England's ancient monoliths shine even when the sun doesn't
By Naomi Kooker, Globe Correspondent
It was late when I arrived at May Cottage, an early 18th- century thatched-roof homestead-turned-B&B, tucked into the tiny village of Wherwell, Hampshire. When Doug and Sue Bailey heard my plans to rise before dawn and catch Stonehenge cloaked in rays of glory, they quickly rescued me.
There is no sun this time of year. Assured that the prehistoric, celebrated stone circle would still be standing later in morning as it would at 5 a.m. I (admittedly, gratefully) changed plans.
The British Tourist Authority says there is no off-season in England, but I beg to differ. It is now, when few tourists fancy the damp cold of winter (though they adore Christmas shopping in London). The sun is nothing more than a fuzzy white disc on loan for daylight. Gray skies become one with the fog that clings to the landscape. It is a perfect time to travel the countryside, the weather an excellent mood-enhancer for a pensive trip to sacred sites, such as Stonehenge, and a bit of introspection.
But I was learning fast; I had to let go of expectations. The first was any preconceived notion of how the trip would go. The second, weather.
The plan? To drive out to Wiltshire, home to monolithic monuments and centuries-old chalk figures on the soft-sloping downs southwest of London, and visit three sites: Stonehenge, with its giant sandstones (sarsens, hard sandstone from nearby Marlborough Downs) rising up from the earth and huddled in a shroud of mystery; Avebury Stone Circle, the largest and oldest stone circle in Britain (older than Stonehenge); and Silbury Hill, which sounded confounding with its King Arthurian plateaus filled in with soil. At about 130 feet high, it is the largest man-made mound in Europe.
With 24 hours and a sporty Fiat I figured there would be enough searching to at least recoup a portion of my soul. As I barreled southwest down the M3, several thoughts held me up: What gifts would these Neolithic stones impart? Would Stonehenge hold up to its monumental reputation and prehistoric vibes?
More importantly, would I make my first stop before dark? It was about a 21/2-hour drive, with three hours of daylight left.
Then something spectacular happened. The fuzzy white disc broke through the gray skies. It outlined the porcelain clouds in gold and gave the dark green slopes dotted with sheep a yellow-green celestial glow, colors only seen in Botticelli paintings.
The local classical radio station filled the Fiat with the celestial strings of Mendelssohn, then the drama of Wagner. The goddesses threw in a rainbow. Dipping and gunning north on the A346, I retrieved a piece of my soul.
By the time I reached Silbury the gray cover returned. The fresh air, damp and cold, fit with the desolation of the place. A moat, a circle of rippling water, surrounded the giant mound that looked like part grassy pyramid, part benign volcano. It has been called a winter goddess and referred to as a sundial.
Early excavations showed no burial ground here, though Wiltshire has plenty of them, including the nearby West Kennet at Long Barrow, one of England's ancient and most magnificent burial mounds that date to 3,500 BC.
Like many of these sites, it's a mystery as to why Silbury was constructed about 4,600 years ago. The estimated 18 million man (and woman, perhaps) hours to create it made me stop: How many projects do we undertake, knowing they won't be accomplished in our lifetimes? How quickly we forget that mounds are built one cubic centimeter of earth at a time. (An estimated 248,000 cubic meters of soil make up Silbury Hill.)
A muddy footpath led the half-mile or so to Avebury. I drove, beating the fading daylight.
Approaching the boulders at Avebury is like entering a sacrosanct place of worship. There's a hushed reverence about these humble 40-ton boulders covering 28 acres, encircled by a deep ditch - a commonality among the stone circles. Unlike the rectangular, hand-worked giants of Stonehenge, Avebury stones (also sarsens from nearby Marlborough Downs) sit like imperfect lumps, ancient voices sending a message from another world.
One boulder contained what a tour guide called The Devil's Chair, a crevice where women who could not conceive were sent to sit.
At dusk I walked the circle, breathing in the silence of the place (except for the sound of cars negotiating the motorway cutting through town) and looking to the stones for signs.
At one point I joined a tour where the guide divvied out L-shaped metal divining rods. One woman held the rods loosely, trying to keep them straight while walking between the two entrance stones on the south side of the circle. The magnetic force in the stones forced the rods to twirl and crisscross. Our eyes widened at the invisible energy: magic.
Though a raw black night descended, I didn't want to leave. I sought refuge inside Avebury Antiques. The musty-smelling store cluttered with glassware, doilies, and faded postcards was a comfort. ''Ask me any question,'' engaged a tall, gray-haired man, with an almost brogue-like English accent. ''I'm the Stone Man.''
Brian Sumbler, who grew up in Avebury village, expounded on the mysteries and myths of Neolithic man. He conceded there is a message in the stones; he denounced the idea of the Devil's Chair. Some say Christians in the Middle Ages broke up some of the stones to condemn paganism. Sumbler, 63, said the church gave the stones their ''evil'' mark to keep the parishioners from straying. ''Black is white and white is black, mum,'' Sumbler said.
Sumbler offered a tour of the circle in the daylight. I took a rain check, silently wondering when such clear skies might happen again.
As it turned out the Baileys were right; there was no sunrise at Stonehenge - my second and final destination - the next morning. It didn't matter. The stones were magnificent slabs shrouded in a veil of mist. I caught my breath. Large black birds perched at the top of the lintels, horizontal slabs capping the towering sarsen stones, creating great thick legs (the trilithons). They struck me as a giant's playing blocks, tumbled and left in a fit of distraction.
The white hazy disc tried but could not break through.
The guards said thousands of people visit Stonehenge on a given day. This morning a half-dozen, if that, paced the paved, roped-off path in front of the stones, lapping up every angle, listening intently to the hand-held recorded audio tour.
The why and how of the 5,000-year-old monument (built in stages) still remains a mystery. Was it a place of religious or pagan worship? An agricultural calendar for the seasons? A monolithic town hall? The only sure thing seemed to be the position of a horseshoe of stones inside the circle. It aligns with the sun's axis, recording the summer and winter solstices, capturing the light on the longest and shortest days of the year.
Without the sun, I wondered how they could tell.
Naomi Kooker is a freelance writer who lives in Newton.
If you go...
How to get there
Lowest round-trip fares between Boston and London/Heathrow available at press time started at $419 (including taxes and other charges) on British Airways.
Driving to these sites gives you great flexibility and allows you to see more of the countryside along the way. (There is public transportation to Avebury and Silbury; call the Marlborough Tourist Information Center 0-11-44-1672-513-989. Call Stonehenge for public transportation information.)
To drive to Wiltshire: From London take the A4 west. Just past Heathrow Airport, at Junction 4B, pick up the M25 for a few miles. Then pick up the M3 south. (It may be easier to rent a car at Heathrow and begin your journey from there and avoid London traffic.) Take M3 south toward Basingstoke. At junction 8, get on A303 west. For Avebury and Silbury: At Amesbury, take A345 north to Marlborough. Take a left (go west) on the A4 in Marlborough. Silbury Hill is about six miles on the right. Follow signs to Avebury. To drive to Stonehenge: Stay on the A303 west. You will see signs for Stonehenge at the junction of the A360.
What to do
Two miles west of Amesbury on the junction of the A303 and A360, Wiltshire
$7 adults, $3.50 children. Open through March 15, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; call for other seasonal times. Wheelchair accessible. Audio tour in nine languages. Awesome towering sarsen (hard sandstone) and blue stones make up this megalithic monument rising up from Salisbury Down. Mysteries surround its why and wherefore, but nothing is set in stone.
Avebury Stone Circle, Avebury, Wiltshire
No visitor restrictions. Guided tours available. Avebury Stone Circle is older than Stonehenge and at first glance less grand, but you can touch these stones - and feel their magnitude by walking in and around the avenues and along the outer rim of the village.
Avebury Antiques, High Street, Avebury
Brian and Angela Sumbler own this small, cozy antique store with collectibles, old postcards, and Avebury information; just ask for The Stone Man.
Silbury Hill, Off the A4, Marlborough
No visitor restrictions. This is the largest man-made mound in Europe. It's been called a winter goddess and a sundial. Others speculate treasure is buried in the mound, though no treasures have been found in its excavations.
Where to stay
May Cottage Bed and Breakfast, Fullerton Road, Wherwell, Hampshire
011-44-1264860412, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
An intimate setting, pastoral landscape, one suite with kitchenette and spacious one bedroom, $95-$120, with full English breakfast. It's about 15 miles from Stonehenge, about 50 minutes from Avebury and Silbury.
Ash Lodge, Choppy Knife Lane, Marlborough
One room, elephant-theme, bathroom en-suite $80; one room Laura Ashley-style with private bath $75, with full English breakfast (with homemade marmalade jam). Ten-minute drive from Avebury/Silbury.
The New Inn, Winterbourne Monkton, near Swindon, Wiltshire
This 300-year-old-plus homestead overlooking the Marlborough Downs houses a pub and five rooms, including a larger room to accommodate families. Rates run $80-$110 per night with full English breakfast. Pub is open for lunch and dinner, with pub fare $10-$16. It's about one mile from Avebury Circle.
Where to eat
Polly Tea Room, High Street, Marlborough, Wiltshire
Weekdays 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sundays 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Fuel up on breakfast, lunch, or tea at this dainty traditional tearoom.
Waggon & Horses Pub Beckhampton
Near Marlborough (about 11/2 miles from Avebury), Wiltshire
Food served 12-2 p.m., dinner 7-8:30 with longer pub hours. Pub fare $5-$15.
This story ran on page M4 of the Boston Globe on 1/5/2003.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.