Touching History in Western England

I’ve seen lots of surprising ancient sites in my time in England: Viking burial grounds, Roman villas, and Saxon towns. Somehow, though, I’ve missed two of the most important: Old Sarum and Avebury.

Old Sarum is just outside of Salisbury in Wiltshire. I’ve been to Salisbury numerous times to see its cathedral, but I have never traveled north to see where the town originally began as earthworks in 400 BC. Old Sarum was first founded as a fort, with deep trenches carved around a hill, the natural landscape accented by human hands. It roughly shares its birthday with the Parthenon in Athens, two wildly different construction projects that serve to highlight the relative primitiveness of Iron Age Britons.

After its founding, the site was used periodically over the next 2600 years: The Romans grew Old Sarum into a bustling small town, and the Normans added a castle and later a cathedral. By 1540, however, Old Sarum was completely abandoned in favor of nearby Salisbury. The location has surprisingly not had a thorough excavation in 100 years. Much remains unknown about its history.

The hill’s trenches are still deeply noticeable when I visit on a harsh winter day. The ground is white and slick with frost, ice crystals clinging to the stems of long-dead grass. Thick fog settles in the troughs, making it difficult to see more than a few hundred feet. It is well below freezing. I am bundled up in three layers of shirts and my movements are stilted and slow.

Picture of the ancient ruins at Old Sarum in Wiltshire, England

The ruins at Old Sarum

There aren’t many other visitors this day, and I am free to wander the ruins on my own. The Norman castle has eroded into rounded crumbs of its former glory. The years have been even less kind to the cathedral, which is now barely more than a stone outline of a giant cross.

The trenches, though. The trenches remain, deep gashes that dominate the landscape just as the Parthenon draws the eye in Athens. Maybe Iron Age Britons weren’t so primitive after all.

I take a photograph of the dipping scenery. Later I think this picture is a good metaphor for the site’s missing history: There’s something there, but it is intangible in the hazy distance.

Picture of the Iron Age trenches at Old Sarum in Wiltshire, England

Hazy history

Soon my time at Old Sarum has come to an end, and I gratefully warm my stiff fingers as the bus’ heater chugs to life. 27 miles north of Old Sarum is Avebury, one of Britain’s most important Neolithic sites. I have seen Stonehenge an absurd four times, but somehow I have never made it to its northern neighbor. Today, though, Avebury is on the itinerary.

Avebury is not nearly as well-known as the pile of rocks at Stonehenge, but the Neolithic site was likely just as important. Built 2000 years before Old Sarum, Avebury sprang up just about the time the Great Pyramid of Giza was being constructed in Egypt. It mutely echoes the scene at Old Sarum with softer trenches and other earthworks. More noticeable, however, are the giant stone circles (henges). They rise up from the ground like the jagged teeth of a buried giant.

Picture of the Neolithic trenches and stone circles at Avebury, England

Trenches and giants’ teeth

Like Stonehenge, Avebury was likely built as a ceremonial site, and it continues to be highly revered by modern druids. Unlike Stonehenge, at Avebury one can walk right up to the giant stones and lay a hand on history. I happen to be visiting on December 21—Winter Solstice. A group of modern druids has gathered in a circle, candles flickering through the fog. Their faces are hidden by heavy cloaks as they chant ancient words.

Picture of the Neolithic stone circles at Avebury, England

Touching the stones

I take off a mitten and press my fingers against a nearby stone. It is icy, and I can feel my flesh beginning to stick to the surface. I hold my hand there a second longer, though, and close my eyes to listen to the chanting. I am not a spiritual person. At Avebury, though, I feel connected to the stones, to the druids, to the ceremony. It makes my eyes misty, and I’m not even sure why.

Afterward, back at the hotel, Avebury continues to sit with me. I don’t imagine the people who lived and died there as I so often do when seeing other ruins. Rather than the people, it is the place itself that lingers.

Stonehenge has the fame, but Avebury is by far the better experience. And, unlike its sister that charges almost £14 for the pleasure, a visit to Avebury is free. Go see Avebury instead.

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