Avebury Manor – history and yet more history


The National Trust owns the delightful Avebury Manor in Wiltshire; however, as with some of their other properties, it is leased by tenants, so only some of the property may be viewed and since access is limited, ‘timed tickets’ are issued.

The Manor has ecclesiastical roots, and parts of the building date from the 12th century Benedictine Priory, which was nearby.  King Henry III had granted the manor to William de Tankerville, the Chamberlain of Normandy, who swiftly granted it to the abbey of St-Georges-de-Boscherville in Normandy, a religious house which was founded under the Rule of Saint Benedict. The main building was built in the 16th century by William Durch, the current south front of the house being dated to 1602. A succession of owners, some with dubious business practices (Sir William Sharington, Master of the Mint at Bristol, was stripped of the manor for ‘clipping’ the coinage) led to Colonel and Mrs L.C.D. Jenner in 1907, who laid out some beautiful Edwardian gardens, including superb examples of topiary. A photograph dated 1922 shows most of the rendered walls covered in ivy. This rendering clothes strong structural ‘bones’ of limestone and sarsen stone, which have stood the test of time. Similarly, some of the original, leaded glazing has survived almost untouched.
With a house of this age, it is almost certain that there will be a fund of ghost stories. It is said that there is a ‘white lady’, the ghost of a young Civil War widow, who follows visitors around the house and gardens. However, the most ‘notable’ apparition is that of Sir John Stavell, who died immediately after the English Civil War when the manor was stripped from him by Oliver Cromwell – Sir John’s ghost is said to be immediately preceded by a very strong smell of roses!
Avebury Manor has not been without recent controversy, however. In the late 1980s, the house was bought by a Mr Ken King, a businessman who had – let us say – some rather unusual business habits. Many of the locals were up in arms, when it was announced that Mr King would be converting the property into an Elizabethan theme park, with waxworks and instruments of torture; he expected this to bring in 100,000 visitors per year. How this would have been accomplished in a tiny village with just one, narrow, through road (complete with three 90 degree bends) and almost zero parking is beyond me. The effect on the UN-designated World Heritage Site does not bear thinking about.
Fortunately, for almost all concerned, the plan foundered, Mr King went broke (again), and the National Trust acquired the property. The rest, as they say, is yet more history………..
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2 comments on “Avebury Manor – history and yet more history”

  1. Re The Ken King era at the Manor, the article refers to many of the villagers being against his theme park idea, however, local research at both Avebury and Avebury Trusloe has discovered that a lot more of the villagers approved of his plans. Jobs had been created which are always welcome in country villages and the disapproval came from mostly from people who were known locally as ‘blow-ins’, they had not grown up in the village, had no roots there and again in the words of many true villagers “had come to Avebury to die”. They had no requirements for employment.
    Ken King had many faults but he certainly involved the true villagers in his venture, unlike the National Trust. As Avebury already attracts 250,000 visitors a year, extra visitors to the proposed theme park would not have been such a problem and the article overlooks the fact that access to the park would have been through another entrance on the Swindon road side of the village, which would have avoided the High Street altogether.
    If the National Trust was able now to increase visitor numbers to 350,000 a year, I doubt if anything would be said and the Trust would be delighted.
    Mr King’s face didn’t fit in with the local gentry blow-ins and that helped to seal the fate of the theme, along with some of his other antics.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I lived locally for 12 years, and since I was managing the Science Museum, Wroughton, at the time of this incident, I can assure you that although I might have been a ‘blow in’, I was a rural one and had NOT come there to die but to work! Coming to the area from a small Derbyshire village (my first school had 40 pupils) I can truthfully say that I fully understood village life. Difficult though it is to tolerate poor employment prospects for those concerned, all factors regarding the impact on the World Heritage Site had to be taken into consideration. Despite the fact that the proposed entrance to Mr King’s site would have been off the road north to Swindon (somewhere between the Red Bull and the garage on the opposite side of the road, I think), the effect of a quarter of a million extra visitors would have been disasterous, given that all roads into and out of the village are 22′ wide. This is not just my own point of view; the collective view of the Thamesdown and District Tourism Association, the representative body charged with promoting tourism for the area (and on which I was serving at the time) was that the effect would have been unacceptable. ALL local services (electricity supply, water, sewerage and waste water disposal and rubbish collection to name but a few) would have been completely overwhelmed. Access to the village (and the people living there!) especially in summer, by both Fire and Ambulance Services in the event of a medical or other emergency would have been degraded to a potentially dangerous extent. As well, in order to prevent erosion and other damage, the Avebury megaliths would have to have been fenced off, as at Stonehenge, and it would have been difficult to prevent damage to the rest of the local landscape (people climbing the fenced off – and very fragile environment – of Silbury Hill, and potential damage to Kennet Long Barrow). I’m sorry for Mr King’s second bankruptcy, but I think it highly likely that his plan would have failed at the local government Planning Committee stage, and that the Department of the Environment in London would have ‘called it in’, anyway. Just before I left, I was given to understand that there were petitioners ready to take Mr King to the High Court. I well understand rural unemployment (some members of my own family in Derbyshire had only part-time work on local farms) but Mr King was NOT the solution!

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