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West Kennet Long Barrow

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by Tom Fieldhouse (subscribe)
I am a freelance writer, living in Bath with my wife and son. I love my city, and love to live here. I write about Bath a lot, and sometimes about travels in Ireland and France.
Published July 27th 2020
Long Barrow, long-lasting memories
A view of the front of the barrow, taken just after walking along the roof.

Fancy visiting something unusual? Built around 3650 BCE, this Neolithic burial chamber, or 'Long Barrow', is a truly unique and special place to visit. It is a stone-built passageway, roofed over to resemble a cave. The carefully placed remains of over 50 cremated bodies were found here, lovingly placed in to small alcoves, or side-tunnels, of the barrow. The site has long been excavated and so there are no remains there today, but people often leave offerings of candles, flowers and wheat.

This site is visited today by many visitors, for all sorts of reasons. It is beloved by historians, people interested in Paganism and ritual, and all manner of other groups. I have always found it to be a peaceful place. Built into the brow of a Wiltshire hill, it is completely accessible and open to visitors, despite being one of the largest, and most unusual archaeological sites in England. If you want to get up close and personal with the ancient past, then this is the place for you and yours.

The time worn entrance stones, leading to the burial chamber

The barrow is not easy to locate, but there is an ideal lay-by (parking space just off the road), almost directly opposite Silbury Hill, which is a flat-topped Neolithic hill, built by people from the ancient past (you can't miss it in the photos, or in-person). Access to the Long Barrow is via a well-defined path that begins at the road and heads gently uphill. You will see the burial chamber begin to grow as a bump on the horizon as you walk. The surroundings are magnificent, and in Summer can be full of wheat crops, or left fallow, with ploughed up soil. The path runs between two fields that are privately owned, so do stick to the path.

Silbury Hill, taken from the roof of the Long Barrow in a rain storm.

A wonderful part of visiting this place is the way that the weather constantly changes the colour of the fields and the stones. In rain, the crops grow, and the Long Barrow becomes very visible. In sunnier weather, the fields seem to flow gently, and the barrow almost becomes part of the fields themselves. I always feel that whoever made the burial chamber must have felt a deep sense of place, and love, for this part of the world. The barrow feels almost natural, and more like a cave than a place of worship or rest.

West Kennet, built at the summit of the fields.

The exact purpose of the long barrow can never be known, but archaeologists think that it was a form of final resting place, or graveyard, for the farming peoples who lived in and around this area. The surrounding land is full of other very significant archaeological sites. Avebury Henge is just two miles away, and Stonehenge is just 27 miles away. Perhaps the rolling hills and valleys around the barrow were once an entire community of religious and secular activities. It is easy to imagine weddings or festivals happening there.

Lichen-clad stones, protecting the ritual chamber.

The rural location makes the air here extremely pure and refreshing, and many different coloured lichens grow on the grey sarsen stones. Close up, these look like maps or satellite images. For the last two years, the barrow has also become home for nesting swallows and swifts, so be prepared for birds to come swooping past you at the entrance. You may not be the only visitors!

Looking in to the tunnel mouth

There are two glass skylights that light up the barrow, but it is a good idea to go into the tunnel gradually, to allow your eyes to adjust to the gloom. Depending on the time of year that you visit, the sunlight can shine into the barrow, and standing inside watching the play of light on the stones is very special.

Sunlight streaming in to the chamber, and lighting up the back wall.

In both the main passage and the side chambers, there are flat stones that look like paved surfaces or altars, and it is here that visitors sometimes leave offerings or tokens of their visit.

Standing at the entrance (photographer inside the tunnel).

It is a remarkable experience to stand in the chamber and look out to the entrance. It is easy to imagine this place as a gateway to another world or a calm resting place for people who have left this earth. In many ways, a space like this could feel eerie or unpleasant, but this one never does. It might help to have an idea of the layout of the barrow, so have a look at the plan below. In some ways, it almost resembles a church or cathedral.

Source: The Avebury Stone Circles booklet
An intricate diagram of the layout inside the Long Barrow

Sarsen stones, guarding some of the side-chambers. You can clearly see the Neolithic carvings, and 'cup marks', which look like shallow alcoves

If the sun is shining, you may see some carvings and indentations in the stone These are often described as 'cup marks' or 'alcoves'. I can identify some on the sidewalls, although it is difficult to know whether some of the grooves and patterns have been made by human hands or just centuries of weather and human hands running along them.

The surrounding landscape of the Long Barrow, taken during a sunny interval

This stunning rural location never fails to move me, and it genuinely always looks different, depending on the time of day and weather in the local area. Just in our trip today there was heavy rain, glowering clouds, some blue sky and blustery wind. The colours will be magnificent whenever you go.

a lichen-clad stone, looking bright against the glowering sky

Do go equipped if you take a look at the Barrow. The walk up to the site is rocky and a little steep, and so sturdy footwear is essential. My advice is to prepare for all weathers, as the climate can change rapidly in this part of the world. Other than that, you are all set. Enjoy!

Fields of wheat, beneath thundery skies
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Why? Magnificent ancient monument, in a stunning rural setting.
When: Always and forever (but safest to go when it is light)
Phone: 01672 539 250
Where: Wiltshire countryside, near to Avebury
Cost: FREE
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