Fall further into the mystery of England’s greatest Neolithic monuments at Avebury and White Horse Hill.
Dotted along England’s rolling hills and ridges escarpments are many easily missed lumps and bumps that show signs of an age long ago. During our Active England Tours, we visit three of these Neolithic sites that form some of the oldest permanent monuments to man’s existence here! Two of these places are World Heritage Sites: Stonehenge and its lesser known, but arguably more impressive, cousin Avebury, as well as leading you on a cycle ride up to see the White Horse carved into the Ridgeway Uffington, some 3000 thousand years ago.
White Horse Hill
Our cycle up to the top of the Neolithic Ridgeway is the steepest climb of the tour (and the most exhilarating!), as well as the most rewarding for the fantastic panoramic views over the valley below. Equally popular is the bus ride to the top and the chance to take some action shots of those puffing and panting their way up on two wheels!
The mystery surrounding the purpose of these grand monuments has intrigued historians and archaeologists for centuries, perhaps none more than White Horse Hill, a stylised and prehistoric figure of a horse, carved directly into the slope during the Bronze Age. It is created of deep tranches filled with dazzling white chalk that is characteristic of the limestone escarpment it sits on. What is truly amazing is that to have survived over the centuries and millennia, it needed to have been cleaned at least every decade or so, in order to maintain its integrity against the overgrowing grass that surrounds and threatens it. While the local community must have, as they still do, gathered together to clean and maintain the horse depiction, the story of how it came about and its purpose has been lost to time.
Avebury vs Stonehenge
We’ll leave it to you to decide on your favourite monument on our ‘Neolithic Day’, but here at Active England we mostly fall into the Avebury camp. Its sheer scale and size are second to none – it is the world’s largest stone circle and perhaps the most impressive remaining earthwork in Europe, and what’s more you can reach up and touch the prehistoric stones. Contained within a giant circular henge about 430 meters wide, up to 400 standing stones were believed to have stood here. Ranging in height from 3-6 metres, the heaviest would have weighed 65 tonnes alone! The earthwork banks that surround the stones in a fort-like construction would have originally been 20-30 meters thick at their base and nearly 7 meters tall. The central area of the henge would have been a bright white from the 200,000 tons of chalk limestone that was hauled up to carpet the ground and construct the mounds. This brilliant white would have been a very striking contrast to the surrounding green landscape.
While those of the early Neolithic era are considered to be the first settlers and farmers to this land, over the generations and after a couple of thousand years it seems notable ‘improvements’ were made to the landscape surrounding these monuments. The most striking of these is Sidbury Hill. Situated next to the Avebury earthworks, this hill is the largest man-made mound in Europe, roughly comparable in height and volume to the smaller contemporary Egyptian pyramids! It is believed to have been completed around 2400 BC though, as with the other ancient monuments we visit on our ‘Neolithic day’, its reasons for construction remain unknown and can only be guessed at.
We end our day at Stonehenge; England’s most famous prehistoric monument. Truly Ancient, this stone circle was built between 3000 and 2000BC. It is composed of standing stones each about four meters high and set into a complex network of Neolithic and Bronze age monuments that radiate out from its source, including several hundred burial mounds in the surrounding hills. This is a monument of epic proportions. Constructed in three phases, it is estimated that it required more than thirty million hours of labour in order to source, transport and place these stones. And no one can be sure why they were even made – your guess is as good as anyone’s!