(I took this post down yesterday after I discovered a technical problem. Hopefully it's now sorted!)
Wiltshire is such a spanking good place for standing stones thousands of years old. It not only has Stonehenge - on which I did a piece on 21 December, with commentary on the Mayans' supposed end-of-the-world prediction as a bonus - but also another prehistoric treasure at Avebury, which has been in the news during the last week or so: see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-21107977. Believe it or not, Avebury is officially World Heritage Site Number Two, beaten only by Mexico's Monte Alban (no, I haven't heard of it, either), and thrashing the pants off the Taj Mahal (so don't waste your time going there, when you can go to Wiltshire instead).
Here are some shots of the stones at Avebury, that I took myself in 1993 and 2005:
As you can see, the stones are largely in their natural state, but subtly shaped and fluted to make them seem more dramatic as the sunlight plays over them. Many strange cracks and fissues have been created by the ancient stone masons, no doubt intended as little shelves for offerings to the Earth Goddess: ears of corn, berries, seeds and the like. Perhaps the odd human sacrifice, such as a finger or toe, whatever could be spared.
Every stone is individual, none are the same, even though there must be over a hundred of them arranged in a vast circle. Seen in the light of the full moon, it is said that certain stones glow balefully, which is probably because of quartz or mica crystals glinting in the weak light; but legend says that 'he who doth see the stones glow in May will live no more than a year and a day' - so watch out.
Another legend has it that when three sarsen stones on the southern edge of the circle are aligned with the star Mizar in Ursa Major (that's the Plough to you and me), they have the power to speak if any man of evil intent comes close. They were therefore employed right up to quite modern times as a kind of lie-detector to test the word of local miscreants - with dire consequences if the slightest noise was heard by the mob that wanted to see justice done. Hence the old rhyme, recorded for posterity by a certain clergyman in the late eighteenth century, and still current in rural Wiltshire:
When the stones do speak in ire
A man of falsehood must expire;
The stones do be the bestest judge
Of any man who hath a grudge.
No man can the stones deceiveth,
He will, ere dawn, his last breath breatheth.
Such is our antient country law:
The Old Way requireth payment in gore.
So there you go. Seems all fair enough to me. The Old Way of finding the truth was always best.
Nowadays, of course, the stones have a much friendlier image, and recently the well-known Hug A Stone scheme has been promoted strongly and with great success by Wiltshire County Council in conjunction with the English Tourist Board. Avebury has a great advantage over Stonehenge, in that nothing is fenced off, and access is free. The kids love it. Note however, that you will get stung in the expensive official car park.
One little-known fact is that some of the stones at Avebury have runic inscriptions on them, doubtless carved by the first Viking settlors. They are in a state of preservation rivalled only by the inscriptions in Sweden at places like Rök, Vaksala and Blekinge. For instance, these, which are clearly of ninth-century origin:
Or these, possibly of later date:
I have no idea what they mean.