Avebury: Striking a Balance

By Gingell, Christopher | Antiquity, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Avebury: Striking a Balance


Gingell, Christopher, Antiquity


The fascination of Avebury lies partly in the informality of the place and partly in its juxtapositions of the prehistoric, the historic and sometimes the contemporary. As change, and we hope improvement, comes slowly to the World Heritage Site, we need to remember these aspects of the spirit of the place. Free and unrestricted access to monuments leaves them vulnerable: irrelevant attractions - whether of 1980s theme park, political demonstrations in the henge or pagan occupation of West Kennet long barrow - have no place and create pressure or conflicts which imperil both conservation and the principle of access for everyone.

At Avebury monuments lie within an occupied and working landscape. Long-standing communities have interests which they wish to protect from over-zealous pursuit of conservation objectives and from the domination of sometimes vociferous groups with particular interests, as well as from excessive numbers of visitors.

The informal character pervades every aspect of Avebury: monuments are maintained where possible by grazing stock alone; one major and several minor car parks are provided at most with simple orientation panels; most signage is minimalist and the visitor is not directed towards particular routes; the relationship between the henge, stone circles and village is intricate, almost confused; finally, amidst a quintessentially English muddle of church, manor and historic farm buildings, a modest museum gallery occupies the attention of those visitors who find it.

From obscurity, the sites of the Avebury area came to be increasingly visited in the centuries since John Aubrey brought them to public notice after a chance discovery while hunting in 1648/49. Avebury in the 19th century, its layout very much that of Stukeley's 18th-century engraving, is depicted well in early photographs. This is the scene in Harold St George Gray's (1935) photographs taken between 1908 and 1922, while Keiller's display the striking advent of restoration and of didactic display and the ruthless removal of what were regarded as unsightly buildings. From soon after 1943 when the National Trust purchased the henge, Windmill Hill, and adjoining land, the Office of Works (in whose guardianship were placed the site and the Museum Keiller founded in 1938) and the Trust set about in consort with Public Health officers and others to remove a great deal more: 'insanitary' dwellings, barns, the unhealthiest school room in Wiltshire (in the official description), and so on. This was consistent both with the preservation vision of the time and with Keiller's very specific wishes (his shadow stalked custodians of Avebury until well after his death in 1955).

In the post-war period the Ministry of Works and its successor bodies maintained Avebury in pragmatic vein: gates were placed wherever public use demanded, a small car park installed and a fine house converted to custodians' flats, its stables and coach-house to stores, a shop and public lavatories.

After 1960 both the Trust and the Ministry of Works recognized that a more catholic and democratic age valued the cottages and smaller buildings. Many no longer served the uses for which they built. The Trust decided to segregate the community and visitor facilities by restoring the historic Manor farmyard for visitors, making the former National Trust shop available for a village post office. New routes were created to and from the site.

The 1970s response to increasing visitor numbers multiplied the agencies directly involved. Wiltshire County Council leased land to build a new car park, the Kennet District Council opened a Tourist Information Centre, and private businesses opened up. The combination of pragmatism and plurality of management was to lead to confusion of style and even purpose. The most popular and restored southwest quadrant is inaccessible to wheel-chair users, a plethora of inconsistent signs confuse, and panels were either illegible (at Windmill Hill) or at Avebury stand on the monument itself surrounded by eroded ground. …

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