SCAMPERING up and down the steep, deep, unkempt ditches that had encircled the settlement for countless centuries, playing hide and seek between rugged, often half-buried stones erected by our Neolithic ancestors, breathlessly ascending Europe’s answer to the Great Pyramid at Giza on sunny Sunday afternoons...

It was a childhood only those lucky enough to have grown up in the tiny Wiltshire enclave that sprung from within one of the world’s most formidable stone circles could have experienced.

Many villagers lived in cottages made from lumps hewn from heavyweight slabs of stone that our prehistoric ancestors had so cleverly and mysteriously fashioned into a mighty ceremonial complex.

But the community’s way of life vanished in the space of a couple of decades amidst circumstances that are surely unique.

The singular work of marmalade millionaire Alexander Keiller, the Man Who Rebuilt Avebury, was recently featured in these pages.

During the 1930s he demolished cottages, barns and farmhouses within the Great Circle, re-housing its inhabitants in new homes at nearby Avebury Trusloe.

He also cleared the dykes – those formidable, rugged ditches that surround the 5,500 year-old henge – of trees, bushes, nettles and the detritus of several thousand years.

Greyweathers buried or half-buried were painstakingly excavated and re-erected in the semblance of the original Neolithic temple.

Keiller is a hero to many who feel that Avebury is one of Britain’s – or indeed one of the world’s – greatest archaeological sites.

There is, however, another viewpoint – that of the villagers who were displaced from theirs and their forefathers homes.

Keiller, they say, ripped the heart out of the cosy, long-established, tightly-knit community, robbing them not only of their sturdy sarsen stone built cottages but also of the village’s spirit and soul.

We know this because Marjorie Rawlins, who grew up in Avebury and experienced the years Before and After Keiller, wrote a book about it.

This is how she opened her 1999 memoir Butcher, Baker, Saddlemaker: “Folk who come to visit Avebury now, and most of those who live there these days, little know what village life was like before Mr Keiller came to excavate the village and finally pull down a lot of our cottages within the circle.

“Sadly the effect of this was to split up our thriving community both as a village and as a parish.”

No longer a self-supporting community with two bakers, a butcher, a saddlemaker and a blacksmith, Avebury became “an ancient monument for sightseers.”

Marjorie was five when she moved there in 1919. Figuring “the days of the horse and carriage were numbered,” her father built a wooden garage on the Swindon-Devizes road at Avebury.

He was gifted the plot between the Adam and Eve stones in the centre of the Great Circle, as it was on a bit of a slope that “didn’t yield much anymore.”

Marjorie recalled that the four dykes “rose to long high mounds encircling the village – a protective feature which gave the village a cosy, intimate feeling.

“Large stones stood like sentinels dotted here and there… I came to love these irregular shaped silver grey stones.”

She was especially fond of the one called The Devil’s Chair which she often sat in.

Sunday afternoons usually involved clambering up nearby Silbury Hill, the vast, ancient, otherworldly lump that is Europe’s largest man-made mound.

“What a climb that was, puffing and pulling ourselves upon long tufts of grass.”

Having reached the summit they would sit and watch the “matchbox sized cars – but not too many yet of course – trundling along the Marlborough road.”

Other diversions included wheeling hoops, maypole dancing and – for the lads – ploughing matches.

Bulging with cash from the family marmalade business, archaeological obsessive Keiller arrived in the 1920s to excavate nearby Windmill Hill.

“This was the beginning of the ‘adverse wind of change’ which brought discord to our hitherto contented community life.”

Keiller focused on Avebury itself in the early 1930s, snapping up 1,000 acres that incorporated the entire village-in-the-stones.

The family garage “certainly didn’t fit in with Mr Keiller’s plan… he wanted all that outside the circle so he persuaded father to move to the north side of Avebury”.

They vacated their cottage near the Red Lion and, like many others, it was later demolished.

“Sadly we saw the shape and structure of the top of our precious village, with its quaint houses and friendly neighbourly life disappear forever as cottage after cottage was pulled down.

“The ancient circle of stones was to be returned to its Neolithic image.

“So very slowly began the disintegration of our close community and parish life.”

Marjorie, whose family moved to their new garage-cum-home, went on: “Family after family crossed the little bridge to a new life in a council house on the other side of the river Kennet at Avebury Trusloe – a hamlet with no church, shop or school.

“Most of the villagers were out into nice new council houses... but they were not happy as they so missed the close community life and their neighbours.

“Also, they had further to come shopping to the butcher, the baker and the saddlemaker.”

Avebury’s remarkable transition coincided with the gradual decline of a “primitive way of life” with the arrival of modern times.

“Gone was our preoccupation with collecting our water and the coal for the essential fire for warmth and cooking.

“Gone was something else very precious to our village life – the closeness of our community, the rich quality of life which seemed to come with our need for each other.

“Everyone needed each other and in that community life there seemed to be a real spirit of caring which sadly could not survive the modern way of life any more than the wells and the horse drawn carts could.”

  • LARKING around in its prehistoric ditches was an essential part of growing up in Avebury... even when Lord Snooty butted in.
    Colonel Jenner, who lived at Avebury Manor, took a dim view of such antics in the dyke near his front gate. 
    Marjorie wrote: “Father and I had actually been turned off it by Colonel Jenner himself who explained it was private property and we could not walk on his dyke. 
    “I wonder what he would think if he could see thousands of visitors walking on his dyke each summer.”
    She went on: “He must have relented because I have many memories of playing on that dyke. 
    “In those days it was covered in trees. A great chestnut hung its spreading branches over the huge fan-stone near the road – probably the reason Mr Keiller later cut them down.
    “How sad to see those lovely trees felled…” 
  • FOR centuries Avebury folk built their cottages with sarsen stones erected five millennia earlier.

    An age-old practice involved splitting the stones – which weighed up to 60 tons - by a heating and cooling process.

    “This was used through hundreds of years to provide the village with building material and was sacrilege to Mr Keiller.”

    It appears that Keiller’s ultimate and probably undeliverable aim was to clear all non-prehistoric structures from within the Great Circle – Red Lion pub and all.

    But war intervened and Avebury, now a World Heritage Site, remains much today as it did when Hitler barged in.

  • HAVING studied books on how it was done, Marjorie’s resourceful father John realised his dream in the 1920s of illuminating Avebury with electricity.

    Acquiring a dynamo, some glass cells and a reel of wire he created an electricity plant at the family’s garage home.

    And then everyone wanted to light up their homes with the flick of a switch – including the posh folks at the manor who had become “tired of peering at their ancestors on the dining room walls by candlelight.”

    Marjorie’s dad “ended-up installing electricity throughout the entire village, bit by bit, snaking poles and wires around Avebury and its stones.”

  • EIGHTY years after moving to Avebury Marjorie recalled: “When I visit nowadays and retrace the steps of my childhood I suppose I must appear as just another tourist among the many which throng the High Street and dykes.

    “Most of the village atmosphere has gone, and the polo stables are now a museum.

    “But I like to stand on the cobblestones in front of the manor and as I glance up the lovely ornate clock is still there looking almost as fresh as the day it was installed and I am transported back to those heady summer days when I danced the maypole on the manor lawns.” 

  •  FOR years Marjorie had contemplated recording her Avebury memoirs “and then one night she sat down and wrote it off the cuff,” said her half-sister Liz Legg, of All Cannings near Devizes.

    Published in 1999 it does what it says on the sleeve: “Conjure up the colour and bustle of a bygone age and transport us back to the Avebury of long ago.”

    It can still be bought price £4.99 from Mrs Legg who can be contacted at 01380-860788   

    Marjorie eventually left Avebury to set up a hairdressing salon in Calne.

    One of eight children, she never married but upon her death aged 98 in 2011 she was aunty to 46 nieces and nephews.