Set in stone

Tour the Wiltshire countryside, marvel at Stonehenge and ponder on the mysteries it still holds
The village of Castle Combe
The village of Castle Combe

We are heading towards Avebury in southwest England, the site of the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world, but our guide and driver Charles has steered the conversation to an unavoidable contemporary reality the recession. As our small tour bus trundles past the rolling green Wiltshire countryside, he mentions a Honda plant that has downed shutters for four months in a town nearby. I already think of Charles as a localised, human equivalent of Google, capable of coming up with any number of quirky, interesting facts about Wiltshire and around in seconds.

There is something mystical about the stones, arranged methodically to form stone circles for reasons we still don't fully understand.  

Thanks to him we now know the actor Nicolas Cage has a castle in Bath that a town prospered and declined along with the fluctuating fortunes of a sausage factory and that there was a woman among the highway robbers who once terrorised the roads to Bath. But, predictably enough, no one is interested in hearing about the economic downturn. A college student sitting in front of me dozes off.

But then we drive into Avebury and the student comes to life. Who wouldn&rsquot On this sunny morning, massive stones stand like sentinels in the green fields, framed by a blue sky. It would be easy enough to look at these megaliths as part of the landscape, much like the Wiltshire horn sheep grazing in the downs. But there is something mystical about the stones, arranged methodically to form avenues and stone circles for reasons we still don&rsquot fully understand

The stones are slotted as male and female, somewhat unfairly. The tall stones are considered male and the short ones female. But of course.      

Druids gather at the circle to perform rites & ceremonies.

Part of Avebury&rsquos charm is this sense of mystery it creates. In the absence of a scientifically proven theory to explain the motivations of our Neolithic ancestors, we are free to draw our own conclusions. The Avebury complex, built and altered between 2850 and 2200 BC, perhaps holds some astronomical significance. Perhaps the huge henge on which the megaliths stand was a place of worship. The zealous Christians who started destroying the stone circles in the 14th century certainly associated them with pagan rituals. Others like Charles believe the henge was a site for fertility ceremonies. The stones at the henge are slotted as male and female, somewhat unfairly, I think, because one group is stout and the other lean

The land is awash with legends of King Uther, his son Arthur, the magical sword Excalibur and the wizard Merlin. Charles tells us that the tall stones are considered to be male and the short ones female. But of course.

&ldquoThey were obsessed with fertility,&rdquo Charles says of the creators of the Avebury complex. This fixation sprung out of necessity thousands of years ago, our predecessors would have been short of hands for chores such as farming land. If such an explanation strikes one as rather bland, the snazzy alternative comes riding Unidentified Flying Objects. Theories worthy of The X-Files contend that the Avebury complex was the Stone Age equivalent of a pylon, albeit one for UFOs.

The stone circle at Avebury
Such hokey plots aside, it&rsquos known that the stones &mdash called sarsens &mdash were dragged for several miles from the Marlborough Downs to their current positions. This would have been a laborious task, given the lack of implements and the size of the stones archaeologists setting a leaning stone upright in 2003 found it weighed 100 tonnes. Then there is the ditch, estimated to have been about 30ft deep, surrounding the henge. Standing on its rampart, I wonder about the people who dug out all the chalk underneath with nothing more sophisticated than antlers. What prompted them to do this

A nearby pub with a thatched roof is the perfect place to mull over such questions. I suspect that some of the more outrageous explanations about Ave-bury&rsquos origins came after one drink too many at the said pub. Seven beers, and a UFO sighting is probably guaranteed. Unfortunately, we cannot work on conjuring up aliens as Charles has started rounding us up.

If you have more time, visit the Alexander Keiller Museum here, named after the man who made a fortune in marmalade and who used his money well. He bought land in Avebury, excavated and restored stones to their original positions in the 1930s, and marked out missing stones with plinths, which is how we see the site even today. Walk up to the West Kennett Long Barrow, chambered tombs built around 3400 BC that were in use for more than a thousand years. It&rsquos visible from the road as you drive to the circle as is the Silsbury Hill. Dated to about 2400 BC, this unassuming manmade mound rises to 30m. Like everything else in the World Heritage Site of Avebury, its purpose is unclear.

Tourists walking among the monoliths
It&rsquos windy and cold when we reach Stonehenge, about 25 miles from Avebury, where we spot a man who calls himself King Arthur Uther Pendragon. Unlike his namesakes from folklore, this present-day king&rsquos sworn enemy is English Heritage, a not-for-profit organisation that manages &mdash or if this neo-druid leader is to be believed, mismanages &mdash Stonehenge. His war cry is painted on a poster that demands the monument be returned to its &ldquonatural environment&rdquo. Unusually enough, Unesco shares this particular sentiment. Last year, the agency said Britain had failed to protect many of its heritage structures, including Stonehenge. For more than 20 years, the British government has been shamelessly making the same promise &mdash pertaining to the removal of the two roads that run next to the stones &mdash without ever acting on its admirable intentions. Unlike Avebury, which too is crisscrossed by roads or lanes, the Stonehenge experience is greatly diminished by the presence of A303 and A344, both of which see a steady stream of traffic.

We walk in listening to an audio guide that comes free with the entry ticket. Though it&rsquos winter, there is a crowd at the henge, tourists shivering as they try to snap themselves against this megalithic monument. Sheep graze in the rolling hills that spread out for miles around. From the audio guide, we learn that two sets of stones were used in the construction of Stonehenge the sarsen commonly found in Wiltshire, and the Pembroke bluestone, dragged for 240 miles all the way from the Preseli Mountains in Wales. This bluestone has been at the centre of several theories about Stonehenge. One group of archaeologists claim it was an ancient healing centre &mdash the bluestones were thought to have curative properties. Opponents of this theory say Stonehenge was a burial site, a conclusion drawn from the human remains found buried around the circle.

The village of Castle Combe
Carbon-dating has provided some of the details we do know for sure, one of which is that Stonehenge was in use for centuries. The ditch and the bank around the stone circle are thought to have been the earliest constructions here. Between 3000 and 1500 BC (and depending on which group of archaeologists you choose to believe), the stones were cut and arranged to form the Stonehenge. Its builders made use of a unique technique that involved locking the stones together after cutting them to certain sizes and shapes &mdash a magnificent feat considering the implements used would have been rudimentary at best. We know little about these incredible engineers but that&rsquos likely to change. Just a few years ago, archaeologists unearthed a prehistoric settlement 1.75 miles from the stone circle and they believe the people who created the Stonehenge lived here.

As I walk around the monument, the audio guide describes a remarkable facet of Stonehenge, what Unesco calls its &ldquoastronomical character&rdquo. The Stonehenge Avenue and the stone circle were designed so as to align with the axis of the midsummer sunrise and mid-winter sunset. This feature, among others, has prompted the likes of King Arthur Uther Pendragon and his followers to consider the monument sacred. It must also help that the megaliths stand in a land awash with fabulous legends about King Uther, his son Arthur, the magical sword Excalibur and, most importantly, the immortal wizard Merlin. King Uther and Merlin are in fact the chief protagonists in one of the more colourful myths about Stonehenge. Merlin, who is believed to have inspired Tolkien&rsquos Gandalf and Rowling&rsquos Dumbledore, apparently used his magical powers at Uther&rsquos request to relocate the bluestones from Ireland to England. We now know that the stones came from Wales and not Ireland but then a mere technicality should never come in the way of a good story.

Back home, I look up King Arthur Uther Pendragon and neo-Druids and find a Facebook group called &lsquoFree Stonehenge&rsquo. Here there are faithful accounts of the &lsquoking&rsquos&rsquo protests against English Heritage, photos and calls for funds to keep his picket going. Just as King Arthur would have brandished his Excalibur, his modern-day avatar seems to be using the Internet to wage his battles. I imagine Arthur Uther could do with a little help from Merlin though.

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