Avebury and the Ridgeway
It is hard to imagine the rigours and the joys our ancestors must have experienced on their travels. Then, as now, they wanted to travel to sacred sites and participate in the festivals there.
Above the modern M4 motorway and the older A4, there runs one of the oldest roads in Europe; it is the Ridgeway and it brought pilgrims from the East to the sacred complex of Avebury, Silbury Hill and West Kennet.
Among the many interesting places it passed is the Vale of the White Horse, where the Uffington White Horse has danced from time immemorial. The Ridgeway joins the Ickneild Way at Goring on Thames, and runs West and South over the Berkshire Downs until it arrives at Avebury. Truly, if we want to have a clear idea of how our ancestors saw the land, we might indeed make such a pilgrimage on foot. The ritual route of the Ridgeway is open to all, clearly signposted by the Countryside Commission.
The first most spectacular site you encounter is the figure of the chalk horse on Uffington Down. This sacred image is one of the oldest we have of the Goddess of the Land. Before the coming of the Romans, the native peoples of this land seldom made representational images of the gods, who were envisaged to be the potencies of the land itself. The chalk hill figures, including the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset and the now-eroded figures of the Gog Magog Hills in Cambridgeshire, were powerful foci of energy and reverence.
The White Horse is a stylised figure, looking more like a dragon than a horse, many think. The flat, rough-hewn hill which stands in front of it, Dragon Hill, has legends associating it with St George and the Dragon, though it is far older than that saint and his exploits. The whiteness of the chalk would soon erode were it not for teams of dedicated people who kept it scoured of grass. This was doubtless a sacred task which local villagers would jealously guard. The last such scouring took place in 1857 and was accompanied by such ebullient folk-customs that the practice was discontinued. It is now maintained by English Heritage.
The Ridgeway goes past Avebury and peters out in the Vale of Pewsey, and it is here that pilgrims would have left the track and walked Westwards to one the greatest sites in Britain.
The approach to Avebury is impressive indeed. Flanked by a double row of massive grey stones (called the Grey Wethers), the pilgrim passes down into the village of Avebury which is within the ring of the Avebury circle. Avebury is built at the headwaters of the river Kennet which flows North East to the Thames Valley.
The site was in use in the Neolithic period, from about 3710 BC, and the stones erected in about 2400 BC. Both John Aubrey in the 17th century and William Stukeley in the 18th century made Avebury their study and their careful plans preserved the state and location of the stones which enabled modern archaeologists to better understand the site. Both men made much of the 'ancient British remains' and were active in the druidic revivals.
Avebury consists of a huge bank and ditch, within which is placed a huge stone circle, 1,300 feet in diameter, which contains within it two smaller circles. Into either of the inner circles, Stonehenge would fit easily. The stones are of local origin and average 15 tons apiece.