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Travel Bill Bryson finds this ancient English site astonishing, fascinating – and very funny

Excerpt from The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

The National Trust is a wonderful organization. There can be no doubt about that. It safeguards 160 historic houses, 40,000 archaeological sites, 775 miles of coastline and 250,000 hectares of countryside. It even owns and manages 59 villages. The world is unquestionably a better place for having the National Trust in it. So here is my question: why does it have to be so very annoying?

I mention this because my next port of call was the ancient Trust-owned village and megalithic site of Avebury, which manages to be both fabulous and exasperating in about equal measure. Avebury village is an attractive place with a post office, shop, some pleasant cottages, a manor house, a thatch-roofed pub. It’s an entirely conventional village except that scattered through and around it are great, angular standing stones. Some are quite massive and clearly took huge effort to manoeuvre into place. The largest of them weigh up to a hundred tonnes.

The stones at Avebury are not smooth and picturesquely grouped as at Stonehenge but rough-edged and of varying sizes, which gives them a more primitive and sinister air. The scale of Avebury, rather than the beauty of it, is what takes your breath away. The outer circle of stones covers 28 acres, and that is only part of a much greater pageant of antiquity. The immediate environs also include two other fragmentary stone circles, a giant bank and ditch, processional avenues, and barrows by the, well, barrowload. Yet Avebury is only a shadow of what it once was. Today it has seventy-six standing stones. Once there were over six hundred. Even so, it remains the largest stone circle in Europe, fourteen times bigger than Stonehenge.

Book cover, The Road to Little Dribbling

The size and complexity of Avebury and the fact that a village stands in its midst make it awfully hard to get your bearings, and the National Trust does precious little to help. There are no information boards or usefully sited maps to help you get oriented, absolutely no boards providing interpretation. If you want to know what you are looking at, you have to buy a guidebook. The directional signs pointed only to places where you could spend money – the shop, the museum, the café. It would be a kindness if they gave you a map of the site when you paid for parking and admission, but that is not the National Trust way. They like to charge for every individual thing. The day cannot be too far off when you have to pay for toilet paper by the sheet in a little booth manned by a volunteer.

Within minutes of arriving, I had paid out £7 for parking, £10 for a ticket to the manor house and garden and £4.90 for the small museum, and I still couldn’t find my way around the stones, so I went into the gift shop and bought a big handsome map for £9.99, which meant that I had spent £31.89 at Avebury without even having had a cup of tea. So I went and had a cup of tea (£2.50) and studied my map. Then, feeling ever so slightly grumpy, I went and wandered among the stones and everything was suddenly fine, for Avebury is both awesome and entrancing.

Modern Avebury is almost entirely to the credit of an extraordinary man named Alexander Keiller. Keiller was born in 1889 into marmalade, as it were. His family made the famous Keiller marmalade in Dundee, but his parents died young and Keiller grew up as a very rich orphan. When he came of age, he left the running of the business to an uncle and devoted his own energies to fast cars, skiing, a breathtakingly active sex life, and several hare-brained business pursuits. His investments included a “wind-wagon,” a car powered by an aeroplane propeller mounted on its back. The only problem was that the propeller was liable to slice unsuspecting passers-by into salami-sized pieces and so the business failed. Keiller then invested in a car with seats that folded down to become a bed, but unfortunately the business folded before very many seats did.

When he was not hurling his money into foolish business ventures, Keiller devoted himself to “exploring the range of sexual practices,” as the Dictionary of National Biography delicately puts it. According to his biographer Lynda J. Murray, Keiller bemused a young woman named Antonia White by asking her to climb into a laundry basket “wearing nothing but a mackintosh so that he could poke her through the wicker work with an umbrella.” Quite how Keiller found pleasure in this and whether Ms. White complied are questions not addressed in Murray’s otherwise thorough biography. With some like-minded men, he founded a club whose members took turns having sex with a willing (and presumably resilient) prostitute, then sat with whiskies and compared notes on the experience. Despite (or, for all I know, because of) these quirks, Keiller enjoyed a steady string of mistresses and four marriages.

The scale of Avebury is what takes your breath away. (Photo by James Osmond/Alamy)

In 1924, aged thirty-five, Keiller visited Avebury for the first time and instantly found a new calling. Avebury at that time was not the glorious, manicured treasure we find today. The stones, Murray relates, stood amid “a jumble of pigsties, derelict corrugated buildings, crumbling cottages, and an old garage which was in need of renovation. The whole area was overgrown with shrubs and trees and the remaining stones of the circle were overshadowed by indiscriminate building.” Many stones were toppled. Others had been broken up in earlier times and used as building materials. When Keiller arrived just fifteen stones were still standing.

Keiller bought Avebury Manor and invested his wealth and considerable energies in a far-sighted programme of excavation and restoration. He wasn’t universally popular in the village because of his inclination to tear down cottages and barns that interfered with his excavations and because he booted some elderly tenants out of an estate cottage so that he could park a mistress there. But there is no question that the archaeological work he funded was world class and made Avebury what it is today. Keiller spent nearly twenty years excavating until in 1943, his health failing, he sold out to the National Trust. He died the following decade, pretty well forgotten.

I was particularly keen to see the manor house as I assumed it would be filled with Keiller’s personal curios and archaeological treasures. But no. In what must be the cheesiest thing the National Trust has ever done, it had allowed the house to be made into a set for a now-forgotten BBC television series. The idea of the series was to decorate each room in the style of a different period, reflecting the ages through which the house has stood. It probably sounded like an excellent notion on paper. The problem is that it was clearly executed by designers and crews who build sets for a living. If you ever go to a television studio the thing that most immediately strikes you is how slapdash it all is. Props and furnishings that look perfectly all right on screen are, up close, patently fake. I was once on the set of University Challenge. From the front it looks fine, but step behind and you see that it is really just a lot of plywood and duct tape.

Each room of the manor house looked like it was done in about twenty minutes. Just one small room was devoted to the period of Keiller’s residency, and it told you almost nothing about why he came to Avebury and what he achieved there. The other rooms had nothing whatever to do with the monuments outside.

The decoration of Avebury Manor, as Bill Bryson writes, is ‘the cheesiest thing the National Trust has ever done.’ (Photo by Kevin Freeborn/Alamy)

The accompanying museum, in a nearby stable block, was only fractionally less disappointing. Avebury is a World Heritage Site for a reason. It is an astonishing, fascinating place, yet the museum seemed perfunctory and uninspired, as if it were fulfilling an obligation rather than reflecting an enthusiasm. We know almost nothing about the people who built Avebury – their language, culture, beliefs, pastimes, where they came from, even what kind of clothing they wore. They are a complete mystery. Yet they had the ambition and organizational skill to build the greatest stone circle in Europe. But any sense of wonder this instills must be supplied by the visitors themselves.

Of these there were plenty, I must say. I was surprised at how popular Avebury has become. By eleven in the morning, the crowds were pretty thick. I had to queue to get through a kissing gate and was very glad I had had my cup of tea already because there was quite a line at the café now as well.

Just over a mile from Avebury is something about as amazing and possibly even more memorable than Avebury itself: Silbury Hill. This is not a National Trust property, so the Trust doesn’t draw visitors’ attention to it. That is unfortunate, for Silbury Hill is a wonder. It is 130 feet high – about the height of a ten-storey building – and is entirely made by hand. It is the tallest artificial prehistoric mound in the world. There is nothing like it anywhere else. It is covered in grass and is uniform all the way round. It is sensationally lovely to look at. It is genuinely perfect. It deserves to be world famous.

Silbury Hill is easily reached from Avebury across some fields. The walk was very pleasant, but the path was largely overgrown and clearly not much used. I had to push my way through a lot of nettles and brambles. I didn’t see another soul. You can’t walk up Silbury Hill – it is too fragile – but you can stand and stare at it for as long as you like. I could have stayed for most of the day, I think – it is that arresting. Its construction involved an almost unimaginable amount of labour, yet it has no known purpose. It is not a burial mound. It holds no treasures. It is nothing but soil and rock painstakingly formed into a large pudding-shaped hill. All that can be said for certain is that at some point in the massively distant past, for reasons unknown, some people decided to make a hill where none had stood before. Even where the material in the hill came from is a mystery. It is not as if there is a 130-foot hole nearby. The landscape is perfectly undisturbed, yet somehow and for some reason people were able to bring in enough soil and rock to build a small mountain. Extraordinary.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire in England. (iStock)

But that’s not all. Across a busy highway – one must waddle smartly, rucksack jiggling – and a quarter of a mile or so up a sloping track is the West Kennet Long Barrow, a large burial chamber. This, too, I had all to myself. The view from the top was extremely fine. In the foreground was Silbury Hill, shapely and majestic. In the middle distance, glinting in the sunshine, were a couple of hundred cars parked in the National Trust car park, with still more coming in all the time. All around in every direction were lovely low hills and rich-looking farmland.

The barrow itself, however, didn’t at first glance seem terribly thrilling. It is just a long, grassy mound that has settled so well into the landscape that it seems almost a natural feature. But looking around more closely, I discovered an entrance, semi-hidden behind a massive rock, and I crept in. The whole became immediately sensational. Here, I could see that the barrow was made from giant stones, many as big as anything at Avebury, lifted into position to form walls and ceilings. The barrow is three hundred feet long. This was an enormous undertaking. It was built 5,500 years ago, but as far as could be told fewer than fifty people were interred there in a period of only twenty-five years or so. The bodies were arranged by sex and age. More than that, no one will ever be able to say.

I was so glad that I had traipsed up here. I went and stood on the roof of the barrow again and surveyed the view, feeling like a conqueror, pleased to have it all to myself.

“And this part of the day didn’t cost me a penny,” I said proudly, hands on hips.

Excerpted from The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. Copyright (c) 2015 Bill Bryson. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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