A commissioner for English Heritage and acclaimed author (or so the critics say; I’ve never read any of his work) Bill Bryson, who’s travel guides grace the bookshelves of many a traveller’s collection I shouldn’t wonder, has made what can only be described as a scathing attack on the National Trust at Avebury. In his defence I must point out that Mr Bryson has singled out Avebury as his target and not the National Trust as a whole, who he has much respect for.
The National Trust at Avebury has a small inclusion in Mr. Bryson's latest book, ’The Road to Little Dribbing,’ where he claims to have ‘spent £31.89 before setting eyes on a stone’ a visit which left him feeling ‘grumpy.’
Bill Bryson remarks about Avebury have sparked a flurry of support for the National Trust and how it manages the Avebury experience.
Let’s take a closer look at Mr. Bryson’s points:
Firstly; I must challenge him when he says he spent £31.89 before ever seeing a stone. As you approach Avebury on the A4361 or B4003, you would have to be blindfold (not recommended when driving) not to see these impressive sarsens as they dominate the horizon from every approach.
Secondly; He remarks; ‘of fleecing' tourists visiting a stone circle.' Again he claims to have spent £31.89 before even getting a cup of tea. Parking in the National Trust car park will incure an all day charge of £7. This I agree is steep, there are no cheaper options available. I must confess if I were anywhere else and found myself facing a £7 tariff to park my car, I would look elsewhere. It would appear the National Trust expects you to stay all day.
Mr Bryson metions signage. I must say signage for the car park is woefully inadequate. I have lost count of how many times visitors to the Manor have remarked about missing the entrance to the car park which is often obscured by greenery. Countless times I have followed drivers on the A4361 on my way through Avebury who are crawling along before disappearing into the village, you just know they are desperately looking for somewhere to park.
Thirdly; Mr Bryson mentions he had to fork out £9.99 for a guide book. Guide books are free of charge and available in the Visitor Centre located in the Barn. If he is saying he purchased a guide book in the National Trust shop without being told he could obtained one for free then yes, maybe you have course to complain Mr Bryson, but then did you ask?
Fourthly; Mr Bryson further remarks that the site ‘lacked interpretation.’ I have to disagree. The Visitor Centre has much to offer about the site and what’s more is free to enter.
Fifthly; Probably the most scathing attack was directed at the Manor. Here Mr Bryson writes: 'I was particularly keen to see the manor house as I assumed it would be filled with Keiller's personal curios and archaeological treasures (they can be found in the Keiller Museum Mr Bryson which you eventually found). ‘But no. In what must be the cheesiest thing the National Trust has ever done, it had allowed the house to be made into a set for a now-forgotten BBC television series.’ He also quibbled about the £10 entrance fee. Is £10 too much? Well not when you consider it includes access to nine lovely, peaceful gardens. A fair price me thinks Mr Bryson.
In the main the visitor feedback from those who have managed to find the Manor (many remark about the signage) have been positive. Is it a ‘set?’ Yes of course it is, no matter how much the National Trust try to disguise it; it’s what the BBC does for heaven sake. However, let’s not forget it is also a showcase for historically, accurately handcrafted furnishing and art that take the visitor on a nostalgic trip through the Manor’s 450 year history whilst 'reflecting' on some of its key owners, including one Alexander Keiller. I think it wrong of Mr Bryson to expect the focus solely to be on Keiller. He must not forget there were many other notable and influential owners of Avebury Manor: Sir Willam Dunch; eminent lawyer and advisor to King Henry VIII and largely responsible for the first build here; Sir John Stawell, Royalist and MP; Sir Adam Williamson, Gov of Jamaica; Sir Francis Knowles, who’s discovery in the field of neurosecretion: the process by which certain nerve cells secrete hormones into the bloodstream, saw him exploit this concept, making skillful use of a variety of new techniques which he pioneered. The list goes on Mr Bryson. So I think it unfair of you to single out Keiller and expect the Trust to give him preferential treatment over the others I have mentioned. Especially when you consider he has a museum dedicated to his archaeological work at Avebury. Which brings me to my final point, or should I say your final point Mr Bryson. The admission charge to the museum. Is £4.90 too much for what is essentially a single room experience? Yes I think it is; enough said.
When Mr Bryson eventually found the stones, he wrote; they were ‘awesome and entrancing.’ Well, we got something right.
Avebury will not be to everyone’s taste, but then where is. As a volunteer of some 5 years, I can safely say and without bias that those visitors I have spoken with and there have been many, have gone home having had a wonderful and informative day.
Regardless of Mr Bryson's gripes and he is entitled to them. Avebury remains one of Britain's most visited sites and continues to enthrall folk by the thousands.