Avebury. Britain’s largest stone circle, and thoroughly magical, mystical spot. A village grown within and amongst the mighty stones, intertwined with the monument in a way I think unique. Of course, it is full of visitors, even on a fairly dreary weekend in November. And the good folk of the National Trust are there to inform and educate (and possibly recruit) us all: bobbing up and down the steps of their little caravans bearing leaflets and maps.
A couple of the NT folk spend a while with my son and I, telling us about the Walking Festival which is just drawing (like the Half Term holiday) to a close. But I am inspired by them to revisit Dinton, not far from here at all, which has a good walk – short enough for a winter afternoon perhaps.
Avebury Manor (pictured) has not been accessible to the masses for very long at all. Until recently it was tenanted – lucky old tenants – whilst in the ownership of the NT. Prior to that it had been in private ownership since the 16th century – and narrowly escaped being made into a theme park in the 1980s. But then the last tenants left, and the house threw open its doors and garden gates. For a while it was shown unfurnished – indeed, there were artfully arranged piles of packing cases, and dustsheets everywhere, to represent the departure of several centuries’ worth of inhabitants. Then came the BBC series, ‘To the Manor Reborn’ which followed the fortunes of house and garden while they were restored – but with a (it being television, perhaps, inevitable) twist. The house was not treated as a single entity, presented throughout at a single moment in its history. Rather, rooms took on discrete and individual historical moods – Tudor, Queen Anne, Art Deco – and modern craftspeople were employed to recreate the fixtures and fittings, to repaint and restore. This is something quite different, and I think it works really well. It is enlightening to see what ‘Tudor’ furniture looked like when new – without the patina of half a millennium of use. The ‘Tudor’ furniture was made to Tudor patterns, using Tudor techniques (so far as we know them) and Tudor materials – but it presented afresh.
Best of all, it means one can touch! Gone are the strategically placed teasel heads to deter the tired bottom from trying out a chair – instead there is an invitation to sit. Not only to sit, but to bounce on the mattresses, to slip between the sheets of the beds, even to play a frame of snooker… The past becomes a sensory experience beyond mere sight.
While my son and his friend were attending to the green baize, I leafed through some old copies of The Times newspaper. Those were the days long before The Times carried news on its front page: but in this instance it didn’t need to, the news was clear enough. Dated variously between 1915 and 1917, they made for a sobering read: every front page carried its column inches of the dead and wounded of the Great War (or the officers at least). All of them so very young.
The gardens too are well worth seeing. There are a series of walled gardens, full of topiary and clipped yew and Buxus hedges, which come into their own at this time of year when colour is fast fading away. As part of the BBC programme, the Kitchen Garden was renovated, and – apart from a ghastly skeletal ‘gardener’ (a relic of just-passed Hallowe’en) – look very fine indeed. I well remember a visit a couple of years ago, on a boiling hot day, when we just sat on the lawn and rested while the children raced up and down: no-one else there to disturb or be disturbed by our fun.
All of this coupled with the very friendly and unstuffy guides, makes a visit to the Manor a delightfully different experience. No doubt some will accuse the NT of ‘dumbing down’ in the name of ‘inclusivity’ or somesuch – but the stated aims of the Avebury Manor approach are clear, and if you don’t like it, then go to a more ‘traditional’ property.
Just watch out for the teasels…