclosures. . ., 1997 (Oxbow Monograph 74); Roman settlement: Powell, A, et al, Archaeology in the Avebury area, Wiltshire, 1996 (Wessex Archaeology report 8); Saxon and Medieval: WANHM 92, 60-91; Beckhampton: Beckhampton: a village through time, 2000; Antiquarian interest: Ucko, P J, et al, Avebury reconsidered, from the 1660s to the 1990s, 1991; Tourism: Edwards, B, in Kean, H, et al, Seeing history: public history in Britain now, 2000, 65-79.