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Visiting the Avebury henge

Avebury may not be as convenient, famous or spectacular as Stonehenge, and you may never have heard of it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Avebury may not be as convenient, famous or spectacular as Stonehenge, and you may never have heard of it.

But it also lacks the large crowds, high fences, entrance fees and "don't touch" restrictions of Stonehenge. And it's well worth a visit.

It's easy to pass by the quiet village of Avebury - about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Salisbury. It's small, somewhat plain, located on a rural road, and has a quiet atmosphere.

However, don't let that fool you; Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe and the largest manmade prehistoric mound, Silbury Hill.

Avebury's stone circle dates to around 2600 B.C. Experts are still trying to determine its exact age, purpose and builder.

As you approach the village, you are greeted by rows and rows of large standing stones that seem to have been left haphazardly. But a closer look reveals that the stones are arranged in a circle, surrounded by a deep ditch dug by the builders.

Visitors are free to roam around the area; there's no entrance fee.

Avebury's henge - a circular area with a bank and ditch - originally contained almost 100 large, unshaped stones, some weighing more than 40 tons and twice as big as any at Stonehenge. The builders probably moved the stones from the nearby quarry by dragging them or using wooden rollers.

The 17th-century diarist John Aubrey, one of the first men who pushed for the preservation of Avebury, described the area:

"These Downes looke as if they were Sown with great Stones, very thicke; and in a dusky evening they looke like a flock of Sheep ...

"One might fancy it to have been the Scene where the Giants fought with stones against the Gods. ... I was wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones, of which I had never heard before; as also at the mighty Banke and Graffe (ditch) about it. I observed in the Inclosures some segments of rude circles, made with these stones, whence I concluded, they had been in old time complete."

Time has not been kind to Avebury. Many of the stones were either buried or broken down by private venturers or by fearful religious zealots. Today, only some of the large stones remain. The missing stones are marked by small obelisk shaped posts.

In the 1930s, archaeologist Alexander Keiller was hired to resurrect the remaining stones. During the project, Keiller found the body of a prehistoric child "Charlie" which is on display in the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury.

Today, Avebury is one of 14 World Heritage Sites in Britain and protected by the National Trust. And like many ancient sites, it has its legends and mysteries.

One story says that women used to come on the eve of May Day and sit on a rock in the shape of a chair and make a wish. Another legend says the "Diamond Stone" - weighing close to 40 tons - jumps across the road each night at midnight.

Some people have claimed to see small figures lit by moonlight moving among the stones. There are those who claim the mysterious site was built by aliens and is related to a Martian formation named Cydonia.

There are two museums nearby - the Alexander Keiller Museum and Avebury: 6,000 Years of Mystery. A joint pass costs 4.20 pounds (US $8; euro 6.50) for adults, and 2.10 pounds (US $4; euro 3) for children. The museums detail the history of Avebury.

Also nearby are the Avebury Manor and Gardens, which cost 3.90 pounds (US $7.50; euro 5.50) for both the manor and gardens.

If you go:

AVEBURY: The circle can be visited 24 hours a day, year-round. The museum is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., April 1-Oct. 31, and 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Nov. 1-March 31. The shop is open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., April to October, and 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Nov. 1-March 31.

GETTING THERE: Wilts & Dorset bus service - - runs public buses to both Stonehenge and Avebury out of Salisbury and the nearby city of Amesbury. An all-day Explorer Pass costs 6.50 pounds (US$12 ; euro9.50) for adults and 3.25 pounds (US$6; euro5) for children. The pass is sold on any Wilts & Dorset bus, the Salisbury bus and rail stations, the Salisbury Tourist Information Office and the Youth Hostel in Salisbury. Remember to request the Avebury stop - it's easy to miss.