I visited both Stonehenge and Avebury many years ago, but recently I had the chance to return. I could easily get to either; I was on holiday in Wiltshire, in the South of England, and the sites are only 25 miles apart. However, although Stonehenge is the better-known destination -- a bucket-list item for many -- I remembered Avebury as the more interesting location.
For me, the choice was easy. I prefer places that have something special to offer -- perhaps historical significance or a picturesque setting -- to must-see tourist destinations. Stonehenge and Avebury are both part of the same UNESCO World Heritage site, an extraordinary collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments. However, looking at the English Heritage website, I could see that there was more to discover at Avebury.
There was also the issue of crowds. I prefer to explore in relative solitude if possible. A drive past Stonehenge, with its parking lot chock-full of cars and coach buses, confirmed what I had suspected: Stonehenge is too often unpleasantly crowded.
Why Choose Avebury Over Stonehenge?
There is no doubt that Stonehenge is an impressive site. It is much more complete than Avebury’s stone circle, and the massive stones topped with horizontal lintels make it a remarkable feat of engineering. It also has an excellent visitor center.
However, there are several reasons why I favor Avebury. First, for anyone who is interested in history, there is more to explore at Avebury. It is true that Stonehenge was also part of a complex of monuments, but today there is very little for the casual visitor to see apart from the main circle.
Second, I find Stonehenge to be more of a “packaged” experience. You have to look at the stones from a walkway, and the Neolithic houses -- although very well done -- are reconstructions. (The work done on the site is reflected in the entrance charge -- currently £19 for an adult ticket.) By way of contrast, at Avebury it is easier to wander freely through the landscape and to imagine the place in prehistoric times.
Third, Avebury is much less crowded. According to VisitBritain, 1.5 million people visited Stonehenge in 2019, while the BBC reports that only 500,000 visited Avebury. And the visitors are contained in a much smaller area at Stonehenge. The first time I visited Stonehenge (very many years ago), I shared the stones with no more than a dozen other visitors; that would certainly not be the case today.
Finally, there is the setting. While Stonehenge is surrounded by the relatively featureless Salisbury Plain, Avebury is a pleasant village on the edge of the North Wessex Downs, and it even has a traditional pub you can visit for lunch.
What To See And Do At Avebury
Alexander Keiller Museum
A good place to start your discovery of Avebury is the Alexander Keiller Museum, located in a 17th-century barn and stables in the center of the village. Alexander Keiller was an archaeologist who was responsible for the excavation of the site in the 1930s, and the museum displays items found on the site. There are also interactive displays explaining how the various monuments might have appeared in the Stone Age and Early Bronze Age and showing their relationship to the surrounding landscape.
Avebury henge is a massive circular bank and ditch enclosing the stone circle and part of the present-day village. Although it is not complete, it is the largest stone circle in the world and is around 4,000 years old. The main circle originally consisted of about 100 stones, and there are two smaller circles inside it. There was once an obelisk at the center, and it is likely that there were also other structures, possibly made from timber, within the enclosure.
Although visitors should respect the stones and avoid damaging them, it is possible to get up close to them and to walk beside them. In fact, when I visited, there were several sheep grazing near the stone circle!
Prehistoric Ceremonial Sites
The stone circles are only a small part of what Avebury has to offer. It is now thought that all the monuments were part of a complex for ceremonial rites, although no one really knows exactly how or why the area was used. What we do know is that the sites were linked by avenues lined with stones, quite possibly used for ritual processions.
You can still walk along West Kennet Avenue (about 1.5 miles) from the central stone circles to The Sanctuary. This was an area with six concentric circles constructed from timber and two stone circles. These are now lost, but the positions of the stones and timber posts are marked with wooden stakes. Bones, tools, and pottery have been found at The Sanctuary but, again, we do not know what purpose the area served.
We may not be certain of Avebury’s original purpose, but that does not stop it from being regarded as a spiritual place today -- and even as a setting for modern rituals. I saw signs advertising religious festivals, and I heard a guide explaining the mystical significance of the circle and comparing one of the stones to the form of a woman. (I wasn’t convinced.)
About 1.5 miles from The Sanctuary is West Kennet Long Barrow. This is one of the largest long barrows (or multichamber tombs) in Britain. It was built around 3600 B.C., and the remains of about 50 people have been found inside it.
A little farther away is Windmill Hill, the largest causewayed enclosure (a type of prehistoric earthwork) in the country. Bones, pottery, and other artifacts have been found here, suggesting that it was used as a camp during large communal gatherings. Apart from the ceremonial aspects, it is likely that these gatherings involved feasts and trading activities.
Perhaps the most mysterious monument in Avebury is Silbury Hill. Rising 120 feet from the ground, this artificial mound was constructed from chalk, soil, and turf during the Neolithic period. Clearly it required a huge amount of effort to build, but no one has any idea of why it was made, or what (if anything) it was used for!
What To Know Before You Go
If you don’t have a car, it is possible to get to Avebury by bus from several nearby towns. Alternatively, you might be able to find a guided tour from London or from another major city, but check beforehand to see which sites are included in the trip.
Apart from the parking fee and the fee to enter the Alexander Keiller Museum, access to Avebury is free.
There are footpaths from the village to the other sites, but these sites are all a mile or two apart from one another. Although the walk along West Kennet Avenue to The Sanctuary is recommended, you may wish to drive to the other sites. Silbury Hill is visible from the road, but you cannot climb it. This is to protect the archaeological site and the rare grassland that surrounds it.
If you are planning to visit all the monuments, you will need to allow a full day for your exploration. Although it is nowhere near as crowded as Stonehenge, Avebury does attract tourists and coach tours, so try to avoid visiting on weekends and holidays if possible. If you have to travel during the peak period, visit the stone circles early before the coaches arrive, and then go to the other sites, which aren’t always included on tourist itineraries.