A Guide to Mysterious Britain

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

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)

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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.

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

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

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