Category Archives: Trips outside the United States

Avebury Stone Circle

On the same day that Anne and I went to Stonehenge last year, we also visited Avebury Stone Circle, although it was quite a different experience.  For one thing, you don’t have to stay on a path. You can walk wherever you want.

The stone circle at Avebury is also so large that it is impossible to photograph it completely except from the air. In the picture below the ditch and embankment that surround the site can be seen (in part) and the stones seem tiny. They’re not. They’re “YUGE.” (Sorry, just a little political humor).

5 Long view

That embankment and ditch (which makes this site a “henge”  is over a kilometer in circumference.  That’s a lot of digging  It was not built, as they say, in a day.

4 Four Stones

Since Anne and I did not have a helicopter or a balloon, we were limited to the shots we took with our feet firmly placed upon the ground.  Our minds, of course, continued to float.3 Anne

The stones that make up the outside circle are massive and have not been chiseled into shape as they are at Stonehenge. They seem to stand today as they were found. Some speculate that they were chosen for their shape. Others speculate that some are supposed to be female and others male. We won’t go there.

Dogs sheep

As we said, at Avebury visitors are free to walk among the stones.   They can even touch the rough surfaces, which is not possible at Stonehenge. But be careful where you step, since there are sheep grazing in the same fields.2 Touching

If you do touch them, you have the feeling that you are touching something that was once holy. Maybe they still are. So much effort must have had some great purpose, and would not a great purpose have a lingering effect.  Who knows?1villageA village grew up in the midst of the stones, which just adds to the experience as you wander here and there. At one point a few centuries ago, some villagers thought they should get rid of the stones since they had been put in place in a pagan time and for a pagan reason. Supposedly, the skeleton of one of those villagers still lies  beneath a stone that did not take kindly to being buried. The Black death soon followed, putting an end to that particular effort to destroy what was not understood. Later on, in the 18th Century, many of the stones were broken apart and used for building materials.  We let out a long sigh of dismay when we hear such things.

Stone and ManOf course, we saw faces on some of the stones. The question naturally comes to mind as to whether the people who originally placed the stones saw the faces too. Did they think it was funny? Fortuitous? Something else?

Cat plus twoThis one in particular seems to have been a witness to many dramas. What if it could talk?

JanusWere they laughing as they pushed and pulled these tremendous pieces of stone into place? Did they call this one, “the guy with the big nose?” Was there someone in town who resembled him?

The Butler

We understand completely why a visit to Stonehenge is so regimented. Many millions visit every year and if people did not stay on the paths the place would be trampled and the stones would be threatened. But if you want a different experience, one in which you can get very close to these massive pieces of rock, see them from every angle, touch them, close your eyes, and maybe get in touch with the souls of the men and women who put them in place, then by all means visit Avebury. You will not be sorry.

Stonehenge

I don’t remember the first time I saw a picture of Stonehenge.  It was probably in a copy of National Geographic Magazine, which arrived at our house once a month when I was a kid, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lees, two members of the church where my father preached. (I’m sure I thanked them for that gift, but not nearly enough).

In any event, I’ve always wanted to visit Stonehenge, but did not get around to it until this past September when Anne and I toured parts of England and France.  Turns out that I was not the only person who wanted to take a look at a pile of old stones.

Whereas fifty years ago the number of yearly visitors could be numbered in the thousands, now there are upward of 1.3 million souls visiting every year. That’s obviously a lot of people and something had to be done to protect the stones and the grounds from too much love (not to mention people who might want to take just a tiny piece of a stone for a souvenir). The bad news is that you can no longer walk among the stones themselves, unless you are the President of the United States or similar dignitary.

Obama

The good news is that whoever was in charge really did an excellent job. The new visitor center — which is terrific — is located about one and a half miles away from the site and is not visible from the stones. A bus takes you to the site or you can walk. When you get to the stones, you are kept at a distance by a walkway and a short fence. But you have unobstructed views.

Stonehenge 2

We were just about the first visitors to the site on the day we went. It was a foggy morning, which added to the otherworldly quality of the setting.  I’m pretty sure my mouth dropped open when I first saw them. It was not hard to imagine that we were the only ones there and to get a sense of what it must have been like to see this place a couple of thousand years ago.

stonehenge 3Stonehenge Iphone 1

As the fog lifted, we were able to see the surrounding countryside, which had also been kept relatively free from the intrusions of modern life.  Again, it is not hard to feel that you are seeing the land as it has been seen for many millennia.  Stonehenge is not on the highest piece of ground. To the south you can see a ridge that is clearly higher.  But something caused them to build right here.  It made me wonder if this was the location of some great event lost forever in time.  A battle? A miraculous happening?

Looking South

There is no time limit on being at the site.  You can walk around as long as you want.  And there are apps and other devices that give you some idea of what this all might have meant to the men who built it.  Some of the stones were transported here from mountains in Wales hundreds of miles away. The speculation is that the stones from that area were thought to have magical qualities. Maybe.

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What is called the Heel Stone surprised me with a face that did not seem particularly happy.  I didn’t take it personally.

heel stone 2

We walked back to the visitor center afterward, but chose a route over one of the fields past some ancient mounds.

Tumuli

When we looked back (which we did often), we saw our fellow visitors were arriving in force.

Looking Back

They resembled a religious procession, circling the site.

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Having just come from Canterbury, pilgrimages were on our minds.  This had just been one of a different sort.

akiwa stonehenge

Canterbury Cathedral

Cathedral 1It’s hard to get a picture of Canterbury Cathedral without a helicopter or a magical lens.

Cathedral 3

It is a huge presence, and it’s history is hugely entertaining.

In 1170, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered on the alter of the Canterbury Cathedral by five knights who heard King Henry II say (in words or substance) “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest” and decided that they would be the answer to the King’s question. It was a gruesome crime, according to the monk who witnessed it (and nearly had his own arm cut off). The archbishop did not die easily, it seems.  And he continued to have his influence from the grave.  Shortly after his death, miracles were reported in the vicinity of his crypt and he was soon canonized.  Pilgrims began to flock there, some of whom are described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Henry II was also affected.  A few years afterward, in penance for his part in the crime, he wore a sackcloth and walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while 80 monks flogged him with branches.  Afterward, he spent the night in Becket’s crypt.  English History–You can’t make this stuff up!

Shrine

Here is a picture of the shrine as it now exists in the cathedral.  I photographed the shadow of the hanging swords. The symbolism is obvious.

Looking upAt the time of Becket’s death, there had been a Christian place of worship on the spot for around 600 years.  It seems a Roman church may have existed before that.  There is no question that St. Augustine, (the one who founded the church, not THE Augustine), built inside the old Roman walls of the city.  And Roman brick was recycled in the walls of the abbey that once stood near the Cathedral.  When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the middle of the 16th Century, Augustine’s abbey and everything in it was sold off and fell into decay.  Still, today there are walls that were made of Roman brick.

AugstineBelow are some faces that were part of the Augustine Abbey and which have been recovered.  They give an idea of the possible grandeur of the place.

Face 2 Aug Face 1 AugusSpeaking of Henry VIII — Wow, what a guy!  I guess we all remember from our history classes that he made himself head of the church in England, supposedly because he wanted a divorce from his wife.  And I vaguely remembered something about him dissolving the monasteries.  But you can’t imagine what that dissolution meant until you actually travel around England and visit a few of the monasteries, priories and abbeys that were “dissolved.”  The abbey started by St. Augustine at about the same time he founded the church in Canterbury is one example, but not even a very good one.  What you see within walking distance of the Cathedral are the remains of walls, now only several feet above the ground except in a few places.  But the expanse of territory covered by those walls reveals the extent of what was “dissolved.”

Augustine 2Other similar ruins that we saw around England were truly spectacular.  (More will be posted on this topic at a future time.)

Stained glass 2But Henry VIII did not limit himself to the dissolution.  In Canterbury, worried about the shrine to Becket and the pilgrims it was still attracting four hundred years after the murder, he had the shrine destroyed and Becket’s body (bones at this point) removed from the cathedral.  Of course, Kings die but Saints prove meddlesome even from the grave.  The shrine was restored some years later.

stained glassAmong other things, the stained glass windows are very beautiful.  You could spend a long time going from window to window, taking them all in.  You might need a few weeks of therapy afterward for your neck and back. But remember this while you are looking at them.  When the Puritans obtained control of the English government in the middle 1600’s, they went around to the cathedrals, including Canterbury, and to other institutions and smashed those windows because they offended Puritan sensibilities of what was proper inside a house of worship.  Canterbury had the added indignity of horses stabled in the nave. English history …

Inside 1I don’t know about you, but the thought of medieval stained glass being smashed makes me think of the demolition of giant Buddhas in Afghanistan and of ancient temples in Syria.  There may be other parallels, including between Cromwell and men running for office today, but I will spare you a rant.

God save us from religious extremists of all stripes.