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Avebury Concise History

Introduction

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 post: c/o 8 Lock Warehouse, Severn Road, Gloucester GL1 2GA.

History


The village and parish of Avebury lies a short distance north, north east of the centre of the county and it was very much the centre of a hugely important area in Neolithic times. Here is an ancient landscape; more ancient than Stonehenge and much greater. Among just some of the prehistoric sites within the parish are Silbury Hill, Windmill Hill and West Kennet long barrow as well as the stone circle and avenues of Avebury itself. For good measure there is also a part of the early routeway of the Ridge Way, and part of a straight Roman road in which there is a kink to enable it to avoid Silbury Hill.

The earliest known settlement in the area was an early Neolithic one on Windmill Hill, which was replaced by a causewayed camp around 3,250 B.C. The West Kennet long barrow is the longest chambered tomb in the country and was first started around 3,000 B.C. and seems to have remained in use for a thousand years. Silbury Hill is the largest prehistoric man made mound in Europe and was begun around 2,750 B.C. in July or August as has been found because there are the remains of winged ants under the lowest layer of the mound. The first phases of the stone circle were begun about 2,500 B.C., or a little later, and culminated in the massive megalithic monument with the Kennet Avenue leading to the Sanctuary on Overton Hill and the recently rediscovered Beckhampton Avenue. Later there was a Pagan Saxon settlement and there is a Viking burial in Silbury Hill. No wonder that Avebury is a World Heritage Site and is arguably the most important in the United Kingdom.

Although, in historical times, Avebury was generally unknown other than to local people, it was brought to the attention of Charles II and the Court by the antiquarian John Aubrey who had 'discovered’ it when riding in the area in 1649. From then there was considerable interest although from the late 17th century some stones were broken up for building materials. Houses were also built within the circle and in 1870 Sir John Lubbock, later Baron Avebury, bought much of the area to prevent further change. In 1924 Alexander Keiller bought Windmill Hill and by 1939 had bought Avebury Manor, the whole stone circle, many village houses and much other land. As the owner he was then able to excavate and reconstruct the monument, including digging up and re-erecting stones buried in medieval times, to the state in which we see it today. In 1943 the site was bought by the National Trust and the monument is now managed by English Heritage. Most of the finds from excavations in the area are held in the Alexander Keiller Museum in the High Street (Tel. 01672 539250)

The village itself grew around the manor houses of Avebury and Avebury Trusloe on the gravel soils at the headwaters of the River Kennet where it rises at Swallowhead Springs. Originally the road, now a green lane, from Marlborough came over the downs and through the circle where it met the existing Swindon to Devizes road. This was the coach road in the early 18th century and the village spread eastwards along it. The road was superseded in 1745 when a new road, the present A4, was turnpiked. The village today is full of attractive houses, mostly set away from the Devizes to Swindon road which makes a double bend through the circle and around the Red Lion, an early 17th century farmhouse which has been a public house from 1822. The Manor House, as we now see it, shows the work of several centuries with a mid 16th century east wing, an impressive main hall and porch of 1601 and later extensions of the 17th and 18th centuries. There are antique and gift shops in the village and visitors are to be found here most of the year. There is now a large visitors' car park away from the village off the Devizes road to the south of the circle. From here it is only a short walk into the village.

This is an excellent area for walking with good access to the Ridgeway and the areas of sarsen stones on the Marlborough Downs. There are also two other settlements here. Beckhampton was a small medieval settlement, which grew when the new road was turnpiked in 1745 and an inn, the Catherine Wheel, later the Beckhampton Inn and now Beckhampton House, was built. Further expansion took place in the 20th century with the growth of the racing stables here. The smallest settlement is at West Kennett, south east of Avebury, which was always the least prosperous and populous settlement in the parish although it expanded in the 19th century.

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