Avebury, England—As I'm coming down the stairs of the Red Lion Pub, where I've rented a room for the night, I see a sign on a chalkboard: "Curious about Paganism? Why not visit the Avebury Pagan Moot? 1st Sunday of every month, 3 p.m."By chance, I'm right on time, but glancing in at the front room of the 400-year-old pub, I decide against going in. I am curious, but the earthy-looking women and burly bearded men inside look a bit intimidating, like a wizarding version of a biker gang.Besides, what's the point of discussing the mystical world of Avebury when I could be out experiencing it? This Wiltshire village, roughly 120 kilometres west of London, is home to Britain's largest stone circle. While it's not as well-preserved as Stonehenge, 32 kilometres to the south, Avebury is 500 years older, 14 times larger and unlike Stonehenge, it's accessible 24 hours a day. So accessible, in fact, that half the village is sitting inside it: the pub, a chapel, a couple of shops and two dissecting roads that loosely divide the circle into quadrants. This is my chance to commune with the megalithic world, so after buying a guidebook at the Henge Shop, I head into the southwest quadrant. Towering over a flock of grazing sheep is a curving row of sarsen stones weighing between 10 and 100 tonnes. Greyish and weathered, they're surrounded by a deep circular ditch (or henge) dug out of the soft chalk ground by Neolithic tribes some 5,000 years ago.No one knows the circle's purpose, though it's believed to relate to the worship of a fertility goddess. The stones weren't shaped but were chosen for their natural forms: mainly rectangles to represent the male and diamonds the female. Originally, the large circle contained two smaller circles: one held a massive phallic-shaped obelisk, now lost. The other, known as the Cove, was made up of three female stones (two of which still stand) that were aligned with the northerly rise of the moon.Then, in the Middle Ages, the Christians ruined it all. Deeming the circle the work of the devil, they started toppling and burying the stones, a practice that halted when one landed on a travelling surgeon-barber, prematurely entombing him. Further destruction came in the 17th century when many stones were cleared for farming. Finally, in the 1930s, a wealthy anthropologist, Alexander Keiller, spent today's equivalent of £2 million to partially restore the site.After completing the 1.5-kilometre circle, I head back to the pub. As I walk in, I overhear a dark-haired woman say: "We all have a sacred myth. You just have to find out what it is. It lives you. You don't live it."I'd like to learn more, but the conversation moves to the stone circle and how one small triangle has a particular power. "Which part is the most powerful?" I can't help interrupting."It's all-powerful, but in different ways," she says."Powerful enough to make me break out in hives?" I hold out my wrist, which is sporting a pink circular welt with a blister inside — a mini stone circle. "The minute I got here I broke out in a rash.""I know what it might be," she says, almost shyly. "It's a healing place here. A lot of stuff works its way out of your body."That sounds better than massive allergy attacks and I smile at her. A pony-tailed man in black examines my wrist. "I can sort that out." He runs out of the room. A few minutes later he's back holding a fragrant bundle of lavender. "Rub this on," he says. "Lavender is very healing."Another man with a greying beard and a beret with a feather introduces himself as Terry the Druid. "We're a mixed lot of pagans here," he says, explaining that the man with the lavender is a Wiccan, then motions to a clean-shaven young man strumming a guitar. "And he's a minstrel."It's tempting to stay in this Harry Potter universe all night, but as dusk hits, I head out to explore. On the other side of town, past a muddy field is the mountainous Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe. Experts think it's a burial site, though they've dug three tunnels into it since the 18th century and it still hasn't given up its secrets.It's a place of mysteries, Avebury, and there is a tremendous amount to see. Past Silbury Hill is West Kennet Long Barrow, a multi-chambered tomb as old as 3500 BC. There is also the Avenue, a stone-lined processional route that leads from the stone circle to the Sanctuary, where a prehistoric temple once stood. It's too dark to see anymore so I backtrack to the stones. Maybe it's the influence of the pagans but I can't help thinking that these centuries-old megaliths really are vibrating with a deep earthy resonance. I sit down beside one, then lie flat on my back and look at the stars. If I wait here long enough, maybe my sacred myth will turn up.
Carol Perehudoff is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her accommodation was subsidized by Visit Britain.