A Guide to Mysterious Britain | Rick Steves | Smithsonian
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Avebury is 16 times the size of Stonehenge. Tourists are free to wander among 100 stones, ditches, mounds and curious patterns from the past. (David Pearson / Alamy)

A Guide to Mysterious Britain

Glastonbury, Stonehenge, Avebury and Dartmoor hold secrets of the island’s prehistoric past

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Stonehenge, Holy Grail, Avalon, Loch Ness...there’s a mysterious side of Britain steeped in lies, legends, and at least a little truth. Haunted ghost walks and Nessie the Monster stories are profitable tourist gimmicks. But the cultural soil that gives us Beowulf, Shakespeare, and “God Save the Queen” is fertilized with a murky story that goes back to 3000 B.C., predating Egypt’s first pyramids.

As today’s sightseers zip from castle to pub, they pass countless stone circles, forgotten tombs, man-made hills, and figures carved into hillsides whose stories will never be fully understood. Certain traveling druids skip the beefeater tours and zero right in on this side of Britain. With a little background, even the skeptic can appreciate Britain’s historic aura. Britain is crisscrossed by lines connecting prehistoric Stonehenge-type sights. Apparently prehistoric tribes intentionally built sites along this huge network of “ley” lines, which some think may have functioned together as a cosmic relay or circuit.

Glastonbury, two hours west of London and located on England’s most powerful ley line, gurgles with a thought-provoking mix of history and mystery. As you climb the Glastonbury Tor, notice the remains of the labyrinth that made the hill a challenge to climb 5,000 years ago.

In A.D. 37, Joseph of Arimathea—Jesus' wealthy uncle—brought vessels containing the blood and sweat of Jesus to Glastonbury, and with them, Christianity to England. (Joseph’s visit is plausible—long before Christ, locals traded lead to merchants from the Levant.) While this story is “proven” by fourth-century writings and accepted by the Church, the King-Arthur-and-the-Holy-Grail legends it inspired are not.

Those medieval tales came when England needed a morale-boosting folk hero to inspire its people during a war with France. They pointed to the ancient Celtic sanctuary at Glastonbury as proof of the greatness of the fifth-century warlord, Arthur. In 1911, his supposed remains (along with those of Queen Guinevere) were dug up from the abbey garden, and Glastonbury became woven into the Arthurian legends. Reburied in the abbey choir, their gravesite is a shrine today. Many think the Grail trail ends at the bottom of the Chalice Well, a natural spring at the base of Glastonbury Tor.

In the 16th century, Henry VIII, on his church-destroying rampage, wrecked the powerful Glastonbury Abbey. For emphasis, he hung and quartered the abbot, sending the parts of his body on four national tours...at the same time. While that was it for the abbot, two centuries later Glastonbury rebounded. In an 18th-century tourism campaign, thousands signed affidavits stating that water from the Chalice Well healed them, and once again Glastonbury was on the tourist map.

Today, Glastonbury and its tor are a center for searchers, too creepy for the mainstream church, but just right for those looking for a place to recharge their crystals. Since the society that built the labyrinth worshipped a mother goddess, the hill, or tor, is seen by many today as a Mother Goddess symbol.

After climbing the tor (great view, easy parking, always open), visit the Chalice Well at its base. Then tour the evocative ruins of the abbey, with its informative visitor’s center and a model of the church before Henry got to it. Don’t leave without a browse through the town. The Rainbow’s End café (two minutes from the abbey at 17 High Street) is a fine place for salads and New Age people-watching. Read the notice board for the latest on midwives and male bonding.

From Glastonbury, as you drive across southern England, you’ll see giant figures carved on hillsides. The white chalk cliffs of Dover stretch across the south of England, and almost anywhere you dig you hit chalk. While most of the giant figures are creations of 18th- and 19th-¬century humanists reacting against the coldness of the Industrial Age, three Celtic figures (the Long Man of Wilmington, the White Horse of Uffington, and the Cerne Abbas Giant) have, as far as history is concerned, always been there.

The Cerne Abbas Giant is armed with a big club and an erection. For centuries, people fighting infertility would sleep on Cerne Abbas. And, as my English friend explained, “Maidens can still be seen leaping over his willy.”

Stonehenge, England’s most famous stone circle, is an hour’s drive from Glastonbury. Built in phases between 3000 and 1000 B.C. with huge stones brought all the way from Wales or Ireland, it still functions as a remarkably accurate celestial calendar. A study of more than 300 similar circles in Britain found that each was designed to calculate the movement of the sun, moon, and stars, and to predict eclipses in order to help early societies know when to plant, harvest, and party. Even in modern times, as the summer solstice sun sets in just the right slot at Stonehenge, pagans boogie. Modern-day tourists and druids are kept at a distance by a fence, but if you’re driving, Stonehenge is just off the highway and worth a stop ($11). Even a free look from the road is impressive.

Why didn’t the builders of Stonehenge use what seem like perfectly adequate stones nearby? There’s no doubt that the particular “blue stones” used in parts of Stonehenge were found only in (and therefore brought from) Wales or Ireland. Think about the ley lines. Ponder the fact that many experts accept none of the explanations of how these giant stones were transported. Then imagine congregations gathering here 4,000 years ago, raising thought levels, creating a powerful life force transmitted along the ley lines. Maybe a particular kind of stone was essential for maximum energy transmission. Maybe the stones were levitated here. Maybe psychics really do create powerful vibes. Maybe not. It’s as ¬unbelievable as electricity used to be.

The nearby stone circle at Avebury, 16 times the size of Stonehenge, is one-sixteenth as touristy. You’re free to wander among 100 stones, ditches, mounds, and curious patterns from the past, as well as the village of Avebury, which grew up in the middle of this 1,400-foot-wide Neolithic circle.

Spend some time at Avebury. Take the mile-long walk around the circle. Visit the fine little archaeology museum and pleasant Circle Restaurant next to the National Trust store. The Red Lion Pub (also within the circle) has good, inexpensive pub grub. As you leave, notice the pyramid-shaped, 130-foot-high Silbury Hill. This man-made mound of chalk, nearly 5,000 years old, is a reminder that you’ve only scratched the surface of Britain’s fascinating prehistoric and religious landscape.

A fine way to mix Neolithic wonders and nature is to explore one of England’s many turnstile-free moors. You can get lost in these stark and sparsely populated time-passed commons, which have changed over the centuries about as much as the longhaired sheep that seem to gnaw on moss in their sleep. Directions are difficult to keep. It’s cold and gloomy, as nature rises like a slow tide against human constructions. A crumpled castle loses itself in lush overgrowth. A church grows shorter as tall weeds eat at the stone crosses and tilted tombstones.

Dartmoor is the wildest moor—a wonderland of green and powerfully quiet rolling hills in the southwest, near the tourist centers of Devon and Cornwall. Crossed by only two or three main roads, most of the area is either unused or shared by its 30,000 villagers as a common grazing land—a tradition since feudal days. Dartmoor is best toured by car, but it can be explored by bike, rental horse, thumb, or foot. Bus service is meager. Several national park centers provide maps and information. Settle into a small-town B&B or hostel. This is one of England’s most remote corners—and it feels that way.

Dartmoor, with more Bronze Age stone circles and huts than any other chunk of England, is perfect for those who dream of enjoying their own private Stonehenge sans barbed wire, police officers, parking lots, tourists, and port-a-loos. The local Ordnance Survey maps show the moor peppered with bits of England’s mysterious past. Down Tor and Gidleigh are especially thought-provoking.

Word of the wonders lurking just a bit deeper into the moors tempted me away from my B&B in Gidleigh. Venturing in, I sank into the powerful, mystical moorland. Climbing over a hill, surrounded by hateful but sleeping towers of ragged granite, I was swallowed up. Hills followed hills followed hills—green growing gray in the murk.

Where was that 4,000-year-old circle of stone? I wandered in a world of greenery, eerie wind, white rocks, and birds singing but unseen. Then the stones appeared, frozen in a forever game of statue-maker. For endless centuries they had waited patiently, still and silent, for me to come.

I sat on a fallen stone, holding the leash as my imagination ran wild, pondering the people who roamed England so long before written history documented their story. Grabbing the moment, I took out my journal. The moor, the distant town, the chill, this circle of stones. I dipped my pen into the cry of the birds to write.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and televsion personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

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