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Interesting things in Wiltshire pubs (part 1)

Back to Wiltshire, that county in Southern England well-known for its ancient stone circles, Salisbury Cathedral, several Army bases and the fact that the M4 and the A303 go through it. In recent years it has played host to the reintroduction of the Great Bustard, a species of bird which became extinct in Britain in the 1830s (it’s Wiltshire’s county bird; more on that in the unlikely event of my actually seeing one). What is perhaps less well-known is that a couple of pubs in the county have some rather odd things in them…

First up is the Red Lion in Avebury

That’s a fairly common pub name, the most common in the country in fact. It’s one of those pub names that has more than one origin. A a red lion was the personal badge of John of Gaunt (the “time-honour’d Lancaster” who does the “this scepter’d isle” speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II, in real life a younger son of Edward III and the father of Henry IV). It was also the Royal arms of Scotland, which were merged with the Royal arms of England when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. But then again, the Red Lion in Avebury could derive from the coat-of-arms of an eighteenth-century lord of the manor, Lieutenant-General Williamson, which can be seen on display in the local church.

Anyway – the pub. The Red Lion in Avebury does have something that makes it unique, for it claims to be the only pub in the world that’s located within an ancient stone circle. Since I cannot think of any other ancient stone circle which has part of a village inside it, they’re probably right. So if you want to go for a pint in a pub that is truly unique, this one’s worth a visit.

Inside, there’s more. A mural on the wall shows a map of southern England, with the Line of St Michael marked out. This is probably the most famous ley line in the country, running diagonally from Cornwall to Suffolk, passing through such places as St Michael’s Mount, Glastonbury, Avebury and Bury St Edmunds, among others. Its saintly dedication derives from the fact that there are several churches or places dedicated to said archangel on its length – for example, the hilltop church at Brentor in Devon and the ruined tower atop Glastonbury Tor, as well as the afore-mentioned Cornish island. Some people get very excited by this; occasionally at Avebury, you may even run into someone who’s brought his divining-rods with him. Although I regard the notion of ley lines with a degree of cynicism, a journey along this one would certainly make for an interesting travelogue. Reading up on this, I note that I’m not the only cynic, for Geoffrey Ashe (in Mythology of the British Isles) refers to them as “modern myth” although he does note that “Avebury is at the point where it [the St Michael Line] cuts a parallel of latitude distant from the equator by exactly one-seventh of the earth’s circumference”; make of that what you will, if anything.

Of more tangible interest in the pub, though, is the well. Yes, the village well in Avebury – 86 feet deep, dating back to around 1600 and “believed to be the last resting place of at least one unfortunate villager” – is located inside the pub. How many pubs can claim to have a well inside them? And even if they do, how many of those wells have had a glass top put over them so they can serve as a table?

The presence of the well would seem to indicate that there wasn’t always a pub on this site – and there’s evidence for that, in the form of a map of Avebury drawn up by the antiquarian William Stukeley in 1724. His main purpose was to mark the locations of the stones themselves, and the locations of spots where stones had once stood, but he marked out other key points as well – his map shows a pub (“The Inn”) that is located on the other side of the road to the present-day Red Lion, although crucially (as far as this particular study is concerned) he didn’t mark the location of the village well.

To be continued...

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