West Kennet long barrow entrance

Bruce Cordell, yours truly, and my daughter's thumb, all hanging at the entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow. (Cut her some slack; she was like 4 when she took this photo.)

This is a series of articles in which I talk about how living in the UK really informed my gaming life. Particularly by giving me first-hand experience with a lot of the sort of stuff that pops up in games all the time. You know what I’m talking about: Castles, medieval towns, inns, and cathedrals. But not just the medieval stuff—also Roman forts and steam-age/Victorian stuff and sailing ships and lots of other peeks into the sort of places and lives that are part of the fictional worlds we inhabit.

OK, to start with, a disclaimer or two. By “live in” I mean “spend some time in.” But more than just a five-day visit—enough time to really see and experience a lot of what I’m going to talk about. Oh, and by “England,” I really mean Great Britain—England is not the same thing as Wales, Scotland, or even Northern Ireland, but they’re all part of the UK. Confused? See this post on the topic.

This isn’t a travel guide, per se—though a gamer visiting the UK could do worse than treating it as one. I’m skipping a lot of common tourist destinations and focusing on specific topics of gamer relevance. But almost every square inch of the UK has something cool to offer the gamer’s imagination.

Oh, one more thing before I (finally!) get to the point: I’m only going to cover places I’ve actually been. Indeed, unless otherwise noted, every photo you see in this series was taken onsite in a Ryan family visit. You get the benefit of my personal experience, but, sadly, it does mean there are great places I just didn’t get to in my four years there (like the entirety of Scotland).

In This Episode: Standing Stones, Mounds, Hill Forts, and Giant White Horses. By Way of Avebury.

We all know about Stonehenge. Just in case you don’t, here’s a picture:


Yeah, it's pretty cool. But it sits at the junction of two busy country roads, and from a distance, at first blush, it looks like a cheap roadside-attraction-replica of itself. That deep pitted part that's been replaced with concrete? Blame the Victorians.

When we lived in England Stonehenge was less than an hour from our house. It was free for us to visit, since we were members of both of the preservation organizations which care for it. And every single person who visited wanted to see it, of course. So we went there a lot. A Lot.

But you wanna know a secret? Stonehenge is cool and all. And it’s big. And pretty amazing. And the countryside around it is dotted with burial mounds and other prehistoric coolness. But the UK is literally covered in this sort of stuff, and Stonehenge frankly isn’t the coolest bit. For my money, that would probably be Avebury.

What’s so cool about Avebury? Well, you get the big circle of rocks. As a bonus you get some pretty darn big earthworks and some smaller rock circles and some galleries and outliers. And unlike Stonehenge, you can walk among the rocks, going right up and touching them to your heart’s content. You have to dodge the sheep to do it; large parts of the henge do double-duty as sheep fields.

But that’s not Avebury’s only double-duty. It also contains a village. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it overlaps with a village; the village—also called Avebury—sits half-in, half-out of the circle. But still. It’s a typical picturesque rural English village. In a giant circle of standing stones.

Avebury from the air

I never flew over Avebury, so I stole this picture off the net. Look: sheep!

What Is It?

Avebury is a neolithic (as Dr. Jones would say, “from neo meaning new and lithic—I-T-H-I-C—meaning stone”) stone circle—the largest in Europe. (Actually, it’s three stone circles: There are two small ones within the main big one.) Unlike Stonehenge, the rocks in Avebury are not cut and dressed, and there are no overhead pieces—just upright sarsen stones, pretty jagged and uneven in shape. It doesn’t look like the Avebury circles had the same astronomical functions as Stonehenge, for although there are (I think) some significant basic alignments, you don’t get the precise lineups with key astronomical events like you do at Stonehenge.

Avebury at ground level.

The view from ground level. This place is really big—like 400 yards across or something. You gotta watch out for the sheep. Actually, the sheep stay outta your way—it's the sheep poop you gotta watch out for.

But you do get some bonus stuff. A mile or so away is Silbury Hill, a large, conical, manmade mound. There are burial mounds all over England, especially in the area around Avebury and Stonehenge, but most are like 30 feet across and maybe 15 feet high. Silbury Hill is ten times that size. It’s the size of a small Egyptian pyramid. There’s nothing else like it in Europe.

Silbury Hill

It's a mound of dirt. But reaaally big. But still just a mound of dirt. But pretty awe-inspiring when you think that the closest thing to tools they had back when this was made were sticks and fingernails. OK, that might not actually be true.

And just a short hike from Silbury Hill is West Kennet long barrow, a great example of a type of barrow mound formed in a long, cigar-like shape rather than the stereotypical circular mound. Unlike Silbury Hill, which seems to be nothing more than an enormous mound of earth, West Kennet has an underground gallery made of slabs of stone, with little chambers off to either side. (And speaking of Dr. Jones, the diagram on the chalk board behind him in that scene was almost certainly inspired by West Kennet.)

West Kennet inside

Inside West Kennet. It's not big at all, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in atmosphere. Three seconds after this photo was taken I stepped on the hand of some new-agey type who was meditating in the pitch blackness of that alcove behind me.

On top of West Kennet

West Kennet on top. It's basically a long pile of dirt; only a small portion at one end has chambers within.

Break time. This post is getting pretty long, so we’ll pick it up again tomorrow with some more on all this stuff, a few thoughts on what’s cool about it, and what it means to the gamer!

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