Once upon a time, twin avenues ran from the central circle of Avebury to the outer edges of the sacred landscape created in earth and stone by our forefathers. Of Beckhampton Avenue, little now remains save the Longstones, the two remaining stones of a the cove that once stood at the end of the Avenue, aligned to the midwinter solstice, the pivot of the year when the time of darkness began to recede and the sun began its slow return to summer. Close by, two long barrows and a stretch of Roman road tell of the continuing story of the landscape.
The West Kennet Avenue, however, is more complete, though still sadly denuded of many of the hundred pairs of stones that once lined this processional way, joining the head of Stukeley’s Serpent Temple at the Sanctuary to the great henge of Avebury a mile and a half away. Even so, to pass the sphinx-like guardian and follow the path between the stones is a strange and unworldly experience.
The Avenues were erected around four and a half thousand years ago, being the last major construction of the Avebury complex. Many of the stones were buried in medieval times, possibly as they were a pagan intrusion on a Christian world. Many were destroyed and used as building materials, but modern technology is mapping out the ancient temple and the even earlier ceremonial enclosures that once stood here.
Stukeley’s illustrations show that there was a cove here too, now thought to lie beneath the modern road that follows the path of the stones. A little way beyond the main march of the Avenue is the single remaining stone of Falkner’s circle that Stuart and I had gone looking for one hot summer’s day, finding it beside the trees at the edge of a field. A few further stones now lie hidden in a hedgerow near the Sanctuary. Beside many of the stones burials of the Beaker Folk have been found. Was this an honour accorded to the great of the clan… or to the priesthood… or were these lives gifted to their gods?
Short, angled stretches of the Avenue lead into the great circle after climbing the hill. It is an odd feature of a relatively flat landscape that it is impossible to see most of the major sites until you are almost upon them. The dramatic effect of that in a ritual setting must have been incredible. And the stones have faces… strange creatures, horses, cats… hewn from their very being, perhaps, shaped by an ageing earth or a reverent hand…
Imagine a torchlit procession climbing the rise toward the circle… high banks, scoured white and gleaming like the moon come to earth… no trace of the stones within until you passed the portal… yet all along the processional route those strange figures… Drums beat, throbbing in the darkness like the heart of earth. Acrid smoke stings eyes glazed with vision. Dancing flames give the stone sentinels a semblance of borrowed life and their shadows flow and meld into the spirits of the earth itself…
But lucid forms
Cast their images
Upon our waters;
Their faces, veiled or radiant, are always beautiful,
For we imagine them,
They are the aspects of our wisdom.
They bring us messages, intellections,
Impart a mystery,
Could tell us more, if we could hold their gaze.
Last Things, Kathleen Raine