VISITING WEST KENNET LONG BARROW, WILTSHIRE
West Kennet Long Barrow is one of several prehistoric monuments which form part of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage site: a large area of Wiltshire filled with barrows, stone circles, avenues and other remnants from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Unlike some of the other sites within this ancient landscape, the West Kennet Long Barrow can be visited, and entered, for free.
Stonehenge and Avebury are about 25 miles apart, one is the most architecturally advanced stone circle in the world, the other is the largest, and around each is a cluster of other ancient monuments; curses, henges, barrows and avenues. Between them this whole area of chalkland has been shaped by millennia of human activity. West Kennet is a part of this landscape, about a mile away from Avebury which forms the northern part of the area, near monuments such as Silbury Hill and the Sanctuary.
The landscape bears evidence of nearly 6000 years of continuous occupation, with monument building taking place between 3700 and 1600 BC, leaving behind evidence of Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial and mortuary practices.
A Brief History of the West Kennet Long Barrow
West Kennet Long Barrow is the largest known Neolithic stone chambered tumulus in the south of England, measuring 100 metres long and about 20 metres wide, which once had a ditch around the outside. The large internal rectangular chamber goes about 12 metres inside the barrow with a ceiling height of around 2 metres. Although we see it covered in grass, originally it would have been white from the chalk used in its construction and so much more visible within the landscape.
It was probably built around the 37th century BC, during the early Neolithic period, by pastoral communities who used locally sourced chalk, earth and megaliths, bringing in oolitic limestone from the Cotswolds which they used as a form of internal drywall.
The Barrow was built on the site of previous human activity, with shards of a plain bowl found underneath the monument during an excavation in the 1950s. It is likely that many of these barrows were built on places that already had a history and special significance to the people building them. The community which originally built it were nomadic or semi-nomadic, as no evidence has been found of cereal production or any dwellings in the area, so it may have been one of many significant monuments within their wider area. The fact that it unusually provided enough space for people to stand upright means there were probably regular comings and goings within its walls.
Human bones have been found within the chamber, dating from 3670 and 3635 BC; a mixture of men and women, both children and adult.
After those initial burials, the barrow fell into a state of disrepair for about 100 years, when further burials were then added over several centuries, which included animals. The original burials were covered with sarsen slabs before the latter ones were added, which included 5 infants. Along with these secondary burials were flint and bone tools with hundreds of pottery shards.
Some time later around 3000 BC, the entrance to the barrow was blocked up with the sarsens you see there today, and the barrow could no longer be entered. It was around this time that the nearby Sanctuary was constructed, and the main stage of building at Avebury took place. Perhaps this was the end of one belief system and the start of another?
During the Roman period a small coin hoard was buried in the side of the barrow and in the subsequent years the barrow, and others in the area, fell victim to both over-farming, with parts of it ploughed up, and pilfering. In the 17th century a local doctor removed some of the bones from within and ground them up to give as remedies to 'distressed neighbours'. There have been two major archeological excavations, in 1859 and 1955. Parts of it have been reconstructed to give the appearance we see today.
Visiting the West Kennet Long Barrow
There is no visitor centre, parking, cafes or facilities attached to the barrow; it is in a farmer's field and can only be reached by walking on a permissive footpath.
It is a pleasant walk across the fields to the barrow, following a route that people have walked for thousands of years. Amongst the wide open sky, screeching crows and distant hum of traffic, the barrow emerges from the flat landscape, its irregular stone entrance standing out within the barren surroundings. There is a single sign near the barrow with some basic historical information about the site, but other than that there are no barriers, ropes, ticket office, or bossy signage, making it something rather unique in these over commericalised times, and easier to imagine how it might once have looked.
You can walk through a concealed gap in the stones into a small forecourt area, from where you can see the entrance to the barrow. It is an impressive and dramatic entrance, with a flat sarsen forming the roof, so you are walking under a trilithon. Inside are irregular large blocks, the tunnel leading you through the dark to the back of the chamber. There are a couple of small circular holes which have been cut in the roof, to let some light in. There are several smaller chambers off the main tomb and it is an evocative and atmospheric place to explore.
Inside in various nooks and crannies you will find votives and offerings from unseen hands, perhaps even a makeshift shrine laid on the floor in front of you. When I visited there were only natural offerings such as sprigs of rosemary, bunches of greenery, petals and rather randomly, a carrot, but at other times you can find assorted plastic tat in there too, something of which I thoroughly disapprove. People have also had fires within, causing some of the stones to crack due to the intense heat.
The barrow today seems to have become a magnet for a wide variety of people, and you may well find a mixture of modern day pagans and ghost hunters along with the walkers and sightseers.
Its association with burials, ancient funereal rites and rituals, and its part within the wider Stonehenge landscape, with all of the connections with solstices, druids, mystical ley lines and more, means that the site for many is a place to go to seek a deeper relationship to the past, to connect with an ancient spirituality that many feel is missing today. Apparently some even see it as portal to the past.
The fact is that it looks impressive; a burial chamber concealed within a grassy mound behind the dramatic standing stone façade, surrounded by a wide open space with the unusually shaped Silbury Hill rising in the distance. Add that to the fact that, unlike other sites such as Stonehenge, it is hard to reach yet free to visit, and it is easy to see why so many people both visit and venerate the barrow.
Here they can touch the stones and conduct their rituals that are banned at many other sites, and they can visit at sunrise and sunset as well as the solstices, to try to connect more deeply with the past.
There is rumoured to be one of the oldest ghosts haunting the site: a man in white robes and his dog who stand on top of the barrow at dawn of the summer solstice, both standing silently and motionless waiting for the sunrise, before they enter the tomb below once the sun emerges. Other people claim to have heard whispering voices and have felt a sense of dread within the tomb, others claim to have been dragged by unseen hands into the depths of the tomb. I can't claim to have any reaction to inside the tomb, other than genuine interest at what I was seeing, but then maybe such things are only felt by spiritual types.
What I did appreciate was that you can walk around the outside and on top of the barrow too, admiring the distant views, with the unusual shape of Silbury Hill in the distance, and get a sense of how this prehistoric landscape once looked.
It is a fascinating, uncommercialised site and one I highly recommend visiting if you can.
How to get to West Kennet Long Barrow
The barrow is off the A4 between Calne and Marlborough.
By bus: Catch the 42 bus between Calne and Marlborough, getting off at the stop called Telephone Box, West Kennett. Bus Timetable >>
By train: The nearest train stations are Pewsey and Swindon. Catch the bus from either town to get to the barrow.
By car: Drive on the A4 between Calne and Marlborough. There is a small layby at w3w: cosmetic.worldwide.topples. If that is full, which it may be, try the parking area near Silbury Hill at w3w:pits.hazel.unloads. It is not a very nice walk along the road between the two, but it is only for a short distance.
Once you are at the parking layby for the barrow, it is then about a 10 - 15 minute walk through two fields to get to the barrow itself. The route can be muddy and slippery so wear sensible footwear.
When is West Kennet Long Barrow open?
The site is open at all times, but with no lighting, visiting when it is dark would not be the best idea.
Are there any facilities at West Kennet Long Barrow?
None at all, and here's hoping it stays that way. Head to nearby Marlborough for accommodation, sustenance and anything else you may need.