Yesterday I was lucky that I got to spent my Easter Good Friday with two families from Salt Lake City and we went on one of my favourite tours to some of the UNESCO sites near Stonehenge, Avebury Stone Circle, Silbury Hill and nearby Lacock Abbey. As a bonus I wanted to take them to West Kennet Long Barrow which is nearby and part of the heritage of the same “Beaker people” civilisation but a few miles from Avebury and quite a long drive from Stonehenge.
West Kennet Long Barrow is a Neolithic tomb or barrow, situated on a prominent chalk ridge about half a mile south of the A4. It isn’t really on the tourist map as the nearest car park is half a mile away and then it is only a layby at the side of the closest road. The site was recorded by John Aubrey in the 17th century and by William Stukeley in the 18th century. Like many of the most interesting prehistoric monuments in the U.K. it is entirely free to visit and has no-one stationed on site.
Whilst the tourists go to Stonehenge, I always advocate visiting Avebury and Silbury as whilst Stonehenge attracts around a million people a year, Avebury only gets a small fraction of that and in its own way I think Avebury is even more incredible to visit, plus you can touch the stones. Silbury Hill probably only attracts one in a thousand of the people who visit Avebury and I’d imagine West Kennet Long Barrow sees far less still, despite being able to see the hill and Avebury from the Barrow.
Officially, West Kennet Long Barrow is classified as a chambered long barrow and one of the Severn-Cotswold tombs which though concentrated in the English Cotswolds and SE Wales, can be found from Oxfordshire to North Wales, around 200 miles away. It has two pairs of opposing transept chambers and a single terminal chamber used for burial. The stone burial chambers are located at one end of one of the longest barrows in Britain at 100 metres / 300 feet.
It was built around 3,650BC so is getting on for 6,000 years old and it is estimated that it took 15,700 man-hours to construct this massive tomb. It was used as a burial vote for up to 1100 years and though it had been inevitably damaged and looted over the millennia, when archeologists made scientific excavations in the mid 19th and 20th centuries, they found bones belonging to at least 46 individuals from babies to the elderly.
The latest excavations also revealed that the side chambers occur inside an exact isosceles triangle, whose height is twice the length of its base. Artefacts associated with the burials include Neolithic Grooved ware similar to that found at nearby Windmill Hill.
At the end of its near millennia of active use, it was filled to the roof with soil, stone and pottery pieces, bone tools and beads with many of the finds being displayed in the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.
Though now the barrow is covered with grassy turf, originally the exterior roof and walls would have stood out for miles around from its chalky white soil.
Whilst we were walking to the Barrow, we found a farmer who was building a pyre which the local Druids are going to set fire to over the weekend. It’s fascinating that these buildings that are older than the pyramids are not only barely known about but that they maintain a link with some of the local people.
It was quite a walk up to the hill but there were brilliant blue skies and stunning views over the beautiful green rolling farmland for miles around. When we finally reached the Barrow, my guests were happy enough to see it in the flesh and pose for the obligatory photos by the large Sarsen stones but they never imagined that we would be able to go inside.
Inside is a long corridor though what we can see must only be a fraction of the overall length as the barrow is much longer above ground than beneath it. Still it is incredibly exciting to be able to actually enter this ancient vault which is older than Stonehenge.
Inside, the Barrow is pitch black but your eyes to quickly adjust to it, and I certainly had no problem with my human sonar! At the far end the corridor opens out and a very small modern light shaft has been created in the ceiling but really you do need a torch to appreciate just how fine the masonry work was with many of the large stones being perfectly carved so that they fit snugly together.
Some of the side rooms have been bricked off but there are half a dozen or so that you can go in. I must say that even witht the safety in numbers feeling, one of my group rushed out having found it a little spooky and everyone else went into the side-rooms in pairs!
It was a fascinating to to explore and have a poke around and I will definitely try and visit West Kennet Long Barrow more often in the future. We stayed for about 20 minutes all together and as I was outside letting my guests have a look inside on their own, it mean’t I managed to have a few minutes inside in private… enjoyable but a little unsettling too in the darker corners!
That was just the beginning of our day of exploring the prehistoric sights of Wiltshire.
If you or anyone you know would like to visit West Kennet, Avebury, Lacock or even Stonehenge (yes I know, people feel the need they must go there) then do let me know or visit www.yeoldeenglandtours.co.uk As my guests said yesterday,
Stephen, Today was amazing! We all had a wonderful time! It was the perfect choice for such a beautiful day. You are so great at what you do! We thoroughly enjoyed being with you. You made our holiday so much fun.