London is a huge sprawl, but it’s amazing to me that within an hour you can be out in the countryside with sheep and cows and absolutely no trace of a city at all.
I drove from Heathrow to the Cotswolds, a quaint area in south central England that goes from Stratford-Upon-Avon to just shy of Bath. (If the geography doesn’t mean anything to you, this is roughly 90 miles by 25 miles.) I could easily spend a week here, but since it’s so close to London, I figured this would be the easiest area to return to on my next trip. England was experiencing a rare heat wave, so it was the perfect opportunity to cruise down the winding lanes with the windows down, taking it all in.
I passed stone houses with thatched roofs, pubs with colorful flowers outside, and fields full of fluffy little sheep.
Next up was something I’ve always wanted to see: Stonehenge. I am more than a little obsessed with ancient Celtic archaeology and mythology. When I said I wanted to see Stonehenge at the height of tourist season, Alan agreed — but he asked me several times if there are any dolmens in England and made me promise we wouldn’t go looking for them. (Dolmens are those stone structures that look like large pi signs.) It’s a long story, but one of us wanted to see every possible dolmen in Ireland many years ago and one of us declared (after hours of searching a field in the back end of County Carlow) that under no circumstances would we ever, ever go visit another dolmen as long as he lived.
I won’t name names, though.
The intrigue with Stonehenge is that the entire thing is just one unsolvable mystery. To this day, nobody can figure out exactly how it was built. The giant stone slabs just kind of appeared sometime between 3,000 BC and 2,000 BC. People originally thought Stonehenge might have been a type of calendar because of the way the light and shadows move throughout the day, but it’s now thought to have been a burial ground. Archeologists are still digging up artifacts and remains around the site in order to figure out this mystery. In 2013, a dig unearthed 50,000 bones belonging to 63 ancient people.
All of that pales in comparison to the folklore. Sometime in the 12th century, the Historia Regum Britanniae introduced Merlin the Wizard, and attributed the construction of Stonehenge to him. According to the book, giants brought the stones from Africa to Ireland in order to take advantage of their healing powers. After several enormous battles where mortal English troops attempted to take the stones out of Ireland on behalf of the king, Merlin went in and successfully transported them via magic.
Everyone has heard of Stonehenge, obviously, but the Avebury Stone Circles have remained a relative secret. The stone circles are tucked away in the tiny little village of Avebury, about 25 miles from its more famous neighbor. We took the (very winding) scenic route.
On the way there, I spotted this giant horse in the mountain. I vowed to find out more information later, because how many white horses on a mountain could there be? There are several, many of which are in these chalk hills. Some of the Wiltshire White Horses date back 250 years.
This is apparently the Cherhill Horse, which was cut in 1780 by a local known as “the mad doctor.” This horse, which stretches for 129 feet by 142 feet, is the second oldest in Wiltshire.
I’d never seen a photo of the stone circles before, so each time I passed some out-of-place stone structure with a pull-off I stopped and walked around.
On my walk it was sheep, sheep, and more sheep, with the occasional giant stone.
They were no help with directions, but they were adorable.
It was a little too hot for their wool coats, though.
Finally, I found the stones, somewhere past several signs in an empty field for a “car boot sale.” (I know what that is — a kind of portable flea market in the trunks of cars, similar to how we’d have a garage sale — but I still find the name hilarious.)
There are three circles in the Avebury monument. Two smaller circles are encased by an outer ring, which is the largest stone circle in Europe. The structures date back to 2600 BC, and archeologists believe they served as some kind of ceremonial location.
Always eager to find the hidden gems or the next best thing, several guides and articles have named Avebury as an alternative to Stonehenge. I don’t agree. Both of these World Heritage Sites build on each other, with their shared histories and shared mysteries.
Aside from the Stonehenge bus tours using Avebury as a secondary stop, there were very few people at the site. Without Stonehenge’s unwavering crowds, you can feel the mystery associated with these structures, which seem to have simply sprung up in a perfect order with no clear explanation. The site is an excellent complement to Stonehenge, but I wouldn’t skip seeing Stonehenge altogether and only do Avebury by any means.
Switching gears completely (that’s a manual car joke), I left the countryside and headed way down south towards the coast.